Questions You Should Ask During Recruitment Weekend

Photo:  iStock

Photo: iStock


It's currently "Recruiting Season." Grad programs across the country are offering admission to prospective PhD students and inviting them to visit their campus. Some grad programs will even invite prospective students to their campus for interviews, and then decide if they'll offer them admission to their program. Either way, if you're a prospective PhD student and you find yourself in this position, you should celebrate!  Getting into a PhD program or making the first "cut" is a big deal! That said, you should also remember to interview the grad program just as much as they're interviewing you.

It's important that you ask the right questions, because this will help you determine which school is the best "fit" for you and your research interests. Here are some questions that you must ask during recruitment weekend. Grab a pen some paper to take notes.


(First, Some general questions.)

"What is the funding package for PhD students at this institution?"

When you decide to attend a school, you'll be there for at least four years. So it is essential for you to know what you're going to be walking into financially. Ask if you'll be required to work as Teaching Assistant and/or a Research Assistant over the course of your doctoral studies,  and ask if they will offer you funding over the summer! If the program doesn't offer summer funding, you'll probably have to work during the summer to pay your bills and/or carry out your research. Or, you can apply to different organizations for funding. But know that this money isn't always guaranteed, and that grant committees look for certain things in grant proposals.


"How long does it usually take for students to finish the program?"

Another way of asking this question is, "What's the time-to-degree?" Or, although I'd advise against it, you could say, "I'm just tryna' graduate. How long am I gonna have to be here?" The choice is yours. But you need to know how long it takes students to finish!

Going back to question one. If the grad program says that they offer PhD students funding for 5 years, but it actually takes students 6 years to might have a problem. This isn't necessarily a cause for you to not to attend the institution for grad school. But you'll really need to apply for additional funding elsewhere. This will also give you a sense of how long it typically takes students to complete their dissertations. 


"What are some of the things that students in this program struggle with? And what advice would you give, so that I could avoid these obstacles?"

Faculty in grad programs should know what their students are struggling with, whether it be certain requirements, time management, or stress. (And if they don't, that might be a red flag.) But if you do want to attend that institution, you need to ask these two questions to prepare yourself — at least mentally — for the road ahead. You might not get all of the answers to the "test" beforehand, but at least you'll have an idea. 


(If you already have a Master's Degree.)

"Will I be able to transfer some of my Master's credits?"

Closed mouths don't get fed. If they say "Yes," you might be able to take less classes or take more electives— a win/win. But you won't know unless you ask.


(Some questions for your potential advisor.)

"What's your mentoring style like? how do you advise students?"

Be direct, and make sure to ask ANY follow-up questions, if you need to. Because the odds are that you'll be working closely with this person throughout your time in the program. For that reason, you need to know if your personalities will match.


"How have your students done on the job market?"

You're interviewing them just as much as they're interviewing you, remember? Ask the important questions. Simple as that.


"Will you be taking a sabbatical soon?"

Sometimes professors are granted paid leave, or a sabbatical, to conduct research and/or finish book projects. If your potential advisor is thinking about taking a sabbatical, especially during your first year of grad school, you need to know. This might mean that you'll have to make time to FaceTime and/or seek out other mentors during your first year.


"What would you recommend I do during the summer to prepare for my first semester?"

I like this question because it serves two functions: one, you get some advice about the summer; and two, you get a chance to actually see how your potential advisor mentors students. Hopefully, they tell you: "Nothing. Just relax." But that's another blog post.


(And a few questions for grad students.)

"What does a typical week look like for you?"

Grad students are often more willing to be real about the demands of the program. So if you can talk to them, you should. By asking this question, you'll have a better sense of what to expect when you're on the other side of the table.


"What advice would you give about finding housing?"

Grad students know how to make that grad stipend work. Trust me. If you're moving to a new state for grad school, it's important that you ask about housing and rent.


"When do First-Year students receive their first grad stipend?"

This is CRUCIAL. You need to know when to expect your first check, especially if you're going to be moving from a different state. Most grad programs don't offer funding until after the first semester has started...........but that first month of rent still needs to be paid! Ask this question, so you'll at least know what the deal is before things get real. 


"If you could go back to your first day of grad school, what advice would you give yourself?"

I've been asking this question to all of the students in Office Hours. I think it's important because it allows you, as the prospective student, to learn from others' mistakes and witness growth. Grad school is tough, and you learn a lot about yourself during the process. Listen to what people would do differently, if they could. 


"What is your relationship with your advisor like?"

If you know that a grad student is working with someone you'd like to work with, you should definitely ask this question. Why? Just because someone is a great researcher and author doesn't mean that they're a great advisor to grad students.

You need to know what you're walking into, before it's too late.


"What do you do for fun here?"

As a PhD student, you'll have a lot of work to do. Yes. But you also need to take breaks. For that reason, you need to know what people do for fun. This is especially important if you don't end up in a major city, where you may have a lot of activities at your disposal.


"What would you recommend I do during the summer to prepare for my first semester?"

Yes, you've already asked this question to your potential advisor. But ask it again. Many times, other students will tell you to rest because they already know what awaits. They've been there; they've lived it.


About the Author

Bennie is a third-year PhD student at Northwestern University, where he is studying African American Studies. He created Just Tryna' Graduate to help Black students get to & through graduate school. You can find him on Linkedin and Twitter.