Questions to Ask as a Prospective Graduate Student

Congratulations on being admitted into a graduate program!! With applications behind you, the tables have turned, and now YOU get to choose the best graduate program for you!

Below is a list of questions to keep in mind when choosing a graduate school. Many of these questions are drawn from Luisa Rebull’s website. She also has many great links for women (and everyone) in science.

Some general rules of thumb to follow, courtesy of my undergrad major advisor Eric Mamajek:

  • Beware of a grad school where the graduate students do not seem happy
  • Be on the look out for up-and-coming faculty, who you may not of heard of before, but whose futures are looking bright
    • The same goes for up-and-coming programs/departments
  • Don’t put all your eggs in one basket (don’t go to a grad school because of one “star” faculty)
  • Make sure the city hosting your grad school feels right to you. After all, you’re going to beliving there for 5-6 years!

Ask department faculty:


  • What are the academic requirements for graduation?
  • What is the format of the prelim/qualifying exam?
    • What percentage of students pass?
    • Do any students leave the program early, or with a terminal masters?
  • When do students typically choose an advisor?


  • Is support guaranteed for the entire PhD? Year by year? What would disqualify support?
    • Will financial support be contingent on some required teaching?
  • What provisions are there for housing, health insurance, benifits in general?


  • How are teaching assignments made? (lottery or choice?)
  • What expectations does the department have for graduate TAs?


  • How early can I start?
  • Are students expected to work the summers?
  • Do graduate students mentor undergrads in summer programs?

Ask current grad students:

Classes & Exams

  • How intense are classes/exams? (hrs/week?)
  • Do you feel there is a collaborative environment with other students?
  • Is there a “central” study area? Or do students mostly work in their offices?
  • How many classes are typical per semester/term? How much time is left for research? Am I expected to do research my first year?
  • What kind of electives do students take?

Lifestyle & Community

  • How is the local area/housing/food/transportation?
  • Is the stipend comfortable?
    • Are provisions for housing/health insurance/etc. adequate?
  • How do I find a place to live? (w/ a significant other?)
    • Is there couples housing in grad apartments?
    • Where do most students live? Houses or apartments?
  • How is the gym? What athletic facilities are available?
  • How often do students go on trips together (hiking, climbing, downtown, etc.)
  • Is there a graduate student council? What do they do?
  • Is the type of social life you desire available?


  • Do different research groups collaborate?
    • Collaboration between departments?
  • How frequently do you use observing/computational facilities?
    • What is the process of applying for time like? What kind of projects get time? Can graduate students apply for time?
  • Overall time commitment to research each week?
  • How often do students attend conferences? What kind?
  • Do you ever feel under pressure to produce results?


  • How are the advisors, generally? Do you like yours? Why/why not?
    • Do most students like working with their advisor? Any to stay away from?
  • Do students ever switch advisors?
  • How much monetary support is there for research/trave/etc.
  • How independent is the research of the students? Do students work together and/or with the advisor?
  • How active is the advisor in the student’s projects?
  • How frequently is the advisor available?
  • How quickly does the advisor publish completed work? Avg # of publications in their lab/group?

Teaching & Outreach

  • Overall time commitment to teaching each week?
  • Which classes can we TA?
    • What kind of students take those? (Undergrad majors/engineers/non-majors?)
  • How often do you engage in outreach activities?
    • What programs are regularly available?
    • Astronomy on tap, public lectures, guided tours, sidewalk astronomy, visit local schools?

Ask potential advisors:

  1. What is your graduate mentoring philosophy? What is your advising style?
    • Gauge how hands-on/off they may be, and if that is in line with your work style
  2. How long does it typically take a graduate student to complete their PhD in your group?
  3. What do you normally expect students to produce in terms of publications and presentations at conferences, before finishing their PhD?
  4. I read your recent paper on ____ and I did not understand ____ [ask a question in accordinace with the paper you are asking about]
    • Their response will allow you to assess if the mentor can come to your level of understanding and raise it. Try to understand their research!
  5. How often do you meet with your students? What is your group meeting format?
  6. What is your research group dynamics? Does your group ever get-together for social activites (e.g. hiking, BBQs, pubs)?
  7. How do you feel about non-research careers for PhDs?
  8. How do you prefer to give/receive feedback?