Section Two:  

Questions to ask to investigate the program

Although rankings and reputation are important, they are only some of the things that you want to investigate about a program. Many less highly ranked programs are home to faculty doing exciting work. Many programs embrace innovative strategies and forward thinking components that provide students with an excellent, well-rounded education. The key is to discover if the program you are considering suits you and matches your goals.

General Information

6. What is the reputation and ranking of the department?

This is the most common question that students ask. It can be a useful starting point. What is the reputation of the department? How will the department’s reputation affect your experience? A highly ranked department may imply a high caliber of fellow students, research production pressures on faculty, and little time for people to spend together.

7. What is the mission of this department?

Some programs are geared to training future faculty, some to provide students with a broad education, and others to train practitioners. Does the department agree on its mission? Although doctoral education is primarily located in the department and program, you might also consider the institution as a whole. What is the institutional mission? Is the emphasis on graduate or undergraduate students? Does it have a religious affiliation or specialized in other wise that matter to you? What is the overall reputation of the institution?

8. What is the location? Does it suit you?

This is another common question. What is it like to live in this part of the country? Do you like the climate? Do you like the location of the campus (rural, suburban, urban)? What opportunities are there for your spouse/partner to find satisfying work? What opportunities are there for you to meet a spouse or partner?

9. Who are program faculty whose work excites you?

This is another common and important question. Which faculty members in this department would you like to work closely with? Have you read their work? Do you like the way they think?

Student Progress

10. What is the normal the time to degree?

What is the average time to degree in the department? The average in most fields is between 5 and 7 years. How many years do faculty and administrators assume that it is? This can affect how long is funding available, for example.

11. How many students leave the program? Why?

Career Outcomes

12. What are the career prospects, both in and outside of academia?

If you want to be a faculty member, have you ever talked to faculty members about the academic life? What is the current job market like in your field? What is the projected job market? What are your options if you are unable to get a faculty job? Would you be willing to take a faculty job anywhere in the country (such as the rural south, or a small state teaching college with little research support and without the brightest students in the country)?

13. What careers have graduates of this program entered?

How many recent graduates are employed? How many are employed in academic jobs? Where? Full-time or part-time, tenure track or fixed term? How many are employed in other areas which the department sees as a primary career track? How many are unemployed? What non-traditional jobs are recent graduates doing?

14. What resources can help you explore possible careers? How supportive are faculty of those who pursue non-academic careers?

Some departments and universities have excellent programs to help students explore a range of career options. Some faculty are supportive of students who undertake non-academic careers, others are not.

Structure and Content of the Program

15. What is the structure of the program? What are the requirements? How flexible are they?

Programs can be very differently structured. Find out what the typical experiences are each year. When are most students taking courses, taking prelims or quals exams, starting research, conducting fieldwork, writing your proposal and dissertation? What are the core requirements and expectations? Are the requirements flexible? Are the courses listed of interest to you? What foundational background does your department expect you to have, especially in your subfield (foreign languages, theoretical background, level of math or computer skills)?

16. What range of courses and faculty are available to you?

Are there several faculty doing work that interests you? If there are several, you will still find faculty to work with if one person leaves or if your first choice advisor does not work out. Are the faculty listed in the catalog still in the department? Are the courses taught regularly?

17. What are the expectations for, instruction in, and opportunities to teach, and to take increasing responsibility in teaching?

What is the balance between teaching and research in the department, both for faculty and for graduate students? Some programs offer students well defined and structured opportunities to grow as teachers.

18. What are the expectations and opportunities for learning about ethical practice of the profession?

Department Climate and Culture

19. How supportive and cohesive is the student community?

How do students support one another in the department? How much contact is there between first and second year students? How will you learn the ‘inside scoop’ on life in the department? Are study groups and writing groups common? Do students make friends across the sub-fields of the department? Are most students full time? Are the places and opportunities for students to interact? Is there an active student association? Do students have a voice in departmental governance?

20. What is the nature of the intellectual and social community in the department?

What kind of orientation program can you expect? Do faculty and students socialize together? What is the intellectual life in the department like? Are there Brown Bags, Colloquia and other opportunities to share ideas?

21. What is the climate of support for students of color, women, gay students, and international students in department and on campus?


Financial aid for doctoral study is quite different than for undergraduate study. It is typically not granted based on need. Funding for the student (tuition, fees, and stipend for living expenses) is different than funding for research (travel, supplies). Often funding for summer months is not part of funding. In some cases, particularly in the sciences, funding is tied to the advisor, and is both student and research funding are part of working in that advisor’s lab and on their research projects.

Typically a student is supported by a variety of mechanisms over the course of their program. The common methods are:

§ Fellowships: This is a stipend that allows you to do your own research and coursework without any specific work (teaching or research assistantship) obligations. This give a student freedom, but may not give them collegial connections or community. Many are competitive, and will involve writing applications and proposals.

§ Traineeship: These are most common in the biological sciences. Like a fellowship, there are few explicit work obligations, although you may be working in various labs on "rotations."

§ Research assistantship: This is pay for work done on a research project. These are most common in science fields, in which most students are funded on RAships for most of their time in school. An RAship implies some work obligation – which may be work directly related to the student’s dissertation or may not. RAships are an excellent mechanism for learning how to do good research.

§ Teaching assistantship: Like an RAship this is pay for work assisting in an undergraduate course. These can be excellent for developing knowledge and skills for teaching, particularly if attention is paid to helping and teaching you as a TA.

§ Loans and personal assets. Often students find themselves without funding (this is particularly true in humanities fields) and must rely on personal assets (savings, family, partners) or student loans.

22. What is the mix of funding (traineeships, fellowships, RA and TA ships)? Is it competitive or assured? How many years are students funded?

23. What is the level of financial support for tuition, fees, stipend, and research funding?

You need to understand how are doctoral students funded in this department. Is funding guaranteed or competitive? What opportunities for summer funding are there? If your degree takes longer than average, can you find financial support? How successful are department members at winning fellowships for dissertation support?

How are student’s research expenses paid for? Does the advisor’s research grant cover the expenses? If so, do the funders constrain the choice of topics? If not, what other resources are their to fund research? Do students often pay the expenses themselves?

24. What are expenses (housing, health care, child care, cost of living)?

The cost of living varies dramatically from place to place. Understand what you can expect to pay for rent, parking, food, vacation travel, computers, books and the like. How many years will be in graduate school, and what financial resources do you have for dealing with minor (books, car repair, clothes, dental care) and major (unexpected illness of self or family member, pregnancy) financial emergencies?

25. How many students go in to debt? How much?

What level of debt are you carrying from undergraduate education? Can you afford to add to your debt load?

Related quotes from students 

Introduction | 1:  Questions for yourself | 2:  Questions for program | 3: Questions for advisor | Resources

Survey on Doctoral Education

Revised 08/14/01