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


Questions To Ask When Thinking About Pursuing a Ph.D.

Copyright 2001,  Chris M. Golde

The decision to attend graduate school to get a Ph.D. is an important one, and not one to be made lightly or without consideration. Typical doctoral programs take five to seven years to complete; by the time you are done, you will have spent about one-quarter of your life in graduate school. In many fields your training will not be done; in most science fields students then spend 2-4 years in postdoctoral training before beginning their professional career. Committing to a Ph.D. also means some sacrifice. Doctoral students are generally not well paid. You may increase your personal debt. Relative to your peers, you will forego many years of income. Furthermore, you may sacrifice personally, as doctoral training is a "job" that requires perseverance and very hard work.

Research shows that up to half of the students who begin doctoral study never receive the Ph.D. One culprit in attrition is a poor match. Doctoral study may be a poor choice in the first place, or there may be a poor fit between the student and the program.

But take heart! Doctoral work is usually an exciting and positive experience. Most students would earn their Ph.D. all over again. Most report being pushed and challenged, and growing personally and intellectually in positive directions.

Everyone is best served if prospective doctoral students take the time to research the graduate school option thoroughly and relative to other options and making the best possible choice of career path and graduate program.

The questions that follow stem in large measure from the advice of thousands of doctoral students who were asked to give advice to new students.

Information Sources

You have a variety of sources of information available as you narrow your choices and move through the application and decision process. When you ask questions, be prepared to hear things you do not want to know! Remember, no person or place is perfect. But take heed of the warnings that you get.

To understand the possible programs you can apply to, read widely: university and program catalogs (paper and internet), rankings and guidebooks. Ask your current faculty or other faculty you know.

To investigate particular programs there are a lot of steps to take. Talk to graduate students at your own and other institutions; they can help you think about questions to ask and they probably know about other programs. It is very, very helpful to visit the campus and department and develop your own opinions. While you are there, talk to faculty and staff at those programs. Talk to students who are enrolled there. Visit classes and labs if you can.

To investigate particular advisors: talk to their students, talk to other students in the program, talk to the advisor (on the phone, in person, via email), observe their lab or group in action.

How to ask

Asking these kinds of questions, particularly those in the second two sections questions about the program and questions about an advisor can be a difficult process. For many people, it is uncomfortable to ask probing questions. It can seem like you are skeptical and untrusting. It can feel aggressive and inappropriate. One strategy for overcoming your fears of asking difficult questions is to practice asking. Role play with friends and trusted advisors. Consider who are the best people to ask about various things. Faculty members have limited amounts of time, and may prefer that you ask some questions of staff or students. Some questions can be asked via email, others are better asked on the phone or in person. Put yourself in the place of the person you are questioning: an email with 15 questions may well not be answered. One or two general and open-ended questions may yield fruitful answers.

When talking with faculty, remember that they have very little spare time. Most faculty members do not respond to email messages that seem to be sent to many people. ("Dear Professor X, I am interested in being your advisee. ) Do your homework in advance. Read their work. Ask a question of them or one of their students at a conference. Determine if you have common intellectual interests before you contact them. If you are in a field in which it is the norm for faculty and students to match prior to and during admissions, find out who students typically meet faculty members. Some departments have funds to bring prospective students who are strong candidates to campus in order for faculty and students to meet. In some cases this takes place on a predetermined date, in others it is arranged individually.

Below are forty one questions that you should ask before you select a doctoral program. In some cases the question is followed by some elaboration or additional questions. They are divided into three categories. Click on the section to read those questions. Or, finish reading this page, and then use the link at the end to go to the first set of questions.

Questions to help you know yourself and what the Ph.D. is all about,
Questions to ask of a specific program that interests, and
Questions to ask a specific faculty member that you are interested in working with.

You can also link to advice from currently enrolled doctoral students. These students made these comments in response to a survey question (as part of the Survey of Doctoral Education and Career Preparation). We had over 3,500 answers to the question: "Knowing everything that you know now, what advice would you give others entering or in the early years of graduate school?" We grouped the answers into several categories, and selected those that best exemplified typical responses in each category. Survey respondents were students in one of 11 different fields of study, and there are different quotes from each discipline. Click on the name of the discipline to see what students in that area advise:

Art History
Molecular/Cellular Biology

Originally prepared for the MORE Program Directors Meeting, NIH, June, 2001, Jackson Hole, WY

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