Jul 5, 2022

15 questions to ask current graduate students when you are in the application process

Overview: When I start a new endeavor, I have found it helpful to get the insight from someone who is a few steps ahead and draft off their experience.  This post highlights how you can learn about graduate school and the graduate application process by meeting with a current graduate student for coffee.  It contains a list of questions they can answer for you. 


Post Contributor(s): Marian Kennedy




Photo by Tom Podmore on Unsplash
One way to gather information about the process of applying to graduate programs or the experience of being a graduate student is to interview a current graduate student.  During this structured conversation, you can ask a range of questions.  Since graduate students are busy trying to complete their degrees, the meeting should not take more than an hour, and you should be on time for the meeting and come with a list of questions.  I would suggest planning on a semi-structured interview format where you have a framework of key questions to ask and probe areas with spontaneous questions when needed. Ask ahead of time if you can record the meeting.  If not, plan on bringing a pen or pencil to take notes. Be sure to identify a graduate student in your field because programs can diverge greatly depending on the discipline, and find out what degree (doctorate, master’s degree) they are pursuing. 


Below are some questions that I would want to ask.  While a graduate student’s perspective will be helpful, if time if short you might want to focus on questions related to the benefit of attending graduate school and their experience once enrolled. 


Benefit of attending graduate school

  • Why did you decide to attend graduate school after completing your bachelor’s degree?
  • What were the benefits versus just entering the workforce after your bachelor’s degree or continuing in the workforce instead of going to school?
  • Why did you decide to pursue a (PhD, MS) vs. a (PhD, MS)?
  • Do you know what you want to do after grad school?
  • What do you wish you had done to prepare for grad school? Why did you choose your graduate program?


Experience once enrolled in a graduate program

  • How many classes do you take each semester and how do those classes compare to those you took as an undergraduate? 
  • How much time do you spend on course work vs. conducting research?
  • How did you identify your research advisor?
  • Do you work on research projects with a defined hypothesis, or did you identify your own research hypothesis? 
  • How long does it typically take students in your program/degree to graduate?
  • How do you balance your work and life during graduate school?
  • Do you hang out with other students in your program?   
  • Have you received an assistantship to help with your costs during graduate school?  (Research assistantship or teaching assistantship).  If so, what has your assistantship been like?


Process of applying to graduate programs

  • When did you start preparing your applications for graduate school?
  • What parts of the application were the hardest for you to complete?
  • Who did you ask for letters of recommendation and why?


After the interview, remember to write the graduate student a thank you note for their insight and taking the time to mentor you.  Chances are, you learned a lot from this interview.  Go through your notes (or listen to your recording) to highlight the top 5-7 ideas or suggestions that stood out to you.  You might even let a close friend or family member know what you found out as they are probably interested to hear about your application process.  Finally, write down additional questions that you would like answered as you complete the application process and set up a meeting with a second graduate student in your field.  It is always good to get multiple perspectives. 


Acknowledgements:  This blog post was edited by Kate Epstein of EpsteinWords.  She specializes in editing and coaching for academics, and she can be reached at epsteinwords at gmail.com.


Revised on August 11th, 2022.