Aug 3, 2022

8 questions I ask applicants before letting them join my research group

Overview: If you are pursuing a thesis-based masters or a doctorate in a STEM discipline, you will need a faculty research advisor who will oversee your research work and development as a scholar.  In this post you will find questions that I use during the initial interviews to see if a student is the right fit to work with me.  If you are planning to meet with potential advisors, you might use these questions to help you prepare. 


Post Contributor(s): Marian Kennedy



Photo by Lidya Nada on Unsplash
The graduate student/advisor pairing is important.  They will be working together closely for 2 yrs (MS) to 4-5 yrs (PhD) as the student initiates, progresses through and finally finishes their dissertation.  Not only do they need to be interested in the same field, but they need to have compatible personalities and work interests. 


I have only worked with great students, but I have at times failed my students since they could have either enjoyed graduate school more or progressed through research quicker with a different advisor (different style/personality).  A quick Google Scholar search will shows that this is indeed an impactful selection (positive or negative) and many have tried to create frameworks for improving the mentor/advisee relationship. 


For some applicants, the first time to ‘meet’ a potential advisor will be during the trail end of the application process for an interview.  Others will be accepted into a program and then get the chance to meet with potential advisors during their first and second semesters. 


Questions that I like to ask during these meetings include:

·       What class would you retake (content) at 6:00 am?  (Of all the content you went through in your undergraduate program, what topic was so interesting that you would wake up early just to learn more.)

  • Where will you be in 2035?  (Your possible future jobs.)
  • Why graduate school instead of a job?
  • Why are you interested in a PhD and not a MS?
  • What is research?
  • What research have you previously conducted?  (What was your role during this study and what new knowledge did you contribute to your field?)
  • What would you like to get from your advisor?  Expectations for meetings, guidance, etc.?
  • Have you ever failed on a project previously?  What did you do to recover from that experience and still meet your milestones or goals?


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