The two-way interview between potential grad student and mentor

Dear (prospective) Graduate Student,

This is where a lot of students go wrong. The relationship between you and your graduate advisor is THE most important aspect of your graduate program. More important than the prestige of the program and more important than the research topic. Seriously! Why is that? Because your graduate advisor is not just your mentor. They are your partner, your gateway to professional development and networking, and unfortunately, they can make or break your scientific reputation to a certain extent. It shouldn’t necessarily be this way, but it’s often true. You are signing up to spend 2-7 years with this person which is a really big commitment and you’ve chosen them to steward your professional growth and scientific development. Choosing the right person to play such an important role should not be taken lightly. If you don’t end up getting along with this person it’s going to make those many years of grad school miserable (and grad school hard enough as it is!). That’s why I wanted to share some tips on how to make an educated decision.

First, take a deep breath, erase any feelings of desperation to get admitted that you’ll take whoever you can get, and drum up some confidence in your worth as a grad student! I see so many students, and indeed was one myself when starting my MS, who felt grateful to any Professor who seemed interested. After experiencing and escaping a bad mentoring relationship myself, I now advise students that finding a mentor is really a two-way interview. You are interview the Professor to see if they are a good fit for you just as much as they are interview you to see if you’re a good fit for the team.

Once you’ve emailed a potential Professor to ask if they’ll be your grad advisor and scored an interview, be prepared to ask a few questions about their mentoring style in addition to discussing science. Here are a few points I recommend including:

  • Find out about their expectations for office hours. Do they expect that you’ll be present in “the office” Monday through Friday from 9am-5pm? I know some Professors that do and they expect students to fill out an online schedule whereas other Professors don’t have any expectation and allow students to show up whenever suits them.
  • Find out about their expectations for contributing to the team. Do they expect that as part of the lab team that you should supervise other students? Many Professors expect that you contribute to cleaning, research, and supervision as side duties particularly if they don’t have a lab manager. Other Professors may not have this expectation, but find out who is responsible for those things because if they don’t expect it from everyone but don’t have a dedicated employee it may be falling all on one person – you may not want to be that person.
  • Find out what they think is a successful grad student. Do they think successful is 3 publications a year? Do they think that successful means the most important part of your life is the research and everything else comes second? How long do they think your degree should take? This point is extremely important if you have a family obligations or other important factors that might mean your studies aren’t always your first priority.
  • Ask about any unsuccessful students they’ve had and why they felt that way. You might think you had this covered by asking what they think a successful student is, but sometimes directly asking what is unsuccessful is more revealing. Often times their answers will relate to communication issues or commitment issues and these can be telling about their mentoring style.
  • Find out their style of communication. Do they expect that students should be constantly available by answering emails, texts, and calls at all hours, weekends, and holidays? Trust me, some Professors do! How do they prefer to be contacted and what sort of turnaround time can you expect a response from them if you have questions?
  • Find out how they feel about your intended career path and whether they can support you. Some Professors are not at all supportive about careers outside of academia and even those that are may not have the knowledge or connections to help you network to get those jobs. It’s important to talk about this up front. If your Professor is supportive but lacks connections, inquire about the resources the university has since many are now working to improve access to external networks and better prepare students for non-academic career paths. Make sure and ask where their recent graduates are finding employment.
  • Ask how their current students are funded and what options are available to earn an income and/or tuition waiver to avoid going deeper into debt for grad school. Ask for honest feedback on your chances of getting scholarships, fellowships, grants, or teaching positions and see how supportive they are about helping you figure out your options. See: How to get paid to go to grad school
  • Find out how understanding they are about any special requests or unique circumstances about you personally. This can mean being supportive of a disability, or being accepting and inclusive about issues of diversity, or essentially anything that is important to you that requires a level of sensitivity and sincerity. Diversity in STEM is a persistent challenge and your grad advisor can play a significant role in making your experience better or worse.
  • Find out how much influence you will have over your thesis or dissertation topic. Some students are interested in a broad topic in general and are open to conforming to whatever questions the Professor plans to ask. Other students might be chomping at the bit to study a particular hypothesis but the Professor really wants to push them in a different direction to satisfy the objectives of a grant. Whichever student you are, ask what the Professor has in mind. Most of the time, in good mentoring relationships, there’s a little bit of both.
  • Find out how they feel about you pursuing professional development activities like internships, student clubs, volunteering with non-profit organizations, or other activities that might be important to you. These activities often do take time or focus away from your grad study and research time. While it’s true that too many activities can be problematic and for certain periods during your academic studies you need to really focus, a healthy balance of these side activities makes you a happy, well-rounded person. Some Professors are hands-off and totally supportive of you engaging in these activities whereas others are nosey and unsupportive sometimes insisting that you drop them entirely.
  • Ask for permission to talk with some of their current students and schedule that meeting in private like lunch or coffee somewhere. Sometimes the answers a Professor gives you and the reality of their expectations or behavior are different. This isn’t usually meant to be deceptive it’s just that most people aren’t good at self-assessment. Ask all of these questions of current students, including their complaints and praises. You might find that one student absolutely loves the Professor, and the other really doesn’t. This is a classic case of complementary personalities or complementary working styles and is precisely why I recommend a two-way interview. Decide if you’re style is more like the happy student or the unhappy one. Also use this time to assess if they are people you would enjoy working with too! A good “lab family” can really be an asset and make your grad experience so much more rewarding. These people are your immediate support net when you’re struggling with school or your mentor.
  • Lastly, if the interview goes well, don’t be afraid to ask how they feel about you either at the end of the meeting or in follow-up correspondence. Are they excited about you and ready to support your application through graduate admissions? Do they want you in their lab for sure? If you’re sure this is who you want to work with, share that feeling and gently ask if you are also their first choice too. See: How to get into grad school for why this step is important. 

This list is by no means comprehensive, but hopefully it’s a good start and gives you an idea of some important conversation points. Conduct your own self-assessment to figure out what style of mentoring works for you then see how each potential advisor’s answers line up. Remember, no advisor is perfect so consider which mentoring attributes are most important and which mentoring attributes can you make due without (or in other words, decide which areas can you compromise and maybe do a few things that you didn’t want to do). I like the saying “everyone is a little bit crazy so examine how you are crazy and determine what kind of crazy you can work with.”

Stay positive.

– R

Do you have any recommendations for questions that students should ask their potential mentors? Drop me a note in the comments below.