How to talk to professors for grad school applications
October 8, 2012 7:08 PM   Subscribe

How do I talk to professors I hope to work with before submitting my applications for graduate study?

So I have decided to apply to graduate school, specifically PhD programs in geography and (so far) one in environmental anthropology. I had been struggling with the part of the process where I have to communicate with faculty about my interests ahead of time so that they will notice my application, but after refining my introductory letter somewhat I have had some success in this area ranging from, "sounds great, look forward to seeing your application," to "let's talk on the phone." (eek!)

So now I am faced with a conversation with a professor next week, a conversation in which I would hope to convince him that I would be a really great PhD-track student for him. This is a little bit nerve-racking for a couple of reasons: 1. This professor is taking on exactly one new PhD student next year and 2. It's been five years since I finished college, so I don't feel super ready for a high-level academic discussion.

My question is: what should I expect from this conversation? What will he ask me? What should I ask him? How can I best prepare for this conversation?
posted by silvergoat to Education (14 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
It's unlikely that it will be a high-level academic discussion. The professor will likely be looking for signs of maturity (your 5 years of life experience post grad is a good thing), that you are an adult, can complete something, won't require babysitting while you do your degree, have a handle on why you are interested in a PhD, can think critically, etc.

I have a colleague who, when interviewing or screening potential grad students, is always on the lookout for the person with a 'fire in the belly'. Enthusiasm, interest and self-awareness will take you a long way. Be yourself! Hope it goes well.
posted by lulu68 at 7:24 PM on October 8, 2012

This is helpful: and this
posted by k8t at 7:26 PM on October 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I speak as someone who has just finished her first year of a PhD program, but not in your field. You might feel more at ease if you mentally frame it in such a way that you feel you are interviewing him as much as he's interviewing you. You want to see whether he would be a good fit as a supervisor, and whether the department/school would be a good fit as an academic environment.

I personally asked things like this, and in retrospect I found these questions helpful in assessing fit:
1. What would your vision for my project be [assuming you've defined one already, OP]? What do you think that you specifically and that others in the department more generally could bring to my project [ditto, OP]?
2. Could you describe to me the academic and social atmosphere of the department? How collaborative is the vibe? What sort of academic and social events are on, and with what frequency?
3. As my PhD supervisor, what would our working relationship be like? How often do you typically meet with your doctoral students? How independently do they work?
4. What do PhD graduates do after they graduate from your department? Do they typically get one of their top few job/career applications?
5. I am also considering X, Y, and Z schools. My impression of the differences between your school and the others is ABC. Would you agree? What would you say would be the best things about coming to do a doctorate at your university?
posted by UniversityNomad at 7:29 PM on October 8, 2012 [4 favorites]

[That said, I should mention that the conversations in which I asked this were *largely* after I had been already admitted and was deciding between possibilities. Still, I think that it would be useful for you to ascertain some of this information, to see if it's a good fit for you!]
posted by UniversityNomad at 7:30 PM on October 8, 2012

You have the advantage that you know who will be interviewing you ahead of time (as opposed to a departmental interview with on the fly connections). You can actually read articles that he has published and think ahead of time of how you would fit into his research scheme and formulate questions for him that show your familiarity with his research.

If you don't have access to a university library, you might be able to find the pdfs via google. If all else fails, you could contact him (pronto) and explain the lack of access and ask for some of his articles to read so that you might be better prepared for your conversation.
posted by artdesk at 8:30 PM on October 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Well not to scare you or anything, but when I met with the professor I wanted to work with before applying to grad school, he definitely wanted to have a high-level academic discussion. He grilled me about my research, what kinds of results I was getting, what I thought it meant. My formal interview with him once I had actually applied was much the same; I was prepared for "So, why do you want to go to grad school?" and got something more like "In figure 7 on page 15 of your writing sample, there's an unexpected decline in X that you never discuss, what do you make of it?" So I don't think you should consider this kind of discussion to be outside the range of possibility.

If you'll be submitting a relevant research-based writing sample that you wrote when you were in school now might be a good time to reread it so you have something to talk about if he asks. I would definitely recommend making sure you're familiar with the outline of his research, particularly anything considered "classic" or "famous" as well as his most recent publications so you could talk intelligently with him about the current direction of his research program. You certainly don't need to memorize any details, but you should be familiar enough with the jargon and core results to be able to say something general or ask a question without being straight-up wrong. In my opinion the key is to know enough about his work and enough about your own goals to be able to articulate, clearly and persuasively, how those two things are related to each other. Especially since he's only going to take one student, you need to convince him that you're not just a great student but the right one.

You have a week; that's plenty of time to (1) refresh your academic memory by skimming half a dozen key papers plus anything you wrote earlier and (2) sit down with no distractions for an hour and give some careful thought to what specific points you can make relating your research goals to his.
posted by ootandaboot at 10:11 PM on October 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Prof (culturally-adjusted) in related field here. Yes, I'd want it to be a technical research conversation and I'd want you to show what your experience and best thoughts had led you too. I'd expect you to be up-to-date with the literature, and able to express an opinion about which recent papers or books were important and why. I'd definitely make adjustments for someone being out of academia for five years, both in language and approach, but not so much in knowledge or awareness. On a personality level I'd be looking for self-motivation, evidence of having taken a big project to completion in the past, and anything to reassure me that I or one of my group is not going to be effectively writing your thesis for you in several years time. Oh, and checking that you're one of these people:

UniversityNomad's questions are excellent, but need tactful application. That said, if you get a negative reaction to asking questions about the group, department, or program, consider it a serious alarm bell for the future.
posted by cromagnon at 2:11 AM on October 9, 2012

UniversityNomad's advice is great, though also, ask about money. Seriously.

You don't need grant numbers but you should have at least a rough idea of how you are going to be funded before committing to living off of what your professor will be able to provide. Some questions you should have in mind but get answers for much more tactfully,

-Do students tend to be funded more by grants or by teaching in this lab?
-Am I ok with that balence?
-What are the safety valves available for not fucking me over if this grant you are hoping to get doesn't come through?
-Would I just be boned?
-If any portion of my funding will come from teaching, what happens over the summer?
-If you don't have a grant, and the department doesn't have enough teaching slots, could I just be boned?
-Are there specific requirements I would need to meet to be eligable for this funding you are planning to provide?
-Have you ever had a student who failed to complete their PhD for any reason?
-If so, what was that reason?
-Have you ever had a student take more than 6 years to complete their PhD?
-If so, WTF was up with that?
-What do you think of professor X in the same department, whose lab I am also interested in? *Because you really don't want to go anywhere where there is ONLY one professor you could possibly be happy working with*
-What about professor Y?
-Can you look women in the eye? *Even if you are not a lady this can present problems for you, and who wants to be associated with these guys anyway?*
-What is your management style; oppressive/involved, absent/aloof, or some mix?
-Will that work well with me?
-Do my future co-workers in the lab seem like assholes I can't be happy working with?
-Do they party in a way I can't keep up with?
-How much risk is involved in the project you have in mind for me?
-[US specific] If this is a fishing expidition for data, or has an uninteresting null hypothesis - what are my chances of being boned? How soon would I find out?
-Does this work involve travel?
-How many conferences a year do your students tipically go to?
-Do you provide funding yourself?
-How many conferences a year do you go to?

Some questions you should get answers for on your own time,

-Does this professor have at least one paper in a journal you recognize?
-Does this professor have a lot of co-authors?
-Are they always the same co-authors?
-Does anyone not like this professor?
-Has anyone even obliquely hinted at anything you should be keeping in mind in relation to this professor?
-Do I like the city/town/region of the lab?
posted by Blasdelb at 2:55 AM on October 9, 2012 [5 favorites]

-Have you ever had a student who failed to complete their PhD for any reason?
-If so, what was that reason?
-Have you ever had a student take more than 6 years to complete their PhD?
-If so, WTF was up with that?

Completion rates are a very sensible thing to ask about. Requesting details of individual cases is going to make the conversation difficult very quickly. Remember that if you're successful in getting accepted, your own doctoral study will form part of these conversations with others in the future, and behave accordingly.
posted by cromagnon at 4:49 AM on October 9, 2012

Getting a PhD adviser is in a lot of ways very much like getting a spouse, indeed these days PhDs last about as long as marriages do anyway. You are putting your financial future, access to health care, career, and sanity into their hands. Just like with marriages, while there is a hell of a lot you can't predict and much of the commitment is based on faith, it is still a really terrible idea to go in blindly.

As past performance is the best indicator of future success, it is a good idea to have a decent sense of how well past students have done. While there will be a lot about past students' employment histories that will indeed be none of your business, generally you will want a professor who is happy to brag about their student's success, and has not had students who've failed. For professors who have had failed students, that should be a red flag, and before joining it would be a good idea to find tactful ways to figure out what was up with that, such as asking other students if it is something they think would be worth being concerned about.
posted by Blasdelb at 7:48 AM on October 9, 2012

Blasdelb's advice may not apply to your field. In many subfields of anthropology, and I think in cognate areas of geography, you will not be on your advisor's funding and you will not be directly working for them in the way that people do in lab sciences. (Of course one thing to check is whether your department/advisor will be working on a lab model.) And completion times of 6 years+ are not uncommon in fieldwork disciplines where you may need to do extended fieldwork and learn a difficult language.

Many of the questions Blasdelb brings up are really important, but you might overwhelm the advisor. Some of the questions about the program (completion rates, etc) can be put to a department administrator (look for the graduate student services officer or something similar on the website.) He or she may be better placed to answer those questions anyway.

I'm an environmental anthropologist (ABD) of sorts; feel free to memail me if you have any questions about the field.
posted by col_pogo at 9:51 AM on October 9, 2012

Best answer: I am a professor. I talk to prospective graduate students about a dozen times a year on the phone. Some for whom I am the natural advisor, were they to enroll, and others that are merely interested in my general area (Archaeology) in my Department (Anthropology). The level of discussion will depend a great deal on the professor you talk with and the competitiveness of the program. I like to talk shop with students, but I also talk to some very bright students that are not able to talk shop in my area of the academic universe. I want them to show an interest in the field, whatever part of the field that is, and to be able to articulate it well. This is as much about checking the student's competence as it is making sure our program is a good fit for them. Since we admit students at the MA and PhD level, it also goes without saying that I have much higher expectations for one than the other.

I also spend a lot of time during a phone interview talking about the structure of our graduate program. I take it as a good sign when the student asks good questions about the program. This is a big decision and students that are not researching the process either are not very serious about this or do not have access to good advising at their home institution. So a modified version Blasedeb's or UniversityNomad's list of questions (for your field) would be entirely appropriate and I would love a student that came prepared with that level of detail of questions. In general the questions you should be asking revolve around:
* What is this Department/lab like? What is the structure of the program? What is the typical calendar to completion?
* What is funding like?
* How successful have the students from this program/your students been on the job market?
* How are thesis projects selected/assigned/decided upon?
* What is the process for admissions?

Merely the fact that you are asking this question and reading these answers is a positive sign to me that you are doing the right preparation and would probably come across on the phone as a graduate student worth investigating.

As others have mentioned, it is very easy for you to do a little research on the professor you are going to speak with and you should be able to come up with some questions about their research.

I would second what others are saying here that you should keep in mind that this is a 2-way interview. A PhD program lasts for a long time and you need to ensure that this advisor is right for you as much as they need to decide you are the right student for them. I know I am very mindful when I speak to prospective students that I am not only researching them but I am selling them on our program.

Finally, I would never recommend actually attending a graduate program until you have spoken to at least two current students. The professor should be willing to share some names or you can figure them out independently.
posted by Tallguy at 1:42 PM on October 12, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone, for these very constructive comments. A follow-up related question- my field is, as col_pogo mentions, not lab-based and probably not as tied to the work of a particular professor as much as lab sciences are. In order to gain admission to the programs I am looking at you do need someone in the department to "sponsor" your application, so my question here is how do you strike a balance between presenting your intended research as related to their interests while also sounding original and innovative? Can getting too specific be a detriment (I want to study the effects of change in x on a particular watershed)? How can I strike a balance between presenting my own ideas for fieldwork based research and being open to projects that are more in line with a professor's ongoing work?
posted by silvergoat at 10:29 PM on October 12, 2012

That varies greatly depending on the Department. At most PhD programs you will need to pick an advisor that will help you navigate your way through the program including selecting a thesis project. I tell my undergraduates that this arrangement is very much like a mideval apprenticeship than anything they are accustomed to. Some advisors want you to pick an independent project, some will give you a project on a silver platter, and some will want you to do some aspect of their larger research program. The only way to know is to ask. Other programs, especially professional programs or Masters programs tend to have more student independence and less one-to-one connections between students and advisors.
posted by Tallguy at 5:51 AM on October 13, 2012

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