Two PhD programs, each alike in dignity (maybe).
January 20, 2015 12:39 PM   Subscribe

I'm a candidate for 2 PhD programs at the same school. Help me brainstorm questions for interviews so we can all make a good decision.

I'm a 31 year old STEM student with a professional science master's coming back to academia after 6 years out in industry. I'll be interviewing for two separate PhD programs at the same institution in a few weeks. The programs overlap in their focus and the composition of their admissions committees (one's more medically oriented, the other more computational), and I believe either would be a good fit for me. In fact, I'd expect to form a thesis committee with faculty from both departments.

My schedule has me interviewing mostly with admissions committee members, as opposed to folks from my shortlist of prospective PIs/advisors. After looking at who I'm talking with, I now have a sneaking suspicion that if I'm offered admission, both programs will talk amongst themselves and decide which one offers me a spot.

Hive mind, help me think through what questions I should be asking in these interviews to help us all figure out where the best fit for me is. I'd initially been thinking about this process in terms of ME making a decision between the two, but this week I'm thinking that my questions will probably guide the faculty's decision on which program (if either) admits me.

Things I'm already thinking about (at least vaguely): funding opportunities, technology access, training opportunities, faculty access, asking about the differences in dissertation focus between the two programs.
posted by deludingmyself to Education (9 answers total)
'Where do your graduates end up'?
posted by Dashy at 12:41 PM on January 20, 2015 [4 favorites]

In fact, I'd expect to form a thesis committee with faculty from both departments.

This might tie into your "faculty access" phrase, but how about "Is it common for students to have interdisciplinary advisors blah blah blah?"
posted by resurrexit at 12:47 PM on January 20, 2015

"How many post-docs are in your lab?"

You've been vague about what discipline you're pursuing and you haven't said what country you're in, both of which determine the nature of a PhD. So it's hard to give precise advice. But if you want to gauge a faculty's funding and technology, ask about the number of post-docs. Good funding = more employed post-docs, while good funding + good technology = more post-docs visiting on their own Fellowships. The latter are who you really want to be around, because they are smart and most self-motivated. But just being in an environment with lots of post-docs will do more for your education than pretty much anything else your program provides.

[I'm in biomedical research, so your mileage on this advise might vary for other disciplines]
posted by kisch mokusch at 1:07 PM on January 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

kisch mokusch, I tried to keep it more vague since I didn't want to go anon on this question (and since I'm focused on a cross-disciplinary intersect), but this is biomedical research in the U.S., spending most of my time outside (or at least downstream) of wet lab work.
posted by deludingmyself at 1:14 PM on January 20, 2015

Ask about how funding works and what you're expected to do. At some schools that's a school-wide thing but at some it varies between departments (e.g., is funding guaranteed through the department [as it was where I ended up], or does it depend on your advisor's grants? What is expected and available as far as TAing and whatnot - what classes would you be likely to TA?

How common is it for people to switch advisor (not everyone gets along with their advisor or ends up studying the right thing from the get-go - is there a remedy if that happens?) What has happened to students whose advisors have left the school (gotten a different job or retired)?

How much do the grad students hang out with each other (this is probably more important for when they meet and greet you with the existing grad students)? What's the social life like? (Modify this as needed to your family/life situation. But 31 is in no way old for STEM grad school).

Obviously, you must speak with the people on the shortlist of prospective PIs/advisors. If you don't have official interviews set up with them, email now to get unofficial interviews set up. It is madness to make any sort of decision without meeting with them.
posted by brainmouse at 1:25 PM on January 20, 2015 [4 favorites]

I'd expect that whatever you wrote about your interests in your written application has already guided them toward thinking you'd be a better fit for one department vs the other, they're just not telling you which yet. Be upfront about the fact that you're all deciding which department will be best, ask the questions directly: "Given that I'm mostly interested in topic X, which is department A, but I'd like to use technique/context Y, that department B is stronger in, one thing I'd like to establish this weekend is how A and B interact, and which might be a better fit." Also figure out whether a professor might have grad students from both departments in her lab, or if the lines are more stringently drawn.

Example: My school had both physics and applied physics graduate programs; the differences were in course requirements, and in what lab group they tended to wind up in. Physics students could be in regular or applied groups; Applied students ended up in physics groups rarely (because of interest not rules) but also in engineering groups. If a physics student wanted to work in an engineering lab, he'd have to have a co-advisor within the physics department and select a topic with at least some "physics" content. So a prospective student would be asking about the differences in course requirements, dissertation requirements, whether all students worked only with advisors in their own department, etc.
Another of the hidden differences was how they approached getting a job after grad school. Physics advisors will help their grads find a post-doc that points them toward being a professor or maybe work at a national lab. It's not that I've "flunked out" by taking a job in industry, but if I'd been in the applied physics department, they might have had a network in place that would help me do it (their students do more variety of stuff, including patenting their grad work and starting a company). So, a prospective student should ask about the employment rates and the types of jobs that people get right out of school, but also in the long-term, and think about how well the departmental network supports where they want to end up.

Agreed, email the departments and say you're very interested in seeing the labs; give the names of (no more than 4) professors you might want to work with. Ask if they prefer to schedule things, or if you should contact these professors yourself.
posted by aimedwander at 1:37 PM on January 20, 2015

but this is biomedical research in the U.S., spending most of my time outside (or at least downstream) of wet lab work.


I did my PhD in Australia, which was all wet work, but since you're heading into biomedical research I will share a few of the things that I learned.

Firstly, forget the training programs. They're usually run as courses by other departments and anybody can do them if they request it, provided the PI has the money. And money is the key here. You want to be in a well-funded facility. There are many ways to do an experiment, but better options are always the more expensive options. Asking about the post-docs will give you a sense of the current funding status in the lab/department. It's no use to you if your PI has lots of Science papers in the 1990s but only has one RA now and can't even afford to do anything meaningful. Note, here, that with the expansion of ever-more sophisticated technology (e.g. exome and deep sequencing, single-cell transcriptomics and CRISPR), competitive research has never been so expensive. Money matters now more then ever.

That being said, the PI pedigree also matters. Look up the PIs on Pubmed. List out their last-author publications (forget the middle author ones, they won't be as informative**). Look at where they're publishing and when they've published. Ideally, they will have published in more than one high-impact factor journal in the last 2 years (If you want to know what the best journals are, see this thread). This line of inquiry goes directly people you will be working with, because the PhD students, post-docs and RAs are the ones that actually do the work. If you're learning from post-docs who regularly publish in the best journals, you will be at a competitive advantage both in terms of your likelihood of publishing well and just leaning how to ply your craft.

Finally, it must be stated that some PIs make lousy supervisors, and even in a facility with lots of money and post-docs, some PhD students can get 'lost". Often, in the bigger labs, there is a presumed independence, which means that you need to be good at talking to people and asking for what you want. The alternative is to find a smaller group with a younger PI. You won't get the broad access to lots of post-docs, but you will get more PI access, and if you have the right PI this can actually be the more beneficial option. If they're young, look for recent first-author papers by the PI and, importantly, whether their published work is closely related to your project. If your project is something that they are intimately familiar with (and trust me, that is not a given), then they will have a greater interest in its success and they will be know what questions need to be answered and how best to answer them. If your would-be PI is older, then definitely ask about where their former graduates have ended up.

**If you're going into Bioinformatics, then some of this advice should be qualified. Often, bioinformatics guys work with lots of labs and provide an essential service to their research. As such, the don't necessarily get put into first- or last-author positions on papers, and the middle-authorship counts for more.
posted by kisch mokusch at 2:30 PM on January 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

Things to ask about (IAAProfessor):

- Placement rates of recent grads. Get real information here. If the program and the potential advisors you're looking at don't have a track record of placing grads in jobs like the one you want, don't go.
- How generous is the funding? TAing is differently time consuming from RAing. RAing might lead you to some publications and other opportunities.
- Does either have summer funding?
- What sort of travel funding do they give?

Things to think about:

- Are there at least 2 faculty members in the department that you're sure you would be willing to work with as an advisee? You should speak to them via Skype. You should also try to speak to at least one of their current advisees. Don't go to a program based on one potential advisor.
- What's the computational versus medical community like? Would you rather go to those computational conferences or the medical ones? Do you get excited about reading the computational journals or the medical ones?
You can't be all things to all people. If you're a computational person in a medical-oriented discipline, is there a community of scholars like you? Will your work be welcome? If you're a medical person in computational will your work be accepted by them?

Good luck!
posted by k8t at 2:37 PM on January 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

Really appreciated all the answers. Your advice helped me fine-tune my questions for recruitment weekend, where I was surprised to find that my program preference flipped from what it had been during the application process. I'll be starting at my (now) first-choice program in September, which seems like it will be a smoother - or at least better organized - road to graduation than its counterpart.

Thanks everyone for weighing in!
posted by deludingmyself at 12:28 PM on March 2, 2015

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