Questions to ask established faculty during a short, private meeting
September 25, 2019 8:55 PM   Subscribe

I'm a PhD student (environmental engineering) in my fourth year, with plans to finish up by next summer. I'm on the fence about continuing in academia (although leaning harder on the "no" side) - however, I have two meetings scheduled rather spontaneously with two leading faculty members in my subfield, TOMORROW. What should I ask them about?

My reasons for not wanting to stay in academia are mostly related to concerns about work-life balance and stress due to its competitive nature, so I plan to ask about their personal experience with those things.

Additionally, I am worried because my PhD thesis took me in a bit of a different direction than intended, so I'm not sure if I can re-position myself into the realm I've previously worked in, so I'd like to bounce those ideas off them. I'm familiar with their research since they're both well-known, although not super in depth with their topics. I may ask them what they think are the new and exciting trends in the field.

Is there anything else I'm missing, or that might be beneficial to ask about?

I don't need to "impress" them as I don't plan to apply to their university as tenure-track, but since we're in the same field and will likely cross paths again, I don't want to sound like a total dumbo.

Thanks all!
posted by Paper rabies to Work & Money (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Ask them about what they're working on. If you have time to skim their latest articles, asking good questions about them is also a good idea.
posted by k8t at 10:54 PM on September 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

Alternate/ non-traditional funding sources for the field.

Opportunities to work with private sector funding. Basically, is their work appreciated in industry - and what kind of justifications or prevarications or lateral thinking got them private sector funding.
posted by porpoise at 11:29 PM on September 25, 2019

Ask about what they're working on, and ask if there's any article or book that no one can stop thinking or talking about. Ask if they've seen any interesting or notable talks lately. What's their favorite conference? Why? Being roughly familiar with their most recent published paper and asking questions about it and relating it to your own work in some way is always good in these conversations.

My best interactions with senior scholars are the ones where we just talk about interesting stuff going on in the discipline and our research. These things aren't about about impressing them, they're just about having good conversations with smart people.
posted by k8lin at 4:34 AM on September 26, 2019

Best answer: Honestly, if you're looking to use these interviews as a way to help you determine whether you want to stay in academia, it seems worthwhile to ask them outright for advice. Would you continue in academia as a person of my age and my scholarly interests, given today's climate? What do you wish someone would have told you when you were earlier in your career? What advice would you give to your past self?
posted by juniperesque at 5:57 AM on September 26, 2019 [7 favorites]

I'd ask if they feel they have freedom to research what they want, or are they limited by, say, funding and grant limitations, or peer pressure, or need to get more results sooner. Also, about difficulties in keeping pedal to the metal after the pressure to finish your degree is lifted.
posted by SemiSalt at 6:01 AM on September 26, 2019

Best answer: Ask if they have other colleagues or former students they can connect you with to continue these types of conversations/informational meetings. When I was contemplating leaving academia, faculty were more than happy to introduce me to others who have done so.
posted by inevitability at 6:54 AM on September 26, 2019

Best answer: If you still think you might want to stay in academia, I'd be a little wary about telling them you're thinking about getting out. Some folks will, understandably, not want to invest in you if you seem likely to leak out of the pipeline. You might want to frame it more like "if I don't get a TT job, what would my options be?"

I'd also take any advice you get about whether to go into academia or not with a grain of salt. Academia obviously worked out great for them, so you're working with a biased sample. IME, folks who got TT jobs even pretty recently aren't very familiar with alternative career options and couldn't give me good advice.

Questions about your discipline / trends / getting back into your area of interest are great to ask these folks. Also if they know other folks you should talk to / be familiar with on X topics.
posted by momus_window at 9:17 AM on September 26, 2019

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