How to ask questions at grad visits

Grad school visit days are an opportunity to learn more about your potential advisor and school. You'll need to make some tough decisions in the near future about where to attend, and you're going to want as much data to make this decision as possible.

This past semester, I took a qualitative methods classA fascinating course, because I come from a very quantitative background., where we learned about conducting interviews. Here are a few tips from that course which I wish I'd known when I was talking to professors and grad studentsThese are just tips for getting better information, but don't stress out about following these to the tee (or even following them at all)!.

Interview Strategies

You want to know what your life will be like at school X working with professor Y for the next four to six years. How do you get that data? In this case, you ask others about their experiences, and use that to inform your mental model.

But question-asking is a lossy information transfer. People frequently forget to mention things, make ambiguous statements, or have trouble putting their thoughts into words. It is your task to aid them in this process, so that the information you receive is a faithful interpretation fo their experience.

1. Be prepared

It's best to have a rough plan going in. Come up with a couple of themes that you want to cover and some questions you want ask. When I was talking to current PhD students, I usually asked about their experience working with X advisor, living in Y city, working in Z university. I would also ask them how they decided where to attend This last question usually yielded insightful responses..

Remember, though, that this is just a guide, and the nature of an interview is organic. So, it is best to have these questions and themes at the back of your mind as you have a conversation with whoever you are talking to.

2. Be specific

Sometimes it is tempting to ask broad questions, since it is hard to know what specific questions to ask. This makes sense! After all, you have never done a PhD (and possibly never even gone to grad school), so how would you know what it is you want to find out?

However, broad questions elicit broad answers, and vivid, detailed answers are more useful for you.

So instead of asking a question like

"What don't you like about X University?",

try asking something more specific like

"What are some logistical frustrations about being at X?".

Or even better, ask about specific experiences, like

"Can you tell me about a recent time when you felt frustrated by some logistics at X?"

In general, if you can ask about experiences, those will result in the richest descriptions, since people can draw on their memories instead of trying to generalize.

3. Ask follow-ups

Another way to get richer answers is to follow up on anything you find ambiguous, or that you'd like to learn more about. This may seem obvious, but for me, this is actually quite challenging, because you need to quickly synthesize what they said and respond.

It might be helpful to think of some likely follow-ups when preparing -- this will also serve as practice for coming up with follow-ups. You might also want to note down what follow-up questions you thought of in previous interviews or visits, so that you have them top of mind in the future.

4. Be creative

Though meeting in a coffee-shop or on Zoom might be the easiest, it might not be the most effective setting. If you're visiting on campus, consider maybe doing a "walking interview" through campus or meeting in the office space. This might trigger certain memories, experiences or anecdotes that people may forget to mention otherwise.

5. Take notes

Remember to remember! It can be hard to have a conversation while scribbling down notes, so I recommend jotting down some thoughts after the meeting instead. It will still be fresh enough for you to remember the important points, and this allows you engage more actively in the conversation instead of trying to multitask.

Concluding thoughts

When I was going around doing visits, I had a rough idea of the things I wanted to know about, but the questions I asked often resulted in the same set of general, surface-level answers.

Hopefully, with some of these tips, you can be better prepared to have deeper conversations that result in more informative answers. But don't miss the forest for the trees! The important thing is that you are meeting with people and learning about the campus and surroundings in a way that is comfortable for you.

So if the strategies I've mentioned provide some helpful guidance for you, great! But if they seem awkward or difficult to implement, don't worry about it. Just do what feels good for you.

I think interviews and visits two of my favorite parts of the application process. I had some insightful and inspiring conversations. I hope you enjoy this process as well. Good luck and have fun!