In the last several weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of talking with prospective students who are interested in joining our lab here at McGill. When considering starting graduate studies, particularly when starting a doctorate, it is important not just to check out the website of your potential supervisor and future lab to see that your research interests line up. It’s just as important to meet your potential supervisor, to check in with the students who are currently members of the research group, and to be sure that your personal styles are a good fit. Starting graduate studies is a decision that will make a big change in your life, and it is important to be aware of issues that could arise during the course of your studies. After all, you will be working together for the next few years!
As I am a student in Biology, this advice is biased toward my experience, but much could be applied to other disciplines.
If you and your potential supervisor can arrange it, you should meet in person. This can be easier said than done if you live out of the city, province, or country. Many labs will subsidize a visit, but that of course will depend on the lab and their funding. Visiting the lab and meeting current members is the best way to get a feel for how the lab works, to see what kind of facilities exist, what the “culture” of the lab is, and how comfortable you will be there over the long term. I can remember visiting my current lab at McGill, and feeling immediately welcome. Visiting the lab also gives you an excuse to visit the university, to see what the campus is like, and to get a feel for the city in which it is situated. We’re lucky at McGill – campus is beautiful (at least lower campus – the biology building is an unfortunate victim of brutalist architecture) and the city is a vibrant, cosmopolitan place to live.
If you can’t physically visit, skype is a great option to get an opportunity to talk to a future supervisor. And don’t forget to get in touch with current (and former) students! Most will be happy to answer questions about the university, the department, the lab and your future supervisor. These are the people who know what it’s really like to be working in this environment. It’s worth trying to talk to several students, as different people will have had different experiences. One student may have had a terrible experience with your potential supervisor, while others may have had the opposite experience. Knowing what to expect and how you might respond will help you to make your decision.
What are important questions to ask? You should definitely talk about your project with a potential supervisor, and how free you will be (or not) to design your research project. It is also important to talk about funding, both for salary and for research considerations. You should know if you will be expected to teach and how much. I love teaching, but it does take a lot of time out of my week, and hence out of my research progress. But I knew going in that I both wanted to teach and that I would have to teach. If your project will involve regular travel for fieldwork, you should talk about how that will be funded. Will your supervisor be able to pay for this, or will you have to find your own funds? What departmental funding options exist? Have other students been able to find funding? Other questions to consider are the expectations for work space (will you have an office?) and time (are you expected to be in the lab working regular hours or are hours flexible?).
This is only a short list of what I hope are helpful suggestions for those considering starting a graduate program. Your studies are your own, but you should always have a good idea of what you are getting into.
Please add your own advice in the comments!