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I think that a lot of these really important questions about advisement style and quality, level of engagement, whether they encourage or discourage publication, etc. are best reserved for advanced graduate students in the department, rather than prospective supervisors themselves. And by 'advanced grads', I mean students who are well into their dissertations (preferably near the end). They'll have a much better idea of what a particular professor's supervision efforts are like, because they'll have spent some time interacting with them on that score. Plus, they're probably more likely to feel comfortable mentioning the bad along with the good. Besides which, the professors themselves probably aren't in a great epistemic position to report on their supervisory efforts, because they don't tend to get much feedback on it.

I don't know what prospective students should talk about with their prospective advisors, but I share Marcus's feeling that they should probably just approach it as a regular conversation about the department, the profession, the AOS, etc., and try to draw inferences from there. You could ask them about what's hot/gaining steam in the AOS these days, about what it's like for someone in the AOS to try to publish in generalist outlets, what the major subfield conference venues are/are like, what their sense of hiring trends in the subfield are, etc. That makes for a fun conversation, but will also show you the extent to which your interlocutor is plugged into the field.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Michel: Thanks for the great comment. I thought I was forgetting something when I finished writing up most post - and you hit the nail on the head: one of the better ways to find out how an advisor is as an advisor is to ask around with their students!


In my experience most grad students way over think "how should I talk to faculty." Talk to them like you would talk to any other philosopher, most are nice, and if not then it is good to learn who isn't.

As for picking an adviser, do not underestimate the importance of finding someone congenial. I know many grad students who basically ruined their career by picking unhelpful or unreasonable advisors. So do talk to other students.

Trevor Hedberg

I want to echo Michel's comment that the best sources of information about the quality of advising in a program are the advanced graduate students. Either strike up a conversation with them during the visit or send them emails after your visit has concluded. (Usually, you'll have to do some of the correspondence via email because you'll only meet a fraction of the grad students on your visit.)


Just a small addendum: don't limit yourself to students working with your prospective advisor! Other students may feel freer to talk about what they know about their peers' experiences. And if the advisor in question is a bit of a problem, they may have chased several students away to other advisors.


I know this is a bit off-topic, but I also recommend asking grad students about things like health insurance coverage, housing options, and other things you think might be important to your overall quality of life. ~6 years is a long time to live in a place, and whether you're able to flourish at a program in that place depends at least in part on these non-academic things.

Mike Titelbaum

Any chance I could flip this question around as well? We just did prospective weekend, and I met with a number of prospective graduate students, and sometimes they didn’t know what to ask me. (I certainly don’t blame them—these meetings are a pretty artificial environment that they’ve never encountered before!) So what would be a good thing for a faculty member to do in these one-on-ones besides just say, “What questions do you have for me?” Does anyone have stories of something a faculty member did that was particularly helpful?


I can't remember if I actually asked this question when I was visiting grad schools (it has been a while) but I think one good question is "what sorts of things are your advisees working on?" This is a nice question for a few reasons. It tells you the sorts of projects they tend to supervise, which helps you figure out whether those sorts of things sound like something you might end up doing. It tells you how well they're keeping up on their advisees, and how enthusiastic they are about their advisees, and how well they can talk about their advisees. If they can't say much, or they can't say much that sounds nice, or they can't say anything that makes the projects sound interesting, chances are they won't be able to say much about you. It tells you how many advisees they have, and it also gives you a list of people to contact because (as other people have noted) it's good to talk to your prospective advisor's advisees. And it moves the conversation away from being about you or being about them, which is nice because it makes it less focused and awkward.

One question I think I asked a lot of professors back when I was visiting grad schools was "what advice would you give me in terms of picking what grad school to go to?" and I think I got some good answers. Obviously sometimes you just get boiler-plate advice you've gotten before (which is fine) but lots of times the answers helped illuminate how that professor thought about the profession and about graduate study, and that's good information to know about one's potential advisor.

grad student fairy godmother

Students who have had particularly bad experiences in a program, especially bad experiences that can be traced to problematic faculty, often stay away from official recruitment events. I also know of many cases (including my own) where students who have had particularly bad experiences are actually chased away from official recruitment events.

So: don't underestimate the importance of cold emailing some of the older graduate students. If you just rely on graduate students you meet at the visit, you may unfortunately be getting a highly skewed sampling of people.

Also, questions like, "Do you like working with Professor So-and-So" / "Do you like working with your students?" tend to elicit unhelpfully vague positive platitudes: "Oh, So-and-So is wonderful!" / "I love graduate students!" I learned more when I asked very specific questions, like, "How often do you meet with Professor So-and-So? Where do you meet?" Sometimes you elicit pretty damning information that way: "Oh, I meet So-and-So once every two months, in a bar, and he doesn't read my stuff."


Thanks for your thoughts on my question, Marcus, and to everyone else for weighing in in the comments thread. This really helped me!

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