A field guide to visit days and choosing a grad school

Written by Kate Salesin
Posted on March 20, 2023

If you were accepted into a PhD program in this year’s cycle, congratulations! Now comes the fun period of being wooed by the graduate programs you were accepted to – we spell out how to get the most out of “visit days” and ultimately choose the right program for you.

How should I prepare for a visit day?

A visit day is an opportunity for the graduate program to make its pitch for why you should join their program and the best chance you have to gather any information you need in order to choose a program. It typically consists of many short meetings with different faculty (potential advisors) and possibly their students. Usually, each school will send you an itinerary for your visit ahead of time so that you know who you will be meeting.

Before the visit day...

  • Look up each person you are meeting and get a sense of their research and interests. Come up with one or two high-level questions related to the person’s research (see some of our recent Community Spotlights for examples!). Each person will probably spend some time discussing their research with you and future directions for potential students, but won’t assume that you have read any of their publications thoroughly.
  • For potential advisors, you can do some detective work by looking through the authorship lists of their publications. This will give you a sense of how collaborative their lab is both internally (how many students are typically on each paper? how often has each student published?) and externally (who are their collaborators at other institutions? are they one-off projects or long-running?)
  • Prepare questions for the people you are meeting. Find some ideas below!
  • Prepare to summarize your own research interests for when people ask.

On the visit day...

  • Treat the day as professionally as you would a job interview, in terms of how to speak to people, how to dress, etc.
  • Ask your questions!

After the visit day...

  • Send individual emails thanking each person you met with (no need to keep the conversation going, just a quick thank you), as well as anyone who coordinated your visit.

What questions should I ask potential advisors?

While there are many guides with lists of great questions, the best are ones that are personal to you. Set aside some time before the visit day to think about:

  • What kind of advisor do I want? Hands-on or hands-off, early- or late-career, gregarious or reserved…
  • What kind of school/program do I want? Many or few students, more or fewer teaching obligations/opportunities, clubs and events…
  • Where could I see myself living for the next 4-6 years? Close to home or far from home, urban or rural area, snowy or beach climate…
  • Am I missing any logistical information? Funding and stipend info, immigration visas, course requirements, teaching obligations…
  • What factors would sway me toward one program over another? Working environment, more or less collaborative lab, are there multiple potential advisors for me in the program in case I want to switch…

Then you can design a list of questions that address your specific preferences and fill in those blanks. We provide some examples below to get your gears turning!

What is “hands-on” or “hands-off” and which one do I want?

Advisors are commonly referred to as “hands-on” or “hands-off,” but it is not obvious what that means in practice!

A more hands-on advisor will typically:

  • Meet with you more frequently (multiple times a week), or be more available over email, Slack, etc. for quick questions outside of meetings
  • Be willing to discuss low-level details during meetings, such as debugging, implementation details, etc.
  • Tend to assign projects to students

A more hands-off advisor will typically:

  • Meet with you less frequently (once a week or every other week)
  • Want to focus on high-level discussions during meetings, such as overall project progress and direction
  • Allow students more freedom in choosing projects

However, in reality advisors can’t typically be sorted cleanly into one bucket or the other – they might lean more hands-on with presentation (talks, writing, etc.) and more hands-off with coding, for example. It will also probably change over time – an advisor typically starts more hands-on with junior students and becomes more hands-off as the student progresses through their PhD. Think about what kind of guidance works well for you, so that when you are “interviewing” advisors during visit day you get a sense of their advising style and whether the two of you would work well together. A good advisor will also be willing to flex in the direction that each student needs.

It can be hard to gauge which type of guidance you prefer since you may not have experience with this type of advisor-advisee relationship. You can ask yourself:

  • Do you thrive on group work or independent work?
  • Do you tend to “get stuck” on lower-level tasks like debugging and need help getting unstuck?
  • Do you tend to get annoyed with people “breathing down your neck” or micro-managing?
  • Do you need positive reinforcement to keep up your momentum and energy?
  • As an undergraduate, did you go in frequently to office hours for help on assignments, or did you treat office hours as a “last resort” after exhausting all brainpower on your own?

Knowing the answers to these types of questions will give you a frame of reference for your discussions with potential advisors.

Can you be my advisor?

First and foremost, if you are very interested in a specific professor becoming your advisor, it is crucial on the visit day that you make that clear to them and come away knowing whether or not that will be possible and under what conditions. For example, a professor may intend to take on only one or two new students next year, but more than that could be interested in working with them, and they may have to choose.

You can ask:

  • If I choose [your university/institution], could you potentially take me on as your student?
  • If you decide to relocate or go on leave during my PhD, what would that mean for me?
  • What is the program’s process for pairing students with advisors?

Style and Expectations

  • How often do you meet with your students and what do you typically discuss during those meetings?
  • What progress do you expect in a PhD student’s first year? What progress do you typically expect in a semester?
  • What do students typically do in the summer? Are internships permitted / encouraged / discouraged?
  • Are students expected to come up with their own research ideas or do you assign them?
  • How do you motivate your students?
  • How do you support students that are struggling?
  • How do you decide when to allow a student to set aside a project and start a new one?

Collaborations and Funding

  • What other faculty/institutions do you collaborate with?
  • What institutions does your lab usually seek/receive funding from, and what practical implications does that have for your students? (some require regular reports, presentations at meetings/conferences, etc.)
  • How heavily are project directions influenced by funding sources, and how often do those sources/influences tend to change? Once I find a direction I am interested in, will I be able to continue working on it?

Lab Culture

  • How many lab members do you currently have and how far along are they in their programs?
  • How do you organize students and projects? (do students work on whatever they want to, are students assigned to work together on larger projects, do you pair up a junior student with a senior student, etc.)
  • Are there all-hands lab meetings?
  • Does the lab ever go out for coffee/lunch or do activities together?
  • Are students expected to come into the lab or is remote work acceptable? What hours do people typically work?

What questions should I ask students?

Current students can provide a great window into what your life might be like in a specific program and/or research group, and most students are happy to share their experiences to help you make the decision that's best for you. However, keep in mind that these students (1) have likely been told that their role is to “recruit” you, and (2) are being asked to talk openly about people and programs that are a big part of/influence on their life. Because of this, you can generally expect answers that are honest but skew rosy.

To gather an accurate view of the program without putting students in an uncomfortable position, try to ask balanced questions that allow them to convey a holistic picture, including the good with the less-good. For example, you might ask, “What are your advisor's strengths and weaknesses?” rather than a pointedly critical question like, “What is your least favorite thing about your advisor?”

Some other possible questions might include:

Lab Culture

  • When did you start choosing your own research projects? Was that your decision or your advisor’s?
  • How have you spent your summers?
  • What is your relationship with your advisor like?
  • When have you felt the most stressed during your PhD so far? Did you talk to your advisor about it and how did they respond?
  • What have your teaching experiences been like?

Life Outside of Work

  • How often do you take time off?
  • What activities do you do outside of work?
  • Does the program or a graduate student council, etc. organize events for graduate students?
  • What size/quality/location of apartment can you afford on your stipend?
  • What do you like/dislike about living in this area?

Pro tip: To avoid survivor bias, try to talk to some students that started a PhD with your prospective advisor but left the program or changed advisors. Most professors will have students like this so this is not a red flag on its own, but it can help you identify the weaknesses of different advisors better.

But how do I choose?

If you have multiple offers and are really stuck on which one to accept, here are some ways to get unstuck:

  • Walk a friend or parent through your thought process. Sometimes thinking out loud can spur an aha! moment.
  • Ask friends or family with PhDs how they decided on their programs and whether they would have changed anything in hindsight (you could even try asking this of the faculty you meet on visit days if you are genuinely curious).
  • If all else fails, try a gut check – get a coin (or a random number generator), assign heads/tails to each program, tell yourself that you will go wherever the coin lands, flip the coin... and you might feel a twinge of relief or disappointment at whatever side it lands on.

Additional resources

For more perspective on visit days and questions to ask before choosing a grad program, check out these helpful resources: