I spend a lot of time thinking about PhD program dynamics, so: here’s my thread of questions to ask when visiting PhD programs and other advice for prospective students. 👩‍🏫🌱📓🏫 (ur the sprout) #phdchat
I'm a philosophy PhD student so all my advice is based on that, and things can vary between disciplines! For philosophy, at least in the US, our visits happen after students are already accepted, and so the programs are courting the students to try to get them to come.
General question asking advice: I think you can generally trust that students will be honest with you in answering the questions you ask, but they might not independently volunteer information about climate and other problems without being asked, so it's important to!
But you can definitely not trust that students will SEE the problems with their department. Students in a department that's running them ragged, for example, are likely to feel like the problem is with them—they're just not up to it—rather than with the department. 4/
So it's important to talk to students that are further along that have had more time to reflect. You might have to seek them out a little; earlier students are often the most involved in departmental events like recruiting week. 5/
(It might kind of be a red flag if older students are SUPER sparse, but there's also normally just not a ton of students and people can be coincidentally busy. Remember you can email people!) 6/
⭐️⭐️The question I'd most recommend asking students at PhD programs you're considering, aside from basics about whether there are straightforward climate problems, is what parts of the program tend to be especially stressful, and whether there's any common crisis points. 7/
I think this can be revealing of a lot of stuff. I solicited answers to the common crisis point question in this thread a few months ago, which is worth checking out. 8/
I was initially thinking about programs pushing people into crisis via hard requirements at points that aren't comfortably attainable for students (phd program design is often imperfect!), but a lot of issues can come up: 9/
inadequate guidance in transition from classes to dissertating, stress around building a committee bc of faculty tensions, inadequate job market preparation, getting little general feedback until you're applying for jobs and suddenly told faculty don't think you can cut it... 10/
The things that are actually really stressing students out and even pushing them into crisis are things you want to know about! And this is the kind of stuff that often looks inevitable when you're a student. This is more of a conversation starter than straightforward Q. 11/
I alluded to asking about straightforward climate problems earlier and should have been explicit: ask, preferably multiple members of any groups you belong to, what the climate for women & minorities is like. Ask if there's been sexual harassment, and what was done about it. 12/
I'd also ask if students have advocated for changes to improve climate (or other things abt the program) & how that was received by faculty. I don't know of philosophy programs with perfect climates and healthy ones make room for identifying issues and trying to improve things.13
It can be hard to compare different student's answers about the climate at different departments that don't involve glaring, obvious issues because the more interested and invested in climate you are, the more things you see that are iffy or worse than they should be. /14
But I think students being comfortable to identify problems advocate for improvements without worrying about retaliation, and faculty actually taking that seriously, is concrete, important and positive sign. /15
⭐️ If there's someone you're interested in working with, be sure to ask multiple students, including students in their area that they don't advise, how they are as an advisor. Your experience in the second half of your program will depend a LOT on your advisor. /16
Ideally you hear they are amazing and very supportive, available, and invested in their students. An advisor like that is worth a lot. I chose my school because I'd heard my advisor was a really good advisor and I wanted to work with him. (If you do this tell them first!) /17
But there's a lot of variation and a lot of personal stuff you'll have to evaluate: would you be able to work with someone that rarely reads their email and you have to track down on campus to talk? Do they work well with students whose views are opposed to their own? /18
Would it be enough to have someone that will read and give feedback on your work, or do you need someone that will give you more guidance about your pacing and making sure you're ready for the job market? /19
(Schools should have a placement director advising people as they actually go on the market, but some advisors will be giving you advice 2 years in advance about going to conferences and publishing to be ready and others won't.) /20
Are they trying to help their students develop papers to publish? Some advisors are good at guiding ideas and framing papers to have the best chance of getting published, and some are very hands off. (Probably very famous older people are less familiar w doing this, idk) /21
⭐️ Is anyone known for being hard to work with? In what ways? Does it affect the rest of the department?
Abusive and bullying faculty are often not recognized as abusive or bullying when it's not sexual, so it's another thing you might have to look for between lines. /22
Is anyone known for giving very harsh criticism? Belittling students or being controlling of them, like of what other faculty members they talk to about their work? Retaliating against students they think wronged them? Have any faculty dropped advisees late in their work? /23
This medium piece gives you one idea of what advisor abusiveness could look like. You will be at times very vulnerable—probably emotionally, but also just materially—during your process. It isn't safe to have an advisor that might try to cut you down. /24

This stuff very easily ruins careers and breaks people's brains. I don't remember being really aware of faculty like this at any of the places I visited and I think it's common enough that they probably existed somewhere, but just asking about climate generally wasn't enough. /25
ok rewinding a second this seems rosier than I really think. I think you can generally trust students not to actually lie to you. I think you should also expect them generally try to cast things in a more positive light though, so look for specifics. /26
OK I'm worried this so far makes grad visits seem like a miserable exercise in looking for problems but they're good and fun and you get to meet a lot of cool people. I need to take a break but I will be back and talking about things that are less bleak! /27
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