Questions to ask

Always look before you leap! While it is always exciting to be selected, there is great variability in the training environments from professor to professor within academic departments, between departments, academic institutions, private companies, summer programs, etc. Consequently, it is important to ask a number of questions before accepting an offer. There are three important elements to consider here:

If you are going to be part of a departmental program then the quality and climate of the program will be important considerations. Important questions to ask include:

  • What are the program’s expectations of you? Have the expectations been clearly stated to you? Are they achievable by you? Do you want to achieve them?
  • What is the quality of the research infrastructure? This includes the quality of the library, computers, research instrumentation, etc., in short all of the resources you will need in order to be successful working on your research problem.
  • What is the program’s past record in working with undergraduates?
  • On what kinds of projects did the participants work? Are these kinds of problems interesting/relevant to you and your intended career path?
  • How do the program’s participants select their research advisor and/or research problem? Are students and faculty hardwired to each other or can students switch research advisors and/or research problems if they wish?
  • Where did the participants go after the program ended?

Research Supervisor

  • What are the supervisor’s expectations of you? Have the expectations been clearly stated to you? Do you believe that you can meet these expectations? Do you want to meet them?
  • What is the supervisor’s past record in working with undergraduates – with how many students has he/she worked?
  • What did these students do? - A project?
  • What did these students learn?
  • How many undergraduate students have presented their research at professional meetings and/or saw technical papers published based on their work? Did these students receive credit in the form of authorship for their work?
  • Does the professor have funding to support his/her research program?

Research Group

  • Who are the current members of the research group?
  • What is their educational background and interests?
  • Do you respect them? - Intellectually, integrity, etc.?
  • Can you see yourself working with and learning from them, i.e., do you like them as people?

Lastly, you should consider consulting your mentors, family, and friends. Be sure to discuss your offer with others whose opinion you trust and respect before you make a decision. This is important because sometimes we get so caught up in the joy and pride of being selected for something that we become unable or perhaps simply forget to dispassionately consider whether or not the position/program will be good for us. Mentors, family and friends are often able to see things and ask questions that we are ourselves cannot.