Questions to ask before joining a research group

When choosing a research group to do your PhD or postdoc in, it’s incredibly important to know what you’re getting into and is it the right fit for you. In other words, it’s important to make an informed decision on whether that is the place you want to spend your next couple of year’s worth of brainpower in. While we often think about what we, as candidates for the vacancy, will be asked about in the interview, we often neglect the importance of asking questions to the potential supervisor and group members. So, today we’ll talk about which questions you want answered before committing to several years of research within a single group in any University. While your interest in the research topic of the group is imperative, other things like group dynamics, learning opportunities, days off, etc., are often put into the second plan.

However, it is very often the fact that these small things make a difference between a good and bad PhD experience. So, let’s see what these things are and why they matter. I’ve been gathering all of the interesting questions I’ve found over the last 2 and a half years and I’ve asked a lot of them myself in the interviews for my PhD position. For the sake of organisation, I’ve grouped them in a couple of sections.

Finding out about supervisor’s work style

  • How frequently are we going to meet? How much time will you have for me?
  • How would you describe yourself as a group leader? This is one of those questions that rarely have a straight answer and one from which you can learn a lot from.
  • Do you have a method for tracking progress and what is the expected progress for the first couple of semesters?

Getting a feeling of the group

  • How would you describe the working culture in your lab?
  • How important is work-life balance? What’s the policy on working the weekends? This might be something you want to ask the students, instead of the supervisor :D
  • How often do students take time off?
  • Are there any social events?
  • Do people usually work from home or from the office?

Contract and graduating

  • Is there a required number of papers to publish before graduation?
  • How long do you think a PhD should last and is the funding secured for the full duration of the PhD or are we planning on applying for some more funding?
  • Will I work on an existing project or a new one? Will there be someone to guide me through my first steps? That’s useful.


  • Are there enough resources for me to do my job? Computing power, reagents, do I get a laptop?
  • Do I have any obligation towards my doctoral programme in terms of attending certain meetings, social events, classes etc?
  • What are my TA duties? What are actually my TA duties?

Collaborations as the big part of modern-day science

  • Do you encourage collaborations and how are they usually agreed on?
  • Collaborations with other labs/universities?

Learning opportunities

  • Attending conferences? What are the requirements and is there funding for doing so?
  • Is it possible to attend summer schools?
  • How do you feel about internships and exchanges?

But, where do I get all these information? I don’t wanna keep questioning my potential supervisor for an hour…Good point. My advice is to find out as much of the information as you can before the interview. For example, from the University websites, doctoral programmes you are applying to, connections you might have at the Uni. You can also request a meeting with group members, especially with PhD students, without senior members of the group involved, to get a feeling of the group dynamics.

Let me know if you think I overlooked some important questions and best of luck to everyone in their academic endeavors! Stay tuned for more PhD-related content.

Best, Ivan

Ivan Sekulić
Ivan Sekulić
PhD Student

My research interests include Conversational Information Retrieval and Natural Language Processing.