Choosing a Supervisor, part 4
6. Talk to Ex-students
Perhaps one of the most important things you can do is to speak with current and ex-students of your potential supervisor. They will give you the real story of what it is like to work with him or her, what the research group's character is like, etc.
Some questions to ask include the following: How long does the typical student take to finish their PhD in your potential supervisor's group? What are the outliers like and why? Does the student feel like a peer of his or her supervisor, or are they more deferential? What fraction of students that start a PhD with your potential supervisor actually finish? Has the supervisor lost students to other groups or supervisors? How does the supervisor work with students? How much time does the supervisor give to their students? Do they have an open-door policy?
I am certain that the more outgoing senior graduate students in the group will be happy to share their experiences. If none are willing to speak up, consider that a sign in and of itself. Recent graduates are also much more likely to give you the inside skinny, for obvious reasons.
7. Public Presence
Being a successful scientist is half about doing the science and half about communicating the science. Some scientists communicate strictly through the peer-reviewed research paper, while others use every new "Web 2.0" medium that pops up in recent years?
How up-to-date is the potential supervisor's web presence? Do they use Twitter? Have a blog? Use Facebook? Do they convey research results in a modern and timely manner, or are they more "old fashioned?" Does any of their research occasionally hit printed mainstream media? Are there press releases? Is your potential supervisor ever quoted in the media or seen on television?
What is your attitude toward communicating results? What is the role of the citizen scientist and her relation to the media?
8. Attitude toward Teaching
What is your potential supervisor's attitude toward teaching undergraduates and graduate students? Do they volunteer to give guest lectures at high schools, summer interns, incoming students, and other non-core student cohorts? Do they connect teaching with their research, or are these two main facets of their work lives disconnected?
Or do they think of teaching as an unwelcome burden, their time being better spent focusing entirely on supervising or conducting research?
What is your attitude toward teaching? Do you want to learn from and be inspired by a great instructor, or is teaching a necessary evil? Do you want to work with someone who spends time writing textbooks, or is the only thing worth writing the paper in the number one conference in the area?