All About Graduate School Visits (for CS PhD programs)

Woo! You've been accepted to graduate school to pursue a Master's/PhD in computer science, my sincerest congratulations. But along with your acceptance email, you may have noticed an invitation to the graduate school's visit day or open house. What's that all about?

This post will lay out some of the details about graduate school visits*, what they're (usually) like and what to expect. I'll provide some advice about what to do before/during/after a visit, along with a list of questions I prepared for professors and graduate students.

*Heavy disclaimer, this is specifically based on my (biased) experience going to graduate school visits specifically for PhD programs in computer science in the US and one in Canada. Other PhD/graduate programs may do visits differently, and visits also vary by school. In my experience, these visits happened after being accepted, but I know of other graduate programs that use the visit as part of the application process (requiring interviews, etc).

I'll cover the following topics:

What is a graduate school visit?

In the case of graduate programs for computer science, these visits are for the universities to strut their stuff to YOU. When applying to these universities, you demonstrated your strengths for particular programs through your application. Now the university gets a turn to demonstrate their strengths. It's a chance for you to meet your future advisor, graduate cohort (even if you all don't end up at the same university), and future labmates. It's usually only 1-2 days, jam-packed full of activities, and honestly exhausting. But from these visits, you can glean a tremondous amount of information about your (possible) future university.

What to expect out of a graduate school visit

First and foremost, you should expect to be reimbursed for any travel, accomodation, and food you consume during this visit. Usually food and accomodation are no problem, because they are handled through the university, but travel is usually something you have to pay for first and get reimbursed later. It sucks, and I wish something could be done for students who can't afford to buy last minute flights up front.

You should expect a day or even multiple days of activities like university/lab tours, meetings and/or panels with graduate students, and most importantly, meetings with faculty. Unless you've booked your own room or need a particular accomodation, you should expect to have a roommate in your hotel room.

How to prepare

The university usually sends you a lot of information about this visit, so read it thoroughly. It should provide details about how to reach your hotel from the airport (if you're flying), how to reach the university from the hotel, and most importantly the schedule of events. You may also have to provide them with details about your travel dates and food allergies/preferences. Based on the schedule, you should know ahead of time which faculty members you're meeting with, and this gives you a chance to read their website and learn a bit about their research ahead of time, if you'd like. Otherwise, the faculty members should be prepared to talk about their own work as well as the university in general anyway.

I prepared a list of questions for meetings with faculty members and graduate students. This is honestly an obnoxiously long list, but I had a few favorites to ask graduate students and faculty which I will talk about in the next section. I definitely didn't end up using most of these questions.

What to do during the visit

A graduate school visit is usually jam-packed full of activities and meetings, and it is exhausting. You probably also have work to do, whether that be for your job, school, or research. It is extremely important to take some time for yourself, whether that be in the morning or evening. Get plenty of sleep, if you can.

Most importantly, have fun and enjoy the food. I definitely had some memorable meals during these visits; I also might be slightly biased because I am SO excited at the concept of free food. This event is supposed to be fun and enticing for you, you've already been accepted!

Also very important, get to know the other students on the visit. The circumstances you find yourself in leads to pretty easy small talk (what are your/their research interests, where are they from, why are they interested in that university). Hopefully that small talk leads to Big Talkā„¢, and you make yourself a friend/acquaintance you might see in the future at conferences or even become colleagues! I might be an overly-social person, but I found the visits to be a great opportunity to build up a support network.

The meetings

The meetings with faculty members are probably the most beneficial part of these visits. These meetings are designed either to introduce you to potential advisors or introduce you to your assigned advisor. But they are really short. Some of mine were only 15 minutes, but most likely the longest meeting you'll have is 30 minutes. This is not a lot of time, and you probably have a lot of questions. But the great thing is that you can follow up with faculty after the visit day. Don't be afraid to reach out to them if you have more questions! Deciding where you'll be pursuing your PhD is a huge decision, and you should get as much information as you need to make the best decision for you.

General advice

Take notes

You're going to be having a lot of meetings, and doing a lot of activities. I highly recommend taking notes during your meetings so you can refer to them later, especially if you have followup questions and/or not enough time to cover everything during the short meeting.

Meeting with a potential advisor

Ask if they are taking students and funding. Ask about their research. You can learn a surprising amount about a professor's advising style even if they're just talking about their research. Are they mostly doing research in their area of expertise, meaning they will have a lot of domain knowledge and could be more hands-on in your research? Or do they have lots of projects guided by their students, which might mean they'll give you the freedom you want to pursue your interests?

If advisor style is as important to you as it was to me, you literally can just ask them their "style" of advising. How do they introduce their new students to the lab's projects, software, etc?

Finally, you should ask about things you really value! I value teaching experience, and I would ask my potential advisors if they did too, or if they would find my lack of focus on entirely-research off-putting.

So the questions I asked most of the time from potential advisors:

  1. What research projects do you have in mind/are excited about?

  2. How will I be funded?

  3. What is your style/what do you do with new students?

  4. How often do you meet with your students?

  5. How do you feel about teaching?

Finally, you can get a lot of good advice from meeting with professors who aren't potential advisors. It's possible you'll have meetings with professors who aren't taking students or aren't in your research area. These meetings are especially valuable because sometimes faculty might be more inclined to be honest about what the university is really like, or they can give you general advice in making your decision.

I've noticed a lot of people in academia love giving advice and mentoring, and this is even more evident by me writing this post.

Meeting with graduate students

These meetings are super important as well because graduate students usually look out for one another, including future students. They'll tell you how the university treats graduate students, and what it's really like to work with certain faculty members. Ask them the really hard-hitting questions about funding, support through the university, mental health, provided you feel comfortable asking these things and want the answers. These kinds of questions were important to me, so I usually asked some of the following questions to graduate students:

  1. Are you happy?

  2. (side note, I asked this at a lot of panels with graduate students and might have embarrassed myself, but it was a really good question to ask)

  3. What services does the university have to support students with mental illness?

  4. How are you funded?

  5. How did you find your advisor?

I love when these visits kick all the faculty out of a room and have just a panel of graduate students, it really gives the students a feel for the culture among the graduate students.

Here are some questions I asked students of a specific faculty member I wanted to work with:

  1. How do you feel before and after a meeting with Professor X?

  2. (this was by far the best question I could ask, I think)

  3. Is your advisor nice?

  4. (smoke test from Aaron Weiss, this usually leads to more questions about mentoring style, etc)

  5. How does Professor X feel about teaching?

  6. How often do you meet? How available is Professor X?

  7. Do you collaborate with Professor X's other students, or mostly work on your own thing?

Keep in mind during your conversations with graduate students that everyone's experience is different, and your experience will certainly differ from their's. Try and talk to both senior and junior students, and see if you can pick up on any patterns between them.

Finally, if you get the chance, see if you can explore the city you'll be in! You'll probably be in the area for a number of years, and it's worth getting to know.

What to do after the visit

Reflect on your visit, however you choose to do so. I journaled after all of my visits, writing down the experiences as well as the feelings I had at that moment in time. It's easy for me, and perhaps others, to augment my view of the past based on new information in the present. Thus, I chose to write down how I felt about visits as soon as I could. Usually I would do so on flights, it's a good way to pass the time.

Additionally, follow up with professors and graduate students. Give yourself time to really think about your decision, and get as much followup information as you feel you need.

Finally, once you make your decision, let any potential advisors at other universities know. If they're good people, they care about you making the best decision for yourself, and thus would be happy to hear where you end up!

Best of luck, and have fun!