Red Flags of Graduate Interviews

Not all universities, labs, and principal investigators (known as a “PI”, or faculty advisor) are equal. During the graduate school interviews, your job will be to tease apart the functional labs with excellent fit from the excellent labs with okay fit, or worse, the dysfunctional labs trying to pose as a welcoming and organized lab. Sometimes, students who are in the dysfunctional labs will try to find subtle ways to communicate warnings to you. Other times, it will be up to you to catch red flags that are often hidden in plain sight. But this is not easy, as a bad PI won’t tell you themselves that they are a terrible mentor. Instead, you will have to rely on information you gather from graduate students, lab managers, post-docs, and other affiliated people. And often, you have to read between the lines for this information, and pay attention to what is not being said during your visit. 

For a few years, I’ve wondered about the red flags that others have faced during their graduate school interviews, especially the ones they missed (but later saw with crystal clear hindsight). To better understand these red flags, I asked the twitterverse about their experience and advice with red flags and subtle warning signs. 

As always, the Twitterverse came through with lots of ideas and advice! Below, I summarize and expand upon the ideas of the thread to give the top 10 red flags of graduate school interviews, and questions you can ask to try to separate the great labs from the unhealthy labs. 

  1. Students are fleeing the lab. The attrition rates of labs can say a lot about lab culture and management, so if the lab you’re interviewing in has recently lost a lot of students (both students switching out of the lab, or dropping the program altogether), this is a giant red flag. You can ask department admin about lab attrition or even other graduate students outside the lab, and they might be able to tell you about the attrition rate and even why students are leaving (e.g. bad lab culture, funding, etc.). 

  2. Interviews with other graduate students are not conducted in a private setting. Graduate students are often hailed as your best shot to getting a behind the scene glimpse into what your future may hold in the PI’s lab. But if your meeting time with them is conducted inside the lab with other students working, or with the PI around, or even in a large group setting, this can be a major red flag. You want the conditions where a graduate student can be completely honest with you, without having to consider who might overhear. Beware of a lack of privacy in these meetings (or if done over email, notice if the PI is CCed on the thread). 

  3. Skewed publishing of the lab. Does this lab only publish in top tier journals? Does the PI always have to be the first author? Is the research only about the specific research interest the PI is studying, or only on their pet theory of X? These are all red flags. As a graduate student, you should expect to work on the research of your advisor, but also have some independence to pursue complementary lines of work. If a lab only publishes in top tier journals, this may be a sign that a lot of research goes unpublished that could find a home in a medium-tier journal. If the PI is always the first author, this may indicate that your independence as a scientist comes only after the career of the PI. If the lab only publishes work under a single narrative, as Steven Shaw pointed out, you won’t be a scientist— you’ll be a cheerleader. 

  4. Students only praise their PI’s brilliance or program of work. This is a red flag if it’s the only thing students say about their PI. Don’t get me wrong, I would consider both of my advisors at UCLA quite brilliant. But with excellent mentorship, you come to know your advisors as people who support you and the research, not just the research. Sure, my advisors are brilliant, but the first thing that comes to mind is how supportive they are of my independence, how quick they are to give me feedback, and how they push my research ideas into much better directions. There are lots of brilliant people in research, but brilliance isn’t an indication of capacity as a mentor/adviser.

  5. Funding is not discussed. Funding matters, a lot. If you cannot get an answer about what type of funding you would receive, or through what means (TAship, etc.) this is a major red flag. Granted, some departments have to get a bit crafty, so while there might not be a direct answer initially, there should be some sort of plan or timeline. Vague answers about funding without a plan to follow through indicates either disorganization or that you probably won’t be funded.

  6. The graduate students seem uncomfortable around the PI. In your excitement during the interview weekend, make sure to take a mental note of how the graduate students behave when they are with their PI, and when they are without them. If graduate students look uncomfortable sitting next to the PI, speaking up, or making eye contact, this can be a red flag (especially if this behavior is in stark contrast to how the person behaves when the PI is not around). Notice also if, upon leaving a meeting or going to lunch, the graduate students try to get away as fast as possible from the PI. This can also be another warning sign. 

  7. The lab’s graduating students have a poor publication record. For the many students who want to remain in academia after graduate school, publications are a form of currency. They can earn you respect, post-doc positions, job offers, and even grants. As a researcher, your job will be to conduct studies and publish them. Sure, publishing takes a long time, and not everyone will have 30 publications when they graduate. But graduate students in the lab should have some number of publications, and it should not just be the PI who is publishing. When students graduate without publications, this can indicate a number of things, including an advisor who spends little time advising, is poorly advising or potentially delaying students’ productivity. Do the research ahead of time, and track down the publication record of the lab. 

  8. People only say positive things about the PI. Graduate students, RAs, and postdocs can be a goldmine of information and often will provide information with your best interest at heart. However, some students will only tell you what they are advised to say. If the only thing you hear about Dr. X are positive things without any mention of a drawback, you might be getting only part of the picture. Of course, there are miraculous researchers and advisors with very few bad qualities, but if you ask a question like “what’s the most challenging part of working with Dr. X?” and you get an answer like “nothing I can think of” or “uhhh I’m not sure” then chances are the responses you’ve gotten are hardly trustworthy. 

  9. You have a hard time getting a direct answer to tough questions. Related to point #8, if you find yourself having a hard time getting a direct answer from the PI, graduate students or other lab members on hard questions (e.g. what’s the most challenging part of working with Dr. X? What are the challenges your lab is currently working on?) or they steer the conversation back to something else, this is definitely a warning sign. Remember that often conversational directions can change frequently during quick meetings when there is so much to talk about, but if you notice a pattern of dodging hard questions, this could be a bad sign. 

  10. Body language— sideways glances, eye-rolling, signs of exhaustion. When asking tough questions, or having conversations with lab members, try to pay attention to body language. If you see one lab member rolling their eyes when another is talking, that’s a sign of really bad lab culture. If you ask a question and notice two people quickly make eye contact or glance sideways at each other, there is probably something they aren’t saying. If everyone in the lab looks like they haven’t eaten, slept, or showered in three days, again, major red flag. You want to look for a productive, collaborative, and friendly lab to work in for the next five years. Look for people who seem genuinely happy. 

So thanks to twitter, we have our list of top 10 red flags. But Twitter also offered some questions and general advice for your graduate school interview to help uncover potential warning signs. Below, find general advice and questions to ask during your interview!

General Advice

  1.  Talk to the graduate students, AND students from the lab who have recently graduated (they are more likely to give an honest take on a bad PI).

  2. Try to also talk to graduate students who are not in the PI’s lab. They might be more willing and upfront with potential issues members of their cohort have faced. 

  3. If you feel like you haven’t gotten the full picture of the PI during the visit (maybe the graduate students were shy, or you only interviewed with them when the PI was present) you can try to ask the department admin who deal with student complaints and graduate student issues. They can be another source of information that might be more honest. 

  4. If the faculty member is brand new with no students, you can track down RAs they’ve worked within the past, or post-docs from their old lab and ask about their experience. 

  5. Graduate students who have great relationships with their advisors will offer this advice upfront without solicitations. Those who have poor relationships often stay silent. 


  1. “What makes a student do well/struggle with this advisor?”

  2. “How easy is it to schedule a meeting with this professor?” 

  3. “What would make your life easier as a student?”

  4. “Is it difficult to carve enough time among your lab responsibilities for your own work?”

  5. “Is the PI encouraging of new lines of work?”

  6. “How regularly do you get feedback on papers? Is this timing consistent?”

  7. “What’s your favorite thing about working with so and so?”

  8. “What has been the most challenging aspect of your working relationship?”

  9. “Would you describe the lab culture as more collaborative, more competitive, or a mix of both?”

  10. “Is the PI’s time distributed relatively equally among their graduate students?”

  11. “How often does PI miss or reschedule meetings?”

  12. “How quickly does PI reply to emails?”

  13. “Who would you go to if you had problems in the lab?”

  14. “How supportive is PI on non-academic careers?”

  15. “Does the PI have a main theory/narrative that they try to support in their work?”

  16. “Does the PI support more independent lines of research? Or do they primarily focus on one line of work?”

  17. “Does the PI actively encourage work-life balance?”

  18. “What characteristics would make a student excel with Dr. X?”

My thanks for the dozens of people on Twitter who wrote about their experience, authored some of these questions, and overall shared their experience! Click here to view the original tweet.