On the folly of asking the same question once
Recently, I met quite a few visitors to our department, including prospective graduate students and faculty candidates. These visitors got to talk to multiple people while visiting the campus, and for some reason, on multiple occasions, I ended up being near the end on their meeting list. Invariably, I would ask the visitors if they had any questions for me, and invariably would get surprised if the answer was: “Actually, I already had a chance to ask all the questions I had.”
Say what?! Unless, the visitors wanted to ask questions that have precise answers (e.g., “How many Starbucks stores do you have in town?” “What is the square mileage of your campus?, etc.) I see such a reluctance to take advantage of my offer to ask me any questions as missing a major opportunity to learn valuable information. And this is not because I consider myself possessing some truly unique insights and perspectives.
The answer to the same open-ended question will depend on at least three factors: 1) the person asking the question, 2) the person answering it, 3) the context in which the question is asked. Take for example the question of “How do you like being a college professor?” I will give a completely different answer when I receive this question from a student or a fellow professor. Furthermore, each professor you ask will have a different answer. Finally, my answer is likely to change significantly if you ask me this question after I have just learned about a major rejection or have been demonstrated a research proof of concept.
Whether you are deciding if you should join a department for your graduate studies or if you should accept the department’s potential job offer, this is a major life decision, something that can potentially affect your entire life. When making decisions that important, there is no such thing as asking too many questions or asking the same question different people. Or even asking the same question the same person under different circumstances.
Here are two questions that you can ask each and every person you meet during your visit to an academic department or, in fact, to any other place. “What is one thing that you like most about this (department, company, town, job)?” “What is one thing that you like least about this (department, company, town, job)?” If you ask this question to all the people with whom you meet, you’ll get different answers. And only by collating the answers together, you can get to the bottom of things and form an informed opinion. You want to make major decisions well-informed.
Now, what if you forget if you already asked someone one of these questions and ask them again? What is the worst that can happen? If your interlocutor objects: “But you already asked me this question yesterday!” To which, you can smile and say: “I am terribly sorry, but I have met so many people that I keep forgetting which questions I asked whom.”
In summary, asking the same question to different people and collating their answers is a valuable strategy to ascertain non-trivial, subjective truths. Use this strategy to your advantage. And please never tell your interlocutor that you already have a chance to ask all the questions you had.