The PhD experience is different in different countries, and across different institutions. You can imagine that, as the academic culture differs across countries and institutions, your learning experience as a graduate student depends on the academic culture.
So, when you start looking for a PhD program, you might like to take a moment to assess the academic culture of your future institution as well. To help you identify the different elements of academic culture that could influence your experience as a PhD candidate, I have compiled the following list of questions to ask:
1. Does the PhD program involve technical courses?
Do you need to take a certain number of credits before you can graduate? Are you expected to take technical courses on a voluntary basis? The ratio of coursework to research time typically gives you an idea of the focus of the program: most PhD programs in the US have a stronger focus on coursework, while European programs are fulltime research programs. Your experience and the expectations from your supervisor can be very different depending on what the focus of the program is.
2. Does the PhD program involve courses that train your research skills?
Besides technical courses, what are the requirements and opportunities in terms of training your research skills? Are you required or recommended to take courses in academic writing? Is there support to help you learn academic English if you are not a native speaker? Is there funding available for you to go and attend workshops and trainings to improve your research skills? One of the elements that I appreciated very much in Delft was the availability for funding to attend workshops and courses that helped me develop my research skills and my soft skills.
3. How often do the PhD Candidate and supervisor meet?
Will you meet your supervisor daily, weekly or occasionally? How much responsibility over your project and experiments are handed to you, and for which tasks do you need to discuss with your supervisor before taking a decision? In short: how much independence are you given? While this aspect really depends on the supervisor and individual research group, I've noticed that USA PhD programs give typically less independence to their PhD students. In Delft, it's the other way around, and you're being thrown in the water before knowing if you can swim. Depending on your learning style, you might like to give extra thought and attention to exploring the implications of this question.
4. What is the work atmosphere like in the university?
If you have a chance to pay a visit to the institution that calls your attention you get a chance to sniff the environment. How relaxed are people? Do they seem to be pulling all-nighters on a regular basis, or does the lab have opening and closing times? Do people have lives outside of the program, or do they have to pour all of themselves into their research? Talk to current PhD Candidates in the program: are you expected to show up at nights and on weekends?
5. Is the PhD Candidate considered as a student or an employee?
Being considered an employee instead of a student has two implications. First, it means that you will be paying taxes instead of living from a stipend, and that you will have social security and might be saving for your retirement. Secondly, it means that you are treated differently. If you are considered an employee, you will be treated as a very junior researcher. On the other hand, if you are officially a student, you will be more treated like a very senior student. In The Netherlands, PhD Candidates typically are employees, unless when they come with a scholarship from abroad - which might indicate that they will receive a small additional stipend from the university to make sure their living expenses are covered.
6. Will the PhD Candidate work as a teaching assistant?
Will you be given the trust and authority to grade homeworks, revise exam questions before the exam gets handed to the students and provide assistance to the students? Or will you be considered more as a student, who still needs to take a number of courses before reaching this level?
7. Will the PhD Candidate teach (part of) some courses?
One level up from the previous question: will you actually get the opportunity to lecture and prepare for that part of your further academic career? How much trust and authority are you given in your program?
8. What happens to graduates from the PhD program of this research group?
It's always good to inquire your future supervisor about the careers of his/her graduates after obtaining their degree. Do most of them stay in academia, or do they go and work in the industry? Do they achieve high positions in the industry? Do they keep publishing research, maybe even with their former supervisor? If graduates who left the university keep publishing with their supervisor and keep involved in some smaller research projects, that typically means your prospective supervisor keeps a good relationship with his students after they leave the institution.
9. Is the dissertation a book or based on papers?
Will you have to write a 100000 words manuscript for your dissertation, or do you need to have a certain number of papers accepted for publication before you can graduate? Where is the focus of the program: delivering a long report of your research work, or training your academic writing skills by submitting articles that will count towards your h-index? In my opinion, both approaches have their pros and cons (I wrote a big-book-style thesis), but remember that your publications are very important for building up your career.
10. How many publications is the PhD Candidate expected to deliver over the course of the program?
While most supervisors won't be able to give you an exact number, they might be able to give you some insight in the performance of previous graduates of the same program. Are you expected to publish anything at all during your PhD, or are you advised to wait until you have your dissertation ready and then publish your research? Will you have the opportunity to attend conferences and test your research ideas there amongst your peers?
These 10 questions give you some ideas of getting the conversation started with a prospective supervisor, so that you can assess the academic culture of the place, and see if this suits your learning style.