Research lab job interview
November 24, 2019 6:50 AM   Subscribe

Are research lab job interviews much different than any other job interview?

My daughter, a college sophomore, has applied to work in a biology/ecology research lab. She has an interview with the professor this week. She asked me what she can expect him to ask her about, so I told her I'd come to the HiveMind to get answers.

She's had job interviews, she's held jobs, but neither of us know what to expect from this interview. The application process so far has consisted of her reaching out to the professor via email, and him responding with an interview time. She has an updated resume and she's really, really excited about this research. What can I tell her to expect?

Bonus mini-question: I know about potential issues with working in a lab w/r/t sexism, harassment, etc. But I've only seen those stories reference graduate students, not undergrads; should I warn her about the possibilities, if she isn't already aware?
posted by cooker girl to Work & Money (6 answers total)
I would warn her, yes. Personally, the sexual harassment case at my institution which I'm most familiar with included an ecology prof who would particularly target undergraduate students who wanted to work with him on senior theses, and if he could convince them to start a PhD with him, so much the better. Obviously, that doesn't mean that she has to be or even should be terrified working with this guy, but have a chat with her about what professional boundaries look like and who she can talk to as a sounding board if things seem fucked up.

That being said, I was about your daughter's age when I joined my first research lab, and I had no idea what to expect either. That's pretty common for research interviews with undergraduates like this! The prof will probably be expecting her to have no idea what she's doing and a little confused about how to prepare, because that's all super normal at that career stage.

When I interview undergraduate students to work with me, I look for a few things. I look for enthusiasm about the field I work in, especially questions about how what I'm doing relates to broader questions in the field. (They don't have to be current questions--I don't expect undergraduate students to necessarily know very much about what's cutting edge in the field, but I do really love students who clearly do reading on their own and are interested in the topic.) I also look for students who know a fair bit about what I'm currently doing. If she hasn't read some of the papers listed on his lab website, she should definitely do that.

And then the last thing I look for is basically reliability. I want to know that I can expect the student to show up when they say they will and that I won't have to chase them down. I want to know the student will check their email regularly and be, you know, basically professional. If you're working unpaid--not ideal, but very very common in the field--you don't have so much leeway to expect that sort of thing, and it's not uncommon for undergrads to just... not show up or flake out without notice.

Everything else can be trained in, and especially for a college sophomore, you expect to train it in. She's got plenty of time to be brought up to speed on the lab's specific skills and time to develop her own research project if she wants to do that. It sounds like she's an ideal undergrad research candidate for an ecology lab, and I would expect her to be able to join the lab after her interview. Do tell her: if she's not being paid, she needs to remember that her work is super valuable not only to her but also to her professor. She's not currently trained, but she shouldn't be too nervous about her own skills--she represents basically free and potentially super valuable labor in exchange for training. My second undergraduate mentor publishes nearly as many papers led by independent undergraduate researchers as she does led by graduate students, which is a boost to her own career as well as theirs. Particularly for labs working on invertebrates or plants, that kind of thing can be quite common.

She should ask about the scope of ability to participate in the authorship process of a paper in the future, though. That sort of thing is really a great line on her future CV or resume, no matter what career path she eventually settles on, but especially if she does decide to go on for a PhD.
posted by sciatrix at 7:06 AM on November 24, 2019 [9 favorites]

Oh gosh, as often as not, this kind of interview is the professor figuring out which of their research projects will suit the student and then either intoducing them to the folks working on that project or giving them a few papers to read. If she needs a paid position instead of class credit, and if this is someone with a very limited budget or who is so high-profile that they have dozens of students knocking on their door, they *might* ask about their GPA and any other relevant research experience as a filter. But chances are extremely good that they are just confirming that the student understands what research is and will mostly be figuring out how the prof can best teach the student how to be a researcher. It’s literally their job to teach students how to do research.
posted by tchemgrrl at 7:09 AM on November 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

I'm sure it varies a lot within both fields and types of institutions. I've always worked in the experimental physical sciences, so take more field specific advice before mine. I've applied for a few undergrad jobs long ago and hired around ten out of 50 prospective undergrads myself as a newish faculty at a big research university. (I wish I could take on more, but I've learned it's really hard to do well.)

First, she should bring a notebook to the meeting and take notes. Really.

After that, I'd expect a very informal discussion. She shouldn't assume the professor has read or remembers her resume (or possibly even her name) and should be prepared to talk for a few minutes about what she's done and what she's interested in. Otherwise, there's usually a discussion of what the group works on and why it's interesting, maybe a lab tour if there's a lab, and some more concrete questions about what she's good at and what she likes to do.

Personally, I'm not too concerned with grades and school prep. I'm much more interested in interests, habits, and skills. I'm trying to figure out whether or not a student's interests line up with opportunities in the lab rather than whether or not they have specific knowledge. Nobody below the postdoc level joins a research group with useful knowledge aside from math and perhaps some vocabulary. (At least in my specific sub-field.)

To game the system, figure out ahead of time what sort of work most of the students in the lab do - data analysis, analytic or numerical modeling, field-research, hands-on lab work, measuring non-living things, measuring living things, etc (I don't really know what most bio/eco groups actually do) - and come up with a not-untrue statement that is aligned to that. (This isn't cheating.)

When I talk to a potential student, I'm asking myself:
- Is this person someone who will go off in search of outside resources to solve problems, or will they get stuck and just stop?
- Is this person careful and willing to pay attention to details?
- (For hands-on lab/field work) Does this person have mechanical/spatial intuition? Someone who tells me they used to build sets for their high-school theater or they really love sewing gets a huge boost in our very hands-on lab. That's worth a lot more than straight As in advanced classes. (Saying, "I've never had the opportunity to do this, and I want to remedy that" is also good.)
- Is this person self aware about what they know and don't know? Unlike some other fields, overconfidence is usually a warning sign in the sciences, at least to me. Saying, "I've never done anything like that before, but I'm excited to learn about it" is worth a lot more than bluffing.

In the first few weeks, showing some initiative by following a reference or two from a suggested paper and then asking questions about it isn't a bad strategy. Attending group meetings and asking a few sincere questions about stuff she's not working on is also good.

On the sexual harassment thing, with the caveat that as a cis het man my experience is second hand, I wouldn't worry too much. It's true there's an inexcusable amount of sexual harassment in academia. It's true that nearly every senior female academic has experienced serious harassment at some point in their career. But, it's also true that the chances any one particular lab will be bad are pretty small. (At least if "bad" means worse than interactions in a typical bank or supermarket.) I'd tell her to trust her instincts and keep an eye out for an informal mentor who she'd feel comfortable asking, "is this normal?" (A grad student or postdoc in the group, or an adjoining group, might be a good choice.)

Good luck! (And, if it doesn't work out, there's no reason to believe it's because she did anything wrong. Sometimes labs are just too full to take on more students. If that's the case, asking for recommendations for similar labs may turn up other opportunities she wouldn't have thought of.)
posted by eotvos at 8:20 AM on November 24, 2019 [3 favorites]

I was involved in undergrad interviews for two labs, back ten years or so ago.

Prof A basically was happy to take on and train any student who was reliable and willing to learn. Her interviews were more or less a formality to make sure the student was comfortable enough in social interaction that she’d be able to have them working with research participants, and to find out a little bit about their interests and the classes they were taking, and to explain the time commitment involved and be sure the student was okay with taking that on.

Prof B was obsessed with GPAs and wanted to know mostly what your GPA was. He usually also asked about any independent study or in-class research the person had done. He tended to press people to decide on the spot whether they wanted to work for him, which was a sign of how overbearing and inflexible he was in the lab.

Both of them were just looking for someone basically personable, reliable, and willing to learn. It was a plus to have some basic knowledge of the work the lab did, to have read a paper or a newspaper article about the work, etc.
posted by Stacey at 10:03 AM on November 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

Thank you, thank you everyone for your amazing and super helpful responses! She felt so good about going into the interview because she felt so prepared, thanks to you all.

She will be joining the lab next semester AND there will be animal husbandry opportunities for her in the future, which she is very excited about. But the most exciting thing for her is that the professor knows two keepers at the San Diego Zoo and he offered to help her network with them! She is over the moon!

Thanks again!
posted by cooker girl at 8:57 AM on November 27, 2019 [2 favorites]

Oh, I'm so glad for her! And if her lab is anything like mine, I imagine her lab is very glad to have the extra help with husbandry management, too. Especially if she's going to be working with vertebrates, and extra especially for non lab rat/mouse vertebrates.

posted by sciatrix at 12:13 PM on November 27, 2019 [1 favorite]

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