Lab Cred: Should You Use Yours to Help a Friend Get a Research Position?


Lab Cred: Should You Use Yours to Help a Friend Get a Research Position?

—from the Researcher's bench

We heard from an undergrad in the lab about an awkward situation involving a friend in search of a research position. As usual, we edited the conversation for brevity and to remove identifying details so the student remains anonymous.

“My friend has emailed a lot of people and can’t find a research lab so she wants be in my lab. We’re friends and everything but I don’t think that she’ll be serious with research because she doesn’t really study and sometimes gets homework answers from other people. We lived together last summer and she always promised to do stuff in the apartment but never did so what if she is the same in the lab? If I recommend her to [my research mentor] will [they] get mad if [my friend doesn't do well]? We’re friends so I don’t know what to do.”

Dear Undergrad In The Lab,

This is a tough spot to be in but it’s more common than most undergrads are aware.

On the one hand, you want to be loyal to your friend and help them out—after all what you did to find a research position worked for you, and whatever they are doing doesn’t seem to be working for them. On the other hand, recommending someone who you believe has a poor work ethic and questionable character to your research mentor isn’t doing the lab a favor. So you feel stuck in the middle. You’ll either be disloyal to your friend or disloyal to your research mentor.

Over the years, I’ve interviewed undergrads who were recommended by someone working in my lab or someone who had already graduated. What is different from your situation, however, is that no one has recommended someone they had serious misgivings about working with, or someone they wouldn’t trust as a roommate. In fact, a few undergrads have asked me for guidance when they were in a situation similar to yours.

In reality, there are several ways you can help your friend without recommending them to your research mentor.

How to help your friend without risking your reputation

Start by talking with your friend about what you do in the lab, how many hours per week you work, and detailing the challenges and victories you’ve had. It’s possible that you’re always talking about how much you love your research project, so your friend doesn’t know how you struggled to learn a technique, what you’ve sacrificed out of your personal time to make room for research, and what it’s like to get disappointing research results.

After you provide a balanced view of your research experience, your friend might not be interested in joining your lab. However, if they still are, tell them to contact your research mentor directly without your involvement. Make sure you’re clear that because you don’t know your research mentor well you don’t feel comfortable recommending a new researcher to them. If necessary, repeat that a few times then change the subject. (As an aside—if your friend tries to pressure you to recommend them to your research mentor, despite the fact that you have voiced your unwillingness to do so because it makes you uncomfortable, you might want to reflect on how much of a friend they truly are.)

If your friend asks for your mentor’s contact information, provide the email address because they can get it from the online directory anyway. Remember, explaining the details of your research experience to your friend and referring them to your research mentor is not the same as recommending them.

What to say if your mentor asks for your opinion

We talked about the fact that you’re relatively new to the lab, and haven’t established a solid relationship with your mentor yet. This makes it harder to have a completely open conversation about your opinion with them. Therefore, if you’re asked about your friend’s suitability in reference to a research position, choose neutral language.

A good statement would be something along the lines of, “Well, we’re friends but we’ve never worked on a project together so I don’t know if they would be a good fit. I guess you’ll have to decide if you interview them.” This statement neither endorses or condemns your friend, and prevents future awkwardness if your mentor ultimately offers your friend a research position, or inappropriately shares your statement with labmates.

If your mentor doesn’t ask for your opinion, don’t volunteer it. Your friend might mention you in an email but that doesn’t mean that your mentor will choose to discuss it with you.

What to remember

In the end, it boils down to this: friendship alone isn’t enough of a reason to recommend someone to your research mentor. Especially, as we discussed, a friend who has proven be unreliable in the ways you described to me. However, that doesn’t mean that it is your responsibility to screen potential labmates, either—that is your research mentor’s job.

If you’re still on the fence, think of it this way: Would you recommend your friend if you knew that they would be assigned to work with you, on your project, and that your progress would be dependent on their performance?

If your answer is no, then don’t make a recommendation either way. Stay neutral, my friend.