Seize Your Undergrad Research Interview: Ask the Questions That Matter


Seize Your Undergrad Research Interview: Ask the Questions That Matter

—from the PI's desk

Ask relevant questions for a successful interview

Each semester, when you select your classes, you apply a methodical approach. You no doubt consider several factors such as: what will satisfy major requirements, help you prepare for the MCAT or GRE, add weight to your transcript, and, of course, what sounds the most interesting. Essentially, you don’t play “registration roulette” and find yourself in advanced string theory when you really need a cell biology course.

Yet, when it comes to an undergrad research interview, most students don’t know that they need a solid strategy for asking questions that will allow them to evaluate the position. Instead, many approach interviews with a single goal in mind: get an offer to join the lab. Although this is a good goal keep in mind, it should not be an your sole objective in a research interview.

To make the most of your interview for an undergrad research position, you need to ask the right questions to determine if the project, training opportunities, and lab is right for you. That might sound easy (and obvious), but if you haven’t held a research position how do you know what questions will give you the most meaningful information? Many interviews are short and therefore do not provide the luxury of time for a student to ask everything that comes to mind, so you want to avoid asking low-value questions.

Want a list of high-impact questions to take into the interview with you? Wondering what a professor might ask you at the interview? What should you do if you don't want the research position after it's offered to you? We've covered that and so much more in Getting In The Insider’s Guide to Finding the Perfect Undergraduate Research Experience

Avoid low value questions

Take for example commonly asked questions such as, “What equipment does your lab have?” or “How many graduate students are in the lab?” Answers to those questions will definitely give specific information about the laboratory, but—and here is the key—what will you do with that information? How will you use it to evaluate the position, or to decide between two research positions?

First consider the question about lab equipment. If the interviewer rattles off a list, chances are you won’t know what most of the equipment is, or what is needed for the available research project. In this case, asking the question wouldn’t be helpful. However, if you have an independent research project in mind, and you know you’ll need specific equipment, then asking would be essential.

As for personnel, it’s nice to learn how many people are in the lab, and in what positions, but it’s only information—not a meaningful metric to evaluate an undergrad research position. For example, if an interviewer says, “Zero undergrads, three postdocs and two grad students,” or “Two professional researchers, two undergrads, and four grad students,” how will you compare the two labs? How will you evaluate which is the better choice for you? Is it better to be in a lab with several postdocs and be the only undergrad student? Would you receive extra mentoring, or would the postdocs devalue your contributions because you’re “only” an undergrad?

Or is it better to be in a lab with several grad students and but no professional researchers? Does that indicate a professor who places a higher value on mentoring students over training professional researchers? What about labs that are all-undergrad? What if the PI mentors only a few students at a time or has more than ten? How do use you that to determine if the PI embraces mentoring or using undergrads as "free labor."

And finally, what if a professor is just establishing her lab and you would be the first member? Would you have the opportunity to help set up a lab and receive significant personal instruction, or would it prevent you from getting much research done because you’ll be busy putting items in cabinets and on shelves?

By asking about personnel in an interview, you’ll learn who is in the lab and in what positions and that is indeed good information to have. However, without actually working in the lab you can’t know how the other lab members work together, and how that will affect your research experience. Any opinion you receive from someone about how to evaluate a lab based solely on its personnel will be influenced by their research experiences and their personal research baggage, and won’t necessarily reflect the realities of the lab you interview with.

This doesn't mean that you shouldn't ask about who else in in the lab--but simply keep in mind that it will only be some of the information you need to evaluate if it's the right lab for you.

Ask questions that will give meaningful answers

There are far better questions that will give you insight on the position and the research mentor’s expectations. The answers of which you can use to carefully consider the opportunity.

Your pre-interview strategy is this: imagine the first thing the interviewer will say to you is, “What questions do you have for me?” before she has explained anything about with the project, or mentioned her expectations. This will help you determine what you need to ask at every interview, and prepare a list of questions ahead of time. Not only will you have a more professional interview (students who come with a list of relevant questions appear to be more invested in a research opportunity than those who don’t), but you’ll also have more confidence at the start.

Start with the essential questions

You might already know the “interview 101” questions, but sometimes we need to be reminded of the best pieces of advice. If not already covered by the interviewer, ask about the required time commitment in hours per week and semesters. This answer will help you decide if you have enough time each week to fulfill the commitment, and if you want to continue with research for the expected duration.

Next, ask specifics about the lab schedule—will you set it or will it be determined by your research mentor? The answer will be the key to how much flexibility you will have when incorporating research hours into your schedule.

Then ask for details about the project—what techniques are involved, what question the project addresses, and how it supports the research focus of the lab. Those answers will help you decide if you are still interested in the science the lab does and the available research project, or if you should continue your search elsewhere.

Finally, if it’s important to you, ask questions about registering for research credit, and whether or not a research proposal or end-of-semester report or poster will be required.

Confirm that your goals are achievable

After you’ve covered the basics, you’ll want to ask questions to determine if the research experience will help you accomplish your long-term goals. For example, if pursuing an M.D.-Ph.D. or graduate school is in your future, you might want to ask if you’ll have the opportunity to work on an independent research project after you have been in the lab for a while. Likewise, if you will want your research mentor to write a recommendation letter that covers your ability to interact well with others, confirm that the majority of your work will be done in the primary lab not a room down the hall or in another building.

If you ask meaningful questions at a research interview, you’ll be able to evaluate the position to determine if the time commitment will work for you, and if the project sounds like a good fit. Both are important for your success and happiness in the lab, and for earning a letter of recommendation from your research professor that will strongly support your future applications.

Further Reading
Want a list of questions to take into the interview with you? Wondering what a professor might ask you? What should you do if you don't want the research position after it's offered to you? We've covered that and so much more in Getting In The Insider’s Guide to Finding the Perfect Undergraduate Research Experience

A version of this post was published on the Student Doctor