How to Interview Your Interviewer


How to Interview Your Interviewer

— from the PI’s desk

To make the most of your interview for an undergrad research position, you need to ask the right questions to determine if the project 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?

Take for example 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 you specific information about the laboratory, but—and here is the key—what do 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 great 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? 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?

And finally, what if a professor is just establishing her lab and you’d 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 any research done because you are busy putting stuff in cabinets and on shelves?

By asking about personnel in an interview, you’ll learn who is in the lab and in what positions. 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 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.)

So at an interview for an undergrad research position, ask questions about the specific responsibilities of the position and the research you’ll be doing. That way, you’ll be able to evaluate 1) If the time commitment will work for you, and 2) If the project sounds like something you’d like to do.

After you join the lab, you’ll soon know if it is the right lab for you. And if it is not, it’s okay to make a professional departure—no one will expect you to stay in a research experience that’s not right for you.