Don’t lose focus on grad student interviews!

It is again time to interview next year’s potential grad students. They have flown in from all over the country and will be spending a few days with us. Our current grad students will let us know how collegial they are, how interested in research outside our formal setting they are, and how likely they will find what they want here in our small group of evolutionary biologists and ecologists.

Last year I interviewed from a list of questions given here. But I’m going to do it a little differently this year. I plowed through all the questions with students last year to treat everyone equally, but felt in the end that I didn’t hear enough detail about research. If you don’t love research, grad school is not the place for you. Research can take lots of different forms. Research can benefit you in a subsequent career in a research university, in a teaching university, in industry, or in non-profits of various sorts. All careers will want you to know how to identify a problem, pursue it, analyze the data, and write it up, with careful reference to the work of those that went before. Colleges and universities that focus on teaching will want you to be able to guide undergraduate research. So more than anything, I want to know what you think about research, what you have done, what you plan to do, and whether you have a passion for discovery.

A friend of mine in the oil industry who hires a lot of people says he looks for one thing above all else: is the person a self-starter? I take this to mean a person that takes charge, that learns as much as she can, but then makes decisions rather than waiting for others to assign tasks. Somewhere I saw the definition of a leader as someone who can move ahead even in the face of uncertainty or incomplete information. This would be a self-starter.

I really like the term self-starter better than the term leader. I think leadership is overrated. We do not all need to be leaders. We could all be self starters. So will I be like my friend Peter and look for self starters in the interviews today? Yes and no. I hedge because I am in the education business. This means if there is something important, I should help my students towards it. I should teach them to be self starters if that is an important attribute. It is something they can learn if I can find a way to help.

So what will I look for today? Passion, curiosity, intelligence, drive, collegiality, fit of their interests with our program, and a willingness to learn. I’ll abandon my questions of last year and let the students lead. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Update: I let the students lead, as I said I would. I told them this specifically at the beginning, so they had to decide what to tell me. They talked about research, mostly, so we got into more depth than last year. We also talked about other things. There were a few silences as they thought about what to talk about next. Overall, the conversations were more fun, more relaxed, and more about science than last year, so I think I’ll keep doing it this way. I got to know them better. But they were all so great I can see we’ll have some tough decisions to make.

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Graduate school, Interviewing, Undergraduates and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Don’t lose focus on grad student interviews!

  1. Eamon says:

    Joan,
    I could not agree more. I’m currently going through the interview process, and of all the ones I have had so far, my favorite was a long grilling about my current research and the ideas that stem from it. While sometimes I felt misinformed or even a bit foolish, what really made like this person was that it was easy to see that he would push me to come up with new ideas and to think scientifically if I were to join his program. Rather than just answering a series of questions about myself, it was very cool just to chat about our work as (almost) equals and to discuss pertinent problems within the field. I think we both learned a great deal more about each other this way than if I was just reading off a script, or vice versa.

    • Hi Eamon,
      Great to hear from you. The danger with completely unscripted interviews is that people find commonalities in people like them and prefer them whether or not they are better for the position. A list of questions used equally on everyone avoids seeking bonds and liking some better. But last year I had too many questions. The student led interview worked well from my perspective but I need to know what they thought of it. Otherwise, I’ll come up with a shorter list for next year, very research focused.

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