Interviewing to join a research team

This semester has been particularly interesting since I’ve been involved in interviewing potential new members of our research group. This has happened for two different positions, both requiring completely different skill sets.

Now, I’ve worked before. So I’ve gone through the interview process as the interviewee. And this time last year, I was also involved in interviewing candidates for a single position. Last year’s experience was mostly overwhelming, mainly because it all happened at the last minute and we were rushing to get things together and working. We lucked out and it worked out really well in the end.

This year, we actually had much more time to sort out both positions. And, were lucky enough to have a bunch of candidates to choose from and interview. The people we were interviewing were generally undergraduate students who were in their third year, but some were farther along (looking for a position before starting grad work, working on a second degree, etc). And for one position we received emails, while the other we received resumes/cv’s.

Based on my experiences this year, here’s some thoughts I have for any student who is looking for a summer job with a research group at a university:

  • Don’t use buzz words on your resume. Make sure if you write something on your resume it actually means something. It’s not worth our time to try to figure out what skills you have.
  • No, we don’t expect a student to have experience in our area (outside of any class work). We get that people’s previous job experience may be at places like McDonalds. Your goal, as a student, is to tell us what skills you learned in that job that you can bring to this one. While knowing how to make french fries doesn’t matter, understanding how to work on teams, delegate tasks, work under a time crunch and showing up on time do.
  • Continuing from the above point, make sure you tailor your resume for the job. That means it should indicate what you’ll bring to the position you’re applying for. If the job is in databases, talking about how much you loved your graphics course doesn’t help your application.
  • If you don’t have any work experience your resume is not going to stand out, and may actually be flagged. In these cases, it’s really important to explain how your schooling and any other life experiences have set you up for the job. Don’t try to hide the fact you have no work experience by having a section called Work/Volunteer experience and only listing volunteer work. (And then go out and get some work experience. A part time job is better than no work experience.)
  • Continuing from above, if you do list volunteer work, it should somehow tie into the job you want, or skills you’ve been taught.
  • Prepare for the interview. You should know who you’re interviewing with and for what position, so take some time to read up on what they do. It may also help you come up with some questions to ask them.
  • Decide before the interview what you want to know about the job. Then, when the interviewer asks if you have any questions, you can pull from that list anything that didn’t get answered. You should walk out of the interview with a clear idea of what the job requires and whether or not you’re still interested in it.
  • While asking questions is great, realize that what you ask is a reflection on you. So if you ask about information that was already given, or questions not related to the job, these will stand out to the interviewers and be remembered.

Most of all, realize that the researchers aren’t going to expect you to know everything. If you’re joining a research team, you’re joining a project that is trying to push boundaries. By this definition, they can’t possibly know what will happen all the time, and so they can’t expect that of you. Instead, they do expect whoever joins to be willing to work on tasks that may have no clear path, to self-motivate and search for alternate solutions and to be willing to learn new skills as needed.

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