Visiting a potential lab for graduate school

In the past several months I’ve had undergraduate students asking me about the process of applying to graduate school and how to select a research supervisor. I recently posted on how to initially approach a researcher that you are interested in working with. Once you have narrowed the field to 2-3 labs that you are interested in, the next step is to visit those labs in order to really get a feel for the place. In some cases this will be very difficult or impossible due to geography and cost. This post will focus on locations that you can actually visit. You want to visit the campus, department, and lab because you will be spending several years of your life there and you want to make sure that it will be a positive experience. As a researcher I insist that students interested doing graduate school in my lab come for a visit before I make a commitment to take on a graduate student. It allows each party to see what makes the other party tick and whether the personalities and professional skills of each person will be a good fit. Here is what I do when a potential graduate student contacts me.

  • As I mentioned in my previous post the initial contact by the student generates a first impression. If the initial contact is effective, then I will be interested in learning more about the student and potentially pursuing the opportunity.
  • I verify that I have the research funds and time available to effectively mentor a student during an M.Sc. (2 years) or a Ph.D. (4 years). If the timing isn’t right then I tell the student right away and don’t string them along. I only take people into my group if I know that I have funding available for the entire time period of their degree. This is a very conservative approach, but I don’t think that it is right or fair to admit a student into a graduate program knowing that you can only pay for the first year of their stipend; I personally feel that is unethical.
  • I ask the student to send me an email that contains a curriculum vitae or resume, an unofficial copy of all of their transcripts, a one page statement of their research interests and why they are interested in working in my lab, and a short scientific writing sample. This sounds like a lot, but if a student is really interested in my research program, then I feel that this is a reasonable request. What do I do with this information? The CV/resume gives me a broad overview of who the student is and what they’ve been up to academically and in other parts of their lives over the past few years. What kind of degrees do they have? Have they ever been employed? Have they worked during the summers or held down a part-time job while in school? Do they volunteer or have any interesting hobbies? This document gives me lots of valuable information. The transcripts let me know what courses the student has taken and what their strengths and weaknesses are. I expect students to have a minimum B+ average overall and I want to see an improvement in grades over time. Grades are important, but I have found that they sometimes don’t predict how a student will perform in the lab environment. It is very important to me that an applicant have some research experience either as a lab volunteer or in the form of a fourth year undergraduate thesis project. The one page statement lets me know what area of research the student finds exciting and why they are interested in working with me specifically. If this statement is generic then I will not continue with the application. The writing sample lets me know how a student collects, synthesizes, and analyzes information and how effectively they are able to communicate scientific ideas in written format. If the writing sample is of poor quality then I don’t continue with the application.
  • If the student’s materials look solid then I arrange an appointment for a phone call or video chat and let the student know that this is the first step of the interview process for the position. I have a list of interview questions that I ask all potential students and I pay very close attention to their answers. If the student is very general in their answers, clearly hasn’t done their homework on me or my lab, or if I get a sense that we will not work well together, then I end the process here.
  • If the phone chat goes well then I invite the student to come for a visit to the lab. I devote a full day to this visit and put together an itinerary for the student and send it to them in advance. The student meets with me one on one when they arrive for about 1 hour. During this meeting I discuss the research goals of the lab and describe my expectations for graduate students and my management style. I then I take them on a campus tour. I take the student out for lunch on campus and I use that time to try to get to know the student better on a personal and professional level. After lunch I show the student around the department and the lab. I then make arrangements for the student to meet with my current undergraduate and graduate students without me being there so that they can have an open and honest conversation about the laboratory and my supervisory style. I meet again with the student at the end of the day in order to give them the opportunity to ask any questions. At this time, I tell the student that I will be taking the next few days to think about our interactions and that I will let them know within a week whether I am interested in having them join the lab. I use this time to think about my impressions of the candidate during the visit and I also ask for feedback from my students since they will have to work with this person in the future.
  • I send the student an email thanking them for visiting and letting them know whether I would like them to join the lab or whether I will not be pursuing their candidacy further. At this point I leave the ball in the student’s court and ask them to let me know if they are interested in applying to our graduate program by a date that makes sense given our departmental application deadlines.

Over the years I have identified behaviours during the above process that I think are red flags and signal that a fit between a student and a supervisor will be a bad one.

  • First impressions matter. If a professor takes forever to get back to you or doesn’t seem that interested in working with you that is a good prediction of how things are going to go if you join the lab. If a student is not very responsive, communicative, or decisive that is a red flag to me as a supervisor.
  • If a potential supervisor won’t be transparent about funding, expectations, or the research project that is a deal breaker in my book.
  • I only accept students into my lab who have gone through the above process. I do not accept students who directly apply to our graduate programs without having contacted me first.
  • If the supervisor doesn’t want you to come for a visit or refuses to meet with you at a meeting you will both be attending that is a bad sign. It may mean they have something that they are trying to hide.
  • If during the visit, the supervisor won’t let you meet with current students or insists upon being present at that discussion it may indicate the current students are unhappy or that the supervisor is a rigid control freak. Neither situation is good.
  • I take the input from my students very seriously. If you are professional with me, but act rudely to my students you will not be joining my group.

You should do a lot of thinking about where you want to go to graduate school and who you want to study with. You will be making a 2-4 year commitment and you want to end up in a healthy, supportive environment where your needs and goals can be met. Your supervisor is looking to have a project completed efficiently and safely and wants an opportunity to mentor a future scientist. Do your due diligence and make sure that you know what you are getting into when setting up this professional relationship. Your future career and happiness likely depend on it.

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