How to Interview Potential Research Mentors

Photo by   Sergey Korshunov  on  Scopio

I know what you’re thinking, “Mentors interview ME, not the other way around!”  Well I have something important to tell you: all interviews are two-way streets.  You need to show yourself off AND make sure that your potential mentor would be a good fit for you.  I believe most students ‘fail’ in their research projects because they didn’t find a good fit with a mentor.  So you need to ask questions to make sure you will get the experience you want from participating in research as a student.  You will also probably make a better impression on potential mentors if you show that you’re engaged, interested, and aware of what may be required of you. Here are some suggestions.

“What will be my role in the project?”  It is very important that you understand what you will be doing _before_ you commit to doing it!  If you want to get hands-on experience with animals, and the research only involves sitting at a lab bench, you will be unhappy.  If you want to help in the design of a project, and you will only be another cog in the system, you will be unhappy. Figure out what your role will be.  If the response is, “We will adjust as necessary based on your interests and aptitudes,” that’s undefined but hopefully reflects a positive attitude towards getting you what you want from the experience.

“If the work leads to a publication, will I be listed as an author?”  Although research experience on a CV is helpful, having your name on a publication is much more meaningful.  Being a first author on a publication- having your own project- is even better! Make sure you know the ‘payoff’ you will get in terms of authorship at the beginning.

“Who will be supervising me?”  You want to know if you will be working directly with the faculty (best), a post-doc (OK), or a grad student (less than ideal).  You not only want experience from doing research, but develop relationships which may lead to a positive letter of recommendation.  A letter of recommendation from a faculty member who worked directly with you, so knows you more closely, will be much stronger than a letter from a faculty member who didn’t work directly with you or from a post-doc.

“With whom will I be working?”  Are there other students involved in the research?  Grad students? Lab assistants or managers? Getting an idea of who the cast of characters are is useful.  Will you be the sole undergraduate student in a small lab or one of ten in a massive lab?

“What does a really good research student look like for you?” I think this is probably the most important question, because this will help you make sure you will be a good fit for this faculty member.  My own response to this question would be something like, “Someone who promptly responds to emails, who tackles the weekly tasks they are given in a timely fashion, who is able to act independently and have internal motivation to get things done, and who asks appropriate questions when they need help.”  I want students whom I don’t need to ‘ride herd’ on- I want them to be doing their own thing. Some faculty may want to micromanage more. This question will help determine if you meet what they want, and consequently how happy you will be in the position.

Research can be extremely rewarding, both personally (it’s fun!) and professionally (publications, letters of recommendation, experience on your CV).  But you have to set yourself up to be successful if you do research. If you end up in a bad fit, you may be turned off of research for the rest of your career, which would be a shame.  So, please, ASK QUESTIONS.

Are there any questions you think need to be added?  What are your concerns asking questions when talking to a potential mentor?

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