Undergrad Research: Interviewing with Labs


(Just a stock image of an interview--we didn't want to pressure our mentees during their actual interviews lol)

Wow, can you believe that it’s already August! We are sorry for the inactivity as of late--our summers have really ramped up as we shifted focus to something that is very important to both of us--undergrad mentorship. We started a new series a couple months ago focusing on undergrad mentorship in STEM. Our first blog post on this topic was about misconceptions that undergrads may have about research. Good mentorship is key to developing enthusiasm for STEM as well as supporting inclusivity and diversity in the field. Your mentors through the early days of your research careers can really make or break your impression of STEM!


Since our last post, we both are onboarding new undergrad mentees into our labs! Ayumi is working with her first undergrad mentee, which is really exciting! She was involved in every step of the process, from publicizing the research, to interviewing candidates, to onboarding. Phuong is currently onboarding her third undergrad mentee, and while she started mentorship early on in her graduate career, onboarding each new lab member is a completely new experience. Since we were both involved in the interviewing process for our respective labs, we thought it would be helpful to shed some light on this process for those interested in finding a research opportunity.


As the summer is winding down and COVID restrictions are loosening in some areas of the country, undergrads are once again on the hunt for research opportunities to make up for the past two years of lockdowns. Fortunately, many research labs are also ramping back up and looking for new undergrads to join their teams! While the first article of this series is about demystifying research myths to encourage undergrads to apply to labs, this article will focus on the ‘What next?’ question. What happens after you apply and receive an invitation to interview? How should you prepare? Don’t fret, we got you!! As grad students who were both recently involved in the undergrad interviewing process we’ve got a couple tips and tricks up our sleeves that might help you prepare.


Celebrate

The first step is to celebrate receiving an invitation to interview! You’re that much closer and this will be a big learning experience. Regardless of the outcome, many labs receive dozens of applications, and even making it to the interviewing round is impressive.


Read at least 1 paper from the lab that is related to the project

The students that read Ayumi’s paper beforehand certainly stood out. All interviewees were qualified for the position and it was already difficult to choose one student, so the students that made this effort set themselves apart. It told her that they took initiative and did their own research (a good sign in a research assistant). If you don’t know where to start, then email the interviewer and ask for any papers of note.


Ask questions

It is important to show your interest in the work. You might be in love with the project, but if you don’t ask questions about the research then the interviewer has no way to know that. After you’ve read someone’s paper, think of a few questions you have and be sure to bring them up. Phuong took note of the ones who asked interesting and insightful questions during their interview with her.


Be prepared to talk about your interest in science

You don’t have to have a groundbreaking story! Be honest about your interests in science and the lab. Even if you’re interested in joining a lab to explore science as a possible career, that’s totally okay too! We just want to gauge your motivation to do research and how the experience might be beneficial to you. If you’re interested in doing research only as something to add onto your resume, please be upfront about it. We can tell, so it’s better to be honest about something than lie!


Update your resume/CV

Sometimes the interviewer requests for a resume/CV right before the interview, rather than including it as part of the application. In Phuong’s lab they select students to interview based off of a couple of open-ended essay questions and ask for a more in-depth resume only to those applicants who make it to the next round. Other labs prefer to be sent the resume with the application or cold email. In these instances, it is advisable to keep an updated resume/CV available to share with your interviewer! Make sure to spend some time looking at examples of other resumes and make sure your resume looks professional.


Read and answer your emails!

This may sound obvious, but Phuong and Ayumi have both experienced circumstances where potential candidates didn’t make the cut simply because they didn’t respond to emails in a timely manner. Be aware that there are most likely other candidates waiting in line, so we can’t afford to wait around for your late responses and neglect other applicants! Take this seriously and respond to emails from your interviewer! They may be your mentor in the future, and you want to demonstrate clear communication skills.