Lab Management: How to Choose PhD Students

Student recruitment is not an easy lab management task - particularly when it comes to hiring PhD students. Unlike masters students (who join the lab for a relatively short term) or post-docs (who join after proving themselves as competent), the PhD student usually requires a commitment to a relatively inexperienced student for a long period of 4-5 years - nearly a full tenure track! Since the main labor force in the lab lay on the shoulders of PhD students, in many cases the fit between the student, the project and the PI dictates the chances of the PI acquiring tenure. The key stage in recruiting any PhD student is the interview and the questions you ask in an interview will be partly guided by your mentoring style. You should allocate between an hour to hour and a half for the interview so you will give and receive the most attention to and from the candidate.


Past Performance Indicates Potential

Start your interview with questions about the student's past projects. If the PhD candidate has just finished his bachelor degree (most of the cases), their lab experience is limited in most cases - but this is where you should focus most of your questions. Don't waste your time too much in regard to grades as these will have little to say about day-to-day lab work, which requires a different set of personal qualities. Some of the questions which you should ask are:

  • Which lab has the student worked for? How much time and how many hours a day? These questions will help you assess the quality of the lab and the time invested. An undergraduate worked on his project for 40 hours a week was heavily investing their time in the project and lab.
  • What were the project title and aims? What was expected of the student and how was he/she involved in the research?  These questions are a natural continuation of the previous question and should shed some light on the student's activity profile and interest. Pay attention and look for enthusiasm, interest, proficiency in terms of scientific background, methods used and assess whether he/she was actively or passively involved in the research. Downcast or indifferent candidates who make you milk information out of them are a red flag in most cases.
  • Who mentored them? What have they learned from him/her? The level of the mentor can tell, in some cases, what was the level of mentorship. Mentorship in the lab is an art (as I have shared in the past) and not all mentors are good mentors and willing to invest the resources to deliver the mentee their knowledge. Usually, post-docs are the most extensively seasoned scientists in the lab (except for the PI) and a mentee can learn a lot from their on-bench experience if they are willing to listen and if the mentor is willing to invest time and resources. PhD students, at late stages of their studies, can serve deliver similar experience qualities to the mentee. Ask for three specific cases of professional or personal qualities the candidate learned or adopted from their mentor. These three cases can shed some light on both the quality of the mentorship and what were the most evaluated parts of the mentorship in the eye of the candidate. See that these cases fit with your mentoring style or complement them as you will be the next potential mentor.
  • What were his/her accomplishments? Asking about accomplishments will shed light on what the candidate considers  accomplishments or successes and can also shed some light on their involvement in the project. Many in our field look at publications as the ultimate mark of success yet this can be a dire mistake at this early stage of a scientist's growth and development. A publication is a cruel mixture of luck, project type, inter- and outer-lab politics and this is just to name a few, and which have little to no connection to the abilities of the candidate. If the candidate states he was involved in a publication (which you could already deduce from the CV), ask about the candidate's part in the work.
  • What was the lab atmosphere? Have you collaborated or aided other lab members in their projects? These questions might shed some light on the inter-personal qualities of the candidate, especially if there were conflicts within the lab. You can deduce from the candidate's reflections and opinions what kind of a lab member he/she might be. Pay attention to this item, since every new member might place a mask which will be torn at the first instance of conflict and might foul the lab atmosphere. More on this later on.

Project-Candidate Fit

After getting the answers about the past, move your attention to questions and details that are related to the current project that this candidate should be involved in.  You can start with a general question such as "Do you know what's the lab's research focus?" Since being a scientist is all about doing research you'd expect the candidate to have a degree of idea of what the lab is doing by reading and "digging" about. Those who did their homework reveal, in a certain respect, their interest in the lab and more over, show they are serious about this specific lab. At this stage you might want to explain to the student the project's background (if there are more details to add) and the project's aim. Most candidates will have questions about the project and even the lab - observe what kinds of questions are posed as they can shed some light on things that are important to the candidate. At this stage, share part of your lab management style by laying out your "lab agenda" and what expectation you have of a student. This is crucial because, for example, if you expect students to be at the lab each morning at 8am, some might refuse, and it is better to realize such conflict before recruiting the candidate.

Lab Tour

If possible, ask a senior student to show the lab to the candidate (or even do it yourself if you have the time). Ask students to talk with the candidate especially if there is a student they'll  be working with or mentoring. Such small-talk can help give a "feel" of who the candidate is outside the PI's office and if there are any good or bad vibes from him/her. Many PIs skip or disregard member's questions and evaluation since the students are not decision makers in the lab. This is of course a mistake, since the lab members are the ones that do the job and will have most of the day-to-day contact with the candidate. If there is not a good fit, it's a bad idea to accept the candidate into the lab (assuming that the majority of the members feel there is no fit). PIs should remember that a high spirits in the lab usually account for better success on the bench!

Do you have any other tips to share about interviewing a PhD candidate? Please share!