How To Tell If Someone Will Be Productive, pt. 1

anonP: “How can you tell if someone will be a motivated and productive student when you interview/select applicants?”
RFon asked: “If this is the official “request thread” I’d like to echo anonPs question from the comment section of “Working with grad students .. pt1”: How can you tell if someone will be a motivated and productive student when you interview/select applicants?”

Short answer: This is always hard. There are no strategies that never fail. But some are better than others.

Part 1: If I Get to Meet With the Student in Person

First, I don’t think I say this enough on the blog, but my students are overall great. Maybe I’m a proud advisor, but all my students are above average for the department, and some considerably so (example: I hired one when one of his letters said they guy was a genius; that letter was not wrong, and the student will graduate in a few months). I get so pissed at some of them, especially when it comes to technical writing, which is PARAMOUNT  (did I forget any embellishment?), when I see they are not doing what I know they are able to, that they are not giving me their best, and that they are therefore not fulfilling their potential. But that doesn’t change the fact that I think my students are generally awesome and very, very capable.

This is why, if I get to meet a prospective student in person, the most important thing I do is to schedule ample time for them to spend with my existing graduate students. I learned this from a senior colleague, who said years ago, when I asked him how he managed to have such a great group, “Quality likes quality and doesn’t like to be diluted by non-quality.”

This has been extremely valuable because students, as a group, don’t want someone who would drag everyone down.

Everyone in my group knows that I purposefully don’t want a group that’s too uniform in terms of gender or country of origin. I like to have people from the US, Far East, India, Middle East, and an occasional European (they don’t apply often, that’s why “occasional”;  I also haven’t seen applicants from South America or Africa). I could have all Chinese or Indian or Iranian students, and it would be so soooo easy to have all boys in the group, but I take all this into consideration when hiring and we have a very nice a friendly group. Also, don’t underestimate students. They too like to be exposed to other cultures, or at least mine do. Diversity is important and keeping an eye on it is a good thing for everyone involved.

Because everyone in my group expects diversity rather than uniformity, I have never seen my group lobby for only one specific type of student. They really do seem to check for: Does this person seem interested in what we do? Can they actually follow what we say about our work? Do they seem like a nice person or a jerk? Do they ask intelligent questions? Do they have research interests that fit with what the rest of us do? Would they be pleasant to have around? 

My students are never mean in relaying their comments, but they definitely have opinions and they are usually right on the money. A few years ago, they were super enthusiastic about an American girl, and cold-to-lukewarm and skeptical about an American guy; they were spot on both times. The girl became a wonderful addition to the group in every way; the guy was blah from the get-go, missed group meetings, struggled with coursework, and decided within 3 months that the work in the group was not what he wanted, and left to get an MS in a different field.

Basically, students talk to other students more openly than with advisors, so from the interactions of your prospective students with your group you can get info that you cannot directly. Also, the students themselves want someone both capable and pleasant, probably even more than you as advisor do, because they are the ones who have to interact with the new addition all day every day, so it makes sense to include them in the decision.

To be continued…


  1. Oh, great, thanks very much for picking this topic. I do however have a European-specific follow up: we don’t meet with candidates, so there is no opportunity for my current PhD students to meet them. They apply with materials (cv, letter of interest and I have learnt the hard way to ask for a writing sample for mine, whicn is otherwise not obligatory), then we shortlist and the best few are skype-interviewed by prospective supervisor and another academic.

  2. Hiring new students gives me the heebie jeebies as ‘one bad apple spoils the bunch’ applies too closely for my research group. I started with a bad apple and had an impossible time. Slowly things improved and I was lucky with some MS students converting for PhD so didn’t have the anxiety of new hirings in their cases. However, last year I hired someone who is very poor, both in capabilities and attitude. It is a struggle for me to even want to meet him. Need to figure out a hiring strategy. Was also interested to know, how does the student selection process work in your department? How many faculty members, for instance, are involved in the selection process?

  3. Gosh, I wish I could interview and decide whether to accept or decline group members. That’s just not how it works at a PUI. Right now my group is all white men (other than me), and has one bad apple attitude-wise (he’s also unfortunately the best technically among the students, which is a bad combination), and it’s been hard for me to attract good new students. Part of the problem is that our major is very white and male in general, but that’s probably not the whole story. I’ve been going out of my way to invite promising young women to join the group, but they (as they should) have ideas of their own and other interests and always seem to wind up working in another group. And then they come to me (the only female faculty member in the department) for academic and personal advice. It’s like they want me for a buddy but they don’t want me for their research advisor — they want the more senior men. Ah, well. I’ve had some really great students over the past few years anyway, and my group has been very research-productive recently, so there’s that. The other good news is that there’s always a lot of turnover when you’ve only got undergrads and masters students to work with, so pretty much the entire group membership will turn over next year and I’ll have a whole new set of personalities to work with (hopefully including some women this time!).

  4. “Gosh, I wish I could interview and decide whether to accept or decline group members. That’s just not how it works at a PUI.”

    Well, in my experience it is! But, I’m in a biology dept. where we have far more majors than we can possibly provide research opportunities to. I interviewed 18 students (after prior filtering from just those who asked me) for 6 undergrad research positions when I was starting my lab. I have to admit I have very little idea how well I did in terms of selection. Most have turned out ok, some great. I am thinking about how I should probably start recruiting more actively the top students – especially the quieter ones.

    Have you considered pursuing some pre-med undergrads yourself? They are often brilliant, less white and male, and though they most likely won’t go to grad school they are always looking for research opportunities… and you may even convert a few. A reasonable number of premeds are even math minors so if they need the math to work with you, some will have it.

  5. I agree 100%. I use my students both as a recruiting tool and to help me screen new students. When I interview students, I mostly look for people who seem motivated and curious. I can teach any technical skills they might need to know, so I don’t care too much about their previous experience.

    I find that asking students to describe their previous research experiences is a good way to gauge enthusiasm for research and to get a taste of how they think about science. For students that don’t have research experience, I’ll ask them to describe something from one of their classes that they found interesting or inspiring.

  6. Great post, thanks. I’ve managed to avoid bad apples so far and have even had one extraordinary student (better than I was at least). And the group is a decent mix of ethnicities/genders.

    But on average we are not nearly as strong as the groups at the (much higher rated) school I went to in both motivation and talent. Since my lab is still growing fairly quickly I also don’t have the luxury to sit around and wait for the cream of the crop, so if a student or postdoc seems above average I take them.

    One thing I’ve noticed is that a student’s motivation is not necessarily an immutable personality trait, it can vary from month to month. And on the bad months I am totally lost on how to revive their enthusiasm/work ethic… hovering/micro-managing never seems to work but it is so tempting.

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