Sep 24, 2018 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

If you are a PhD candidate or a postdoc, you may find yourself in need of a research assistant or two. The perfect candidates? Enterprising undergraduates who may (or may not!) be looking for experience in the field or lab. But all undergrads are not created equal. Which begs the question: How do you go about finding the right one? Read on for three tips aimed at helping you attract the best and brightest undergraduate talent.

1. Advertise the job.  

“The first step in recruiting is making sure that we are vigilant about any opportunity to find students interested in being a part of scientific research,” proposes an article published in the Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education. So casting a wide net can help you reach the most promising pool of candidates. There are many different avenues through which to get the word out about your open position(s).

Many academics advertise on the official job boards of their universities. Others choose to bypass this formality and go straight to the source: the classroom. If you notice that a student seems especially engaged, they may be an ideal addition to your lab. The hitch? They may not know it is an option -- especially if they do not have experience. In this case, making the first move and extending the invitation can make all the difference.

“If we’re trying to build the best lab, then we need to actively seek out students who are great for research, but are not going to be approaching us for opportunities. This really matters because undergraduate research experiences are typically the launching point for research careers. If we want to build a diverse research community, this is one of many critical phases,” insists Small Pond Science.

And remember: finding a good research assistant opens the door to others. When growing your team, be sure to ask your best undergraduate workers for recommendations. As the saying goes, “birds of a feather flock together,” so word of mouth can be a very successful tactic.

2. Screen for fit.

Just because a student is bright and eager does not automatically make him or her a match for your lab. This is why an initial screening process is so important: it is a useful first step in determining whether students meet the criteria.

In addition to an initial screening survey covering basic information such as year, major, career ambitions, extracurricular activities and interest level, an interview can yield invaluable insights.

Neuroscientists Rebecca B. Weldon and Valerie F. Reyna write on the role of the interview, “We also ask for previous examples of situations in which the student had to deal with a challenge or problem to solve in an academic or work setting. Scientific research does not come without its challenges, and we want to make sure that the student will be willing to persevere and have a good attitude about solving a problem.”

Michael Ernst, a computer science and engineering professor who actively recruits students to his lab, explains, “The goal of an interview is twofold: to learn about the candidate, and to let the candidate learn about you and the research.”

Ernst identifies three facts, in order of importance, to learn about candidates: can they communicate; are they intelligent; and do they have the necessary skills. He also cautions against acting hastily. “Don't make a hiring decision (positive or negative) on the spot — both because snap decisions are not usually the best ones, and because instant rejection is unnecessarily harsh to the student's ego. Instead, give each party time to think about the interview. Agree upon a concrete timetable by which each of you will let the other know whether you are interested, and stick to your end of it,” he suggests.

3. Organize regular lab meetings.

Finding the right students is only part of the big picture of harnessing their full potential in the lab. Also essential is routine follow-up. Weldon and Reyna recommend weekly meetings between undergraduate research assistants and PhDs/postdocs. Not only do these check-ins facilitate communication and productivity, but they also give research assistants a fulfilling chance to demonstrate what they have accomplished.

Weldon and Reyna also suggest monthly meetings of the entire research group during which smaller teams present their research. This ensures that students are aware of what other teams in the lab may be working on.  

Again, these meetings are mutually beneficial. “Presenting in front of the lab helps students develop more confidence in their public speaking skills and in explaining a scientific research study to an audience. These presentations usually generate stimulating discussion about the research findings and broader implications of the research, which is enjoyable for everyone, and provides high-level training for the undergraduate students,” say Weldon and Reyna.

Regular lab meetings are also important because they can help you stay apprised of the fit factor. After all, just because a student passes the screening and is a good fit now doesn’t mean he/she will still be a good fit in the future.

“Over the course of four years, an undergraduate’s interests may change, or he/she may realize that research is not for him/her. We make sure that our undergraduate and graduate team leaders have a talk with the student as soon as there are unexcused absences or sub-par work. In some cases, this sub-par work is due to an overloaded schedule, but in some cases, it reflects a diminished interest in lab. We recognize that our lab is not for everyone, and thus, think that it is important to communicate with a student when things are not working out,” continue Weldon and Reyna.

One last piece of advice from Ernst is that, while doing so may sound counter-intuitive to filling your position, you should encourage students to look at research labs other than your own.

“The reason is that -- regardless of how understaffed my own projects are -- I am most interested in finding an excellent match for the student, where the student will enjoy the work and produce great results. Sometimes, talking to another potential adviser confirms to the student that my work is the most exciting; this helps the student to avoid ‘buyer's remorse’. Other times, the student finds a different group, but that is a success too,” he explains.





Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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