How do you decide to take on a research student, especially an undergraduate? What qualities do you look for, especially if you only have 1-2 meetings and a CV to make a decision?
I like having research assistants for two main reasons: 1. There are a lot of drudgery things that need being done that an undergrad can learn from (lists of works cited, repetitive programming tasks) that are easier to do if you know you’re getting paid by the hour and 2. I like watching people grow. I often take completely untrained students and turn them into somewhat trained students who can go on to work with more prominent people. I have former undergraduate research assistants who are now themselves professors at top 10 universities, and others who have gotten law degrees from top 3 law schools.
But I’ve also ended up with flaky research assistants and it seems like the ability to pattern match or to show attention to detail has been declining in the population of students I’ve been interviewing. I can no longer assume basic excel skills or even knowing where to find a file they downloaded. For a while it seemed like reading comprehension was also completely shot– like they could not follow written instructions, though that seems to hopefully be on the wane now. A bad RA is more work than they are worth.
It is really hard to pick good RAs, especially if you’re not teaching an obvious feeder class. I often try to have at least two RAs at the same time, under the assumption that one will end up flaking. In fact, this summer one has flaked already– he wanted to work 20hrs/week and start before classes got out, but then didn’t get his I9 in for a month at which point he said his other job (that he said he didn’t have at the interview) wanted him to work 40hrs/week so he wasn’t going to start after all. But… I didn’t ever have to pay for him since he never completed his paperwork, which is better than someone who just makes more work than they’re worth.
So, I can’t really say what makes a *good* research assistant, but I can tell you some things I’ve learned by making bad choices.
You know that story about the rock star requiring a bowl full of green mnms on tour, not because they actually wanted them, but to make sure the venue was reading the fine print? That’s for real– make the application process just a little more complicated than it needs to be. For example, I make them send a letter of interest and a resume directly to my email rather than through the university jobs system, not because I really need that but because I want to make sure they can follow directions. Anybody who can’t do that gets automatically put in the no bin.
Anybody who shows up for the interview late is an automatic no. (Slight exception– if they are obviously flustered and apologetic and have an actual real reason above and beyond traffic was unexpectedly heavy, it might be ok. You have to use your judgement here.) People who are late for an interview aren’t generally reliable for other things.
They need to be able to answer the “Why do you want this job?” question with something other than “I need the money.” It may be honest, but people who are just there for the money don’t tend to do a great job– I rarely have to fire anyone, but I did have to fire one of these. You want someone who says they are genuinely interested in the project or wants to know if research is right for them or has a good career or interest reason to be invested in your work beyond the paycheck. It may be cheap talk, but anybody who hasn’t thought about this question and come up with a good answer is not someone you want to hire.
Getting someone from your classes who is a hard worker– turns in homework, comes to office hours as needed, etc. and has shown attention to detail in your own class is the best bet. Failing that, strong endorsements from a colleague over the same are fantastic. But of course, that’s not always possible.
GPA isn’t a perfect predictor, but I’ve started requiring it in my applications. I didn’t used to. I know I’m missing out on good people and I’ve had people with higher GPAs who aren’t the best RAs, but screening is hard and it is a helpful piece of information.
For me, the ideal RA is someone who is a little bit OCD in the colloquial sense– someone who has a bit of a perfectionist streak and is ok with taking time to get things right. If someone has attention to detail and is responsible, I can train them up in everything else. I also like it when I ask if they’re willing to ask questions the candidate emphasizes that they feel more comfortable doing that. And people with good pattern matching skills are usually great.
Grumpy Nation: How do you search and screen for student RAs (if applicable)? How do you screen new hires more generally?