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SPIE Professional January 2009

Lab Building 101

A university professor shares her tips for recruiting that first graduate student for your lab.

By Jennifer Barton

Jennifer Barton

You’ve just accepted an assistant professor position. Congratulations! One of the first and biggest challenges awaiting you is the task of building a productive laboratory. If you’re like me, you will be shown an empty room, given a startup fund, and told to “go make great things happen.”

Most likely, you already have a good idea of the equipment and supplies you’ll need in your new lab. All these facilities, however, won’t go far if you don’t have talented graduate students augmenting your own efforts.

How do you attract that first graduate student? The one who will help you set up a functional lab, obtain preliminary data for grant applications, and establish a positive, productive atmosphere?

No one strategy will work for all new faculty or in every situation, but here is some advice I found helpful (or I had to learn the hard way) when I was a new assistant professor:

Cast a Wide Net

As a new faculty member, you must aggressively advertise yourself and your open graduate assistant position. Ask to present at student recruiting and orientation events. Let your faculty colleagues know about your needs; they may be able to direct students your way. Present at student chapters of your technical society. Post flyers on bulletin boards and student listservs. Do all you can to get the word out.

Recruit from as many places as you can. If your research is interdisciplinary and you could feasibly mentor students from multiple degree programs, try to recruit from all of them. Many departments will work out mentoring agreements for students enrolled in one program but working for faculty in another.

Or, you might inquire about obtaining additional no-salary appointments. I hold appointments in biomedical engineering, electrical and computer engineering, and optical sciences at the University of Arizona. I have mentored students from all these programs and a few others as well.

Show Your Strengths

Savvy graduate students know that their future success depends in part on the reputation of their mentor. This concern, along with the sheer scariness of being the first and only graduate student in a lab, can make students hesitate to join the lab of an unproven, unknown new professor. Overcome students’ hesitations by advertising your strengths. New faculty work on the cutting edge of research, so play up the opportunity to research in an exciting new area, with the latest and greatest equipment.

Collaborations with established faculty members can lend instant credibility. Also, let prospective students know that you will send them to national meetings and will introduce them to your broad network of faculty and industrial contacts (which you surely developed as a student and post-doc).

Interview in Three Steps

It is critically important that the first grad student you pick be the right choice, both in terms of skills/interests and personality/expectations. While you will find your own interviewing strategy, I have had success with a three-step approach.

During step one, the first interview, I talk about the overall lab goals, specific research projects, and what experience and expertise are needed of the student. If the student is still interested, appears to have the needed skills, and I feel I can communicate and work with the student, I move to step two.

Here I verify skills and check references. Especially if the position requires proficiency in a technical field, it is essential to confirm what is stated or written on the resume. Depending on the student and situation, I will call undergraduate instructors or research mentors, talk with current instructors, ask the student technical test questions, or give a short “take-home exam,” e.g., to sketch out an analog circuit.

Now that my lab is established I also ask current graduate students to interview prospective students. I find that my graduate students give a tough technical interview and are very perceptive about candidates’ strengths and weaknesses. Also, if my current assistants give the “thumbs up” to a candidate, they are already invested in that student and training/collaboration goes much more smoothly.

If all is well in step two, I move to step three, a final interview. In this talk I go over gritty details such as how many hours per week I expect a student to work, vacation policies, expectations for accomplishments prior to graduation, and outside employment. This conversation helps avoid future misunderstandings and upset feelings.

For example, students may honestly not understand that a half-time graduate research assistantship plus classes is a (more than) full-time job. It is also important to ensure that the student’s expectations match yours, e.g., she may expect to work in industry each summer while you want her in the lab, or he may wish to take extended vacations to visit family over winter break when you need him to prepare for the SPIE Photonics West conference in January. The time to uncover these conflicts is before the hire!

If a student passes all three steps you can have confidence that s/he will be a good asset to the lab.

Don’t Panic

Perhaps you have been in your position for a few months and you have still not found a graduate student. You want to show progress, so the temptation is growing to hire the first warm body that passes by. Don’t do it!

Trying to mentor a graduate student who is not a good fit is worse than having no graduate student at all, and it is not fair to you or the student. Of course you should honestly assess whether your expectations are realistic. Talk to a colleague in your department who can evaluate your approach. If your recruiting difficulty is just due to bad luck or timing, it is best simply to be patient.

Consider Undergraduates

Most academic departments have more undergraduates than graduate students, and most have few undergraduate research opportunities. This situation means you have a good chance to attract stellar undergraduate students who are thrilled to have the chance to work in a lab.

Undergraduates are not a substitute for graduate students. Their schedules are limited and they lack advanced coursework, but in my experience the best ones give the graduate students a serious run for their money.

At a pay rate that can be 25% of grad student compensation, undergraduates are a bargain. Also, since undergraduates are not looking to perform original thesis research, it is easier to give them lab startup tasks such as building shelves and setting up/calibrating equipment. One or two undergraduates can make a lab feel busy and help create an attractive environment for future graduate students.

Finally, by training undergraduates and instilling in them a love of research, you may be creating future assistants for yourself or another lucky new professor!

Leadership Series

This article on finding your first lab assistant is part of the Leadership Series , a collection of online and print articles about transitioning from student to career professional produced by SPIE Student Services and SPIE Professional magazine. Valuable articles for students and early career professionals focus on leadership in the field of optics and photonics.

Tips and other information about finding a graduate school adviser, graduate schools, entrepreneurship, trust in the workplace, and volunteering have been the topics of recent articles.

The series is written by a variety of experts who share their knowledge, experiences, and practical advice about becoming an effective professional and leader.

If you would like to comment on or contribute an article to the series, please e-mail spieprofessional@spie.org

Scholarship Deadline

The deadline for SPIE scholarship applications is 15 January. See spie.org/scholarships

Jennifer Barton

SPIE Fellow and Board member Jennifer Barton is associate professor and director of biomedical engineering at the University of Arizona (USA) where she has taught for 10 years. She received the SPIE D.J. Lovell scholarship in 1997 and her PhD in biomedical engineering from University of Texas-Austin in 1998. 

Have a question or comment about this article? Write to us at SPIEprofessional@spie.org.

DOI: 10.1117/2.4200901.60

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