Looking for research experience? Here's a study that tells you what Profs are looking for.

Twitter is a great place to discover stuff, and the other day I learned about a new preprint from Dr. Felicia Vulcu’s team in the Department of Biochemistry and Biomedical Sciences at McMaster University. They looked at how Professors (aka “Principle Investigators” or “PIs” – the person who is in charge of a research lab) evaluate undergraduate applicants for research positions.

 
Go read this preprint!

Go read this preprint!

 

This is a very timely topic, as my colleagues and I get a lot of emails over the summer from undergraduate students looking for lab positions, or for a supervisor for their honours thesis. I coordinate the thesis course for my department, so I think about this kind of stuff quite a bit and also get a close look at the students that pass through our program. 

I suspect that many students will be surprised by the study’s findings, but they ring true to my own views and experience. From the abstract:

 “Our findings suggest that the top five student traits valued by principal investigators are: motivation, resilience, hard work, inquisitiveness and honesty. Surprisingly, emphasis on grades as a screening tool decreased as age of laboratory and frequency of publication increased. Additionally, we identified an inverse correlation between student interest in medical school and research supervisor interest in selecting the student for an undergraduate research experience.”

 The paper itself is easy to read, so you should take a look and see how the authors’ interpret their findings. I’m going to add some context and a few of my own thoughts here. While this study focusses on undergraduate research projects, I think that the findings also apply to how PIs look for graduate students.

According to the study, the top traits PIs look for in a potential undergraduate researcher were not related to the student’s GPA. Instead, PIs were more interested in looking for evidence of “motivation” and “resilience”. This might surprise many students who assume that profs want the “smartest” students to work in their lab. While it is true that intelligence is a requirement for success in research, if you’ve already made it into our highly competitive degree program, we already know that you’re smart. Beyond that, few of us are very convinced that that grades (perhaps ironically, including grades earned from the courses that we teach ourselves) are particularly good at stratifying students based on intelligence - or at least the type of broad, and difficult to define “intelligence” that translates to success in the research environment.

What we do know, based on our experience, is that success in the lab does depend on an ability to overcome the many challenges, failures, and setbacks that are inherent to experimental research, no matter how smart you are. This requires an inner drive, curiosity, and resilience that can’t be taught or measured through grades.

What else, in addition to “grit”, were PIs looking for in a prospective student? According to the study: evidence of honesty and good social skills. Scientists in the movies are portrayed as brilliant loners, but this study suggests that PIs aren’t looking for the next solitary genius. Like Nick Fury, PIs are trying to assemble a whole team of scientific Avengers who can depend and rely on each other to work together toward a common goal and help each other up after science delivers a beating. A team full of Tony Starks would not be much of a team.

 
This is not a team.

This is not a team.

 

Finally, I want to comment on another of the study’s findings that you might have found surprising; that admitting that your goal is to go to medical school will work against you when you are looking for a research position. In fact, the authors found that more than 90% of PIs looked at this as a negative, and nobody considered it a positive. Wow. Harsh.

Some of this attitude may be left over from the days when scientists were mostly interested in reproducing themselves and didn’t much value trainees that strayed outside of the narrow lines of an academic career. This attitude is changing quickly, with the recognition that the large majority of students who pass through the lab will not stay in research. I, for one, think that all medical students should have some research experience. Still, it’s clear that I’m in a small minority by being, at best, ambivalent to the medical aspirations of a potential student. 

An old friend from my own undergraduate days, Dr. Dezene Huber, who is now an insect ecology prof at the UNBC (check out his cool lab blog here), expressed another common feeling to me this way: that if an undergrad student is principally oriented to med-school, that “often means that the student sees my lab and their experience as another notch in the application belt”. No one likes to feel used.

The authors of the study note that there is some bias against students with top grades, and suggest that this is tied to the idea that these students are less likely to have had to work for them, or to have overcome failure – again reflecting the preference for motivated and resilient students. As there is a strong overlap between students with high grades and those with an intention to go into medicine, this points to another potential explanation for the bias.

It is also my experience, and that of colleagues I’ve spoken to, that many students who are dead-set on a medical career have never even thought to consider something else, or are pursuing medicine because that is the expectation of their family. This doesn’t bode well for their independence or creativity.

What the authors don’t attempt to address is whether or not PIs are correct to devalue high grades and medical school hopes. We all have plenty of anecdotal stories to validate our biases; of students with the best grades who also had terrible lab-hands and, conversely, of students with mediocre grades who turned out to be superstar researchers. Most of us PIs were not top students grade-wise ourselves, but discovered an aptitude for research through our own exposure to the lab as undergraduates.

Still, I can also think of several examples of students in our programs that break this rule. Every year, we give an award to the top honours student, based entirely on her or his lab work and final thesis. For the past few years, the winners of this award have also been right at the top of their classes in their other courses grade-wise. A few have gone on to medical school. Nevertheless, these students were outstanding, not because of their grades, but because they also possessed the “non-cognitive traits” outlined in this study.

 
They get knocked down, but they get up again, ain’t never gonna keep them down.

They get knocked down, but they get up again, ain’t never gonna keep them down.

 

So, is there a take-away for students looking for research experience? Take a look at the list of traits the authors determined that PIs are looking for in prospective students: motivation, resilience, hard work, inquisitiveness, and honesty. Don’t hide your top marks or be dishonest about your interest in a medical career, but do think about how you are going to demonstrate these other, more important traits. Do you have a hobby that shows off your determination and grit? Have you had to teach yourself how do something that you find interesting? Can you work well with and contribute to a team? Can you show that you are reliable?

There is a lot of diversity in a lab when it comes to individual skills and interests – so which Avenger are you?

Edited from the original to fix stupid spelling mistakes, typos, bad grammar, and to add a point made by Dr. Huber.