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Background:

My lab (life-science) has been awarded with a grant that allows to employ a PhD student that the group should select.

We shortlisted three candidates according to their knowledge (they are fresh graduates of the master) and experience for an interview. The interview was structured the following way:

  1. First a presentation of the work done by the candidates (internships, experiences...) in front of all the team
  2. Then the candidates talks individually with each member of the team (PhD students and postdocs) in random order (depending on if someone is doing some lab protocol or has to go or ...)
  3. Then an interview with the boss

In order to know if the candidate is a good fit for the group I usually talk more about the working atmosphere of the group. I usually focus in explaining how things work in the group; what I do (project, year of the PHD program), what I studied, what other team mates ask me to do, what the boss encourages.

Question:

What questions should I made as a fellow PhD student to know if the person is a good fit for the group?

PS: The decision is taken by the boss but highly influenced by what we said about the new member of the team.

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    If I was the candidate, and I was faced with this bear pit, I'd be seriously considering just walking out. An interview with the prof is fine. – puppetsock Sep 5 '19 at 15:14
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    @puppetsock this kind of assessment center the OP describes is quite common at good universities: 3 candidates invited, talk, lab talk, boss talk, coffee time/personal talk – user48953094 Sep 5 '19 at 15:26
  • @ndpl Not at all. I would not be working for "the group." A PhD student isn't an employee. The prescribed relationship is with the prof. The notion that the post docs, to say nothing of the other students, should get a say is unreasonable. – puppetsock Sep 5 '19 at 17:38
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    @puppetsock That's a very narrow view and doesn't correspond to any of my experiences in life science laboratories. You are working with the lab with the PI as only the head. They are very collaborative places. My contact hours with post docs, graduate students, lab techs, under grads, etc exceed the amount of contact I have with a PI by at least tenfold, and I work with a very involved PI that is easy to contact and communicate with. – Bryan Krause Sep 5 '19 at 18:09
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    I would just go with my gut feeling, does this person seems to be a good colleague or not. If you feel you have a question, ask. But as i know from professional interviews and academic, there is nothing more reliable than the gut feeling. Everything else can be just for show. Maybe just ask, how he is doing, and if he has questions. That should get a conversation started, and then take it from there. If he is a good fit, you will get talking. – Sango Sep 6 '19 at 11:17
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In order to know if the candidate is a good cultural fit for the group I usually talk more about the working atmosphere of the group. I usually focus in explaining how things work in the group; what I do (project, year of the PHD program), what I studied, what other team mates ask me to do, what the boss encourages.

Sounds right on the money to me. Sometimes it's hard for people to be self aware enough to answer these sorts of questions, but you should ask about exactly those topics:

  • what sort of working environment do they operate well in (do they work best in a quiet room or a busy room? working individually or closely with another person/group?),
  • level of supervision (how often do they expect to meet with a PI? do they want to work mainly independently or be given tasks to do?),
  • how do they like to receive feedback, social preferences (do they like to go out after work with colleagues or head straight home?), etc.

You can then help them compare their desires with what your actual experiences are in the lab.

Ask them what their concerns are coming into a PhD program, what makes them anxious about a new working environment, etc.

Also, it shouldn't be just about asking questions but also providing information. The prospective students should be interviewing you as much as you are interviewing them. Let them know what you like about working in that lab, what you don't like, what you have been able to change or what can't be changed.

Importantly, none of these things are really about the quality of a candidate but rather about their fit. This stack is full of people will all sorts of problems mid to late in their PhD that boil down to them joining a lab that was a bad fit. It's important for both the lab and the student to make a good fit.

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    Nice point about the noise (we work in an open room). I think I missed talking about the frequency of the talks with the PI too. Many thanks for answering. – llrs Sep 6 '19 at 7:27
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I was recently in a similar situation selecting 3 PhD students and some Hiwis for a longer funded project. The answer depends in my opinion on what your goals are concerning a distinct research project and how risk-averse you are.

Having a good team atmosphere is of course fine and nice to work in. But I would not make it the primary criterion in academia. Critical and autonomous thinkers are often a bit edgy and individualists. And good scientific ideas (for projects or funding proposals) or a PhD thesis with outstanding results are often the product of such a mind and giving him time and opportunity to work autonomously. In the best case such guys are also team players if several research questions/topics in your group are interdependent (e.g. funded project), but in my experience they often focus more on their thing and ideas and don't want to have to follow a daily/weekly group plan what they have to do.

If you simply have to fulfill distinct interdependent work packages and is it already outlined what has to be done scientifically (method, object etc.), hiring a team player and specialist is probably the much more efficient and wiser choice. But as a subgroup leader seeking tenure you probably not only have a eye on the project/job getting done, but also working on some more difficult/risky ideas with great potential.

So in my case I rather looked for a good mixture of personalities (very disciplined, creative, critical, lab/computer guy...) as there is no perfect PhD student having all abilities/interest/personal traits). It's not the perfect team to fulfill the project, because I wanted to have people with overall interdisciplinary background for interesting side-projects. This means we all have to work a bit more instead of hiring specialist guys matching exactly the projects tasks. But I chose this risk and hope to be rewarded with more research options/results besides the project.

Next issue with assessment is, do you want to hire them only for PhD/project or do you want in best case someone who will stay as a postdoc 1-2 years for different reasons (knowledge transfer, efficiency...)

When you know what personalities you want to have and need, ask the according questions openly and directly to the candidates. I don't think it is efficient trying to be a hobby psychologist here, the candidates are adults and should know if they want and can fulfill such a task over several years and will only accept a very team-dependent, discipline requiring position or a rather tricky topic forcing them to work pretty much alone. The question is more to rule out guys here who just seek a job/salary, but are not really motivated.

If the person is qualified/motivated/knowledgeable to actually do the job is anyway your personal judgement as expert in your area.

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  • "Cultural" in this context doesn't mean ancestry, race, etc. It means things like desired level of supervision, working hours, social proclivities, etc. It's completely orthogonal to being a "good student" it's about them fitting in with a group that gives them the best chance to succeed. – Bryan Krause Sep 5 '19 at 16:00
  • @BryanKrause of course I had this in mind, but different level of supervision, working hours is much more a personal than cultural thing, I would rather find this racist than thinking about putting 2 pakistani and 2 indian PhD students in a common research team due to political issues, this would be rather a intelligible cultural decision for that extreme case... – user48953094 Sep 5 '19 at 16:27
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    That's what I mean, you are using an incorrect meaning for the word "cultural" used by the OP; culture in this context refers to workplace culture which is indeed a personal thing, not related at all to "culture" meaning nationality etc. – Bryan Krause Sep 5 '19 at 16:39
  • When I wrote about the cultural fit I mean more about how this person works and interact with people than about country of origin, religion, holidays, food habits, clothes... Maybe I edit the question to clarify this. I am not a subgroup leader, not have any thing to say in group managing nor have a focus on tenure. Your point about motivation is really on point and was talked with the team. Thanks for answering! – llrs Sep 6 '19 at 6:54

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