The question says it all but for a bit of context: Something I disliked about my former lab is how they handled the pandemic. It is important to me to work in a lab that cares about the safety of employees/students. For me, this means any lab that didn't take COVID seriously (require masks, allow home office wherever possible, institute flexible hours so there are not too many people in the lab at once) is not a lab I would want to be a part of. So is it appropriate to ask during an interview how they handled the pandemic in 2020? If it isn't, is there a way to ask about it without being too obvious?

I am applying mostly to positions in Europe but would assume this question could be relevant to other areas of the world as well

EDIT: For anyone coming across this in the future and wondering the same thing: the advice below was great! I brought it up in several PhD interviews and no one seemed to have an issue with the question, even got several offers!

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    It is appropriate, of course. However, be prepared to have to narrow down your list of potential labs and follow through on "is not a lab I would want to be a part of". Many places (universities and companies) are pushing for the return to on-site work and may lose interest in you (and you in them, I guess) if they think that you are not going to be willing to work on site.
    – wimi
    Oct 2, 2021 at 15:00

2 Answers 2


I don't see any problem with asking about safety features of a lab in general, so I don't see any problem with asking about the specific approach to handling the pandemic. Obviously, there is an important distinction between questions about how a person handled the pandemic in their private life (which may be invasive) versus questions about how the institution handled the pandemic in terms of the safety protocols instituted. The latter is certainly fair game, and I see no reason why you would need to avoid making these questions "obvious".

In terms on advice for how to go about this, the most important thing is to be clear that you are asking about protocols at the lab, or about staff behaviour while at work, and you are not seeking information on personal medical decisions made by the supervisor or other staff members in their own private lives. (I think some sentences in your question are a bit ambiguous on that, so I recommend getting your questions formulated clearly before your interview.) If you focus on asking about decisions on safety protocols at the lab, the reasoning behind those decisions, and the behaviour of staff while in the lab, it is unlikely you will overstep the mark.

Of course, you should bear in mind that any type of questioning of the merits of institutional policies by a prospective student at an interview might rub some people the wrong way. If you pre-empt your questions by stating your own concerns about safety in the pandemic, you can probably soften this line of questioning a bit.

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    Another important question is how people choose to behave in the workplace, assuming they stay within the rules. That is their individual choice, but it is an infectious disease and so each person's choice greatly affects other people too.
    – L_G
    Oct 2, 2021 at 10:50
  • Thank you! I will make sure that my wording makes it clear I am not asking about their personal choices.
    – LDB_2016
    Oct 2, 2021 at 13:27
  • @L_G: Yes, I agree --- questions about how people behave at work are also fine. For what to avoid, I have in mind more invasive questions about personal behaviour outside the workplace (e.g., vaccination status, etc.).
    – Ben
    Oct 2, 2021 at 19:35

It is appropriate, of course. But there is a huge caveat already pointed out: lots of things about the pandemic handling hanged on the personal choices. In here, pretty much every organization had mandated masks and social distancing, and the stay home policy during stricter lockdowns. However, outside of it things varied wildly.

I work in several groups and at pretty much all of the offices we still have a few people who have personal concerns and are wearing masks - and, of course, no one is pushing them towards not doing so - but the rest do not. Almost everyone is fully vaccinated by now though, but people largely ignored safety concerns long before that, and it was fully a personal choice. Anecdotally, earlier in the pandemic it was probably the most common to not wear a mask while working in your own lab (provided it was not huge) and wear it on meetings with (potential) collaborators and in public places. So, a small circle of friends and coworkers and reduced amount of social life outside of work.

Personally, I wouldn't work for a group who won't consider my wishes for working remote whenever at all possible and who would be pushy about office hours while not observing safety regulations, and this is not pandemic-specific. Rigid hours without any wiggle room for personal circumstances seem nonsensical to me in academia, sometimes you do need for everyone to be there to actually perform the experiment or bounce your ideas around but in most cases, it's possible to make it comfortably work for everyone at no extra cost. If anything, people happen to have teaching duties and these often don't overlap so one has to schedule in-person work around those anyway...

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    (+1), but I'm not sure that academia has ever had rigid hours without any wiggle-room for personal circumstances. If anything, it seems to be an industry in which office hours are the most flexible (even prioer to remote work).
    – Ben
    Oct 2, 2021 at 19:40

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