1.What qualities do professors (assume STEM if necessary) look for in students (in their MS) when recruiting them for an RA (Research Assistantship)?

2.Consider the follow scenario:

  • Person 1 : Has excellent fundamentals, thirst for knowledge and good grasping power but no exposure to the academic research per se.

  • Person 2 : Above average fundamentals (few random holes here and there. Not too minor, not too major either) and prior exposure to academic research.

Who would a professor rather pick?

The motivation of the question is to find out how a potential grad student can prepare himself to increase the likelihood of getting an RA with a professor he/she likes.


From your question, I'm guessing that you're coming from the American system (or similar) in which it is common for students intending to pursue the Ph.D. to start in the MS program at the same school. While they are completing MS requirements, they try to find an advisor and a research project for the Ph.D.

I think that often the advisor will expect the student to start a project and demonstrate some competence and progress while the student is still TA'ing and taking classes. That way the advisor can measure the student's capability before committing to funding. I typically give a student some material to read and ask them to implement and test some existing algorithm, in order to help the student get started and to test the student's capability for research. The most important thing is the ability to rapidly understand new ideas well enough to implement them from scratch.

Coursework is not sufficient to get you a research position, but it can certainly disqualify you. Usually prospective RAs have taken or are taking my (graduate-level) class, and I won't consider taking them on unless they get at least an A-.

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  • When you give the interested student material to read, is it necessarily your work or just some basic/intermediate work in the same field? – user107 Jun 24 '12 at 20:20
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    Usually it's not mine, but sometimes it is (now that I've co-authored the only monograph in the main subfield I work on). Depends on what I plan to have the student do, and how prepared he/she is. – David Ketcheson Jun 25 '12 at 11:10

There are two issues here: what do advisors want, and what can they observe? In principle, I think most would choose Person 1 over Person 2, if they knew all the facts. However, this choice will not typically arise in practice, because they won't be able to verify the "thirst for knowledge and good grasping power".

Classroom performance, no matter how excellent, is generally not sufficient for admission to a strong graduate school. The problem is that lots of students get excellent grades, and these grades are only loosely correlated with research ability. The only way to stand out is to do something that's fundamentally more impressive than doing well in courses; this could be a research project, or a substantial exposition, or coding, or any number of other things. Research has some advantages, since that's what you're aiming to do in grad school, but it's by no means necessary. However, if you don't do any research, then you'd better have some other way of demonstrating your talent.

For example, if Person 1 has done no research, but wrote a beautiful, 80-page undergraduate thesis giving an exposition of forcing and the continuum hypothesis, then that might count for more than most undergraduate research projects. On the other hand, if Person 1 can point to nothing concrete except course grades, then that will likely be a problem.

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    In what way is "a beautiful, 80-page undergraduate thesis giving an exposition of forcing and the continuum hypothesis" not research? – JeffE Jun 25 '12 at 3:29
  • I'd reserve the term research for original work that might be publishable in a research journal. That's not to say it wouldn't be impressive, though. – Anonymous Mathematician Jun 25 '12 at 3:46

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