Is there a simple line of questioning which gives an up front indicator as to a persons ability to do research?

FizzBuzz is an interview question which is used to determine whether an applicant knows how to program. It is a simple problem, with a simple solution which can seperate those who can, from those who can't.

Are there common equivalent questions for gauging someones ability to do research?

(Granted, there are a wider variety of perspectives of what research is, especially across disciplines so it is unlikely there is as clean-cut an answer to this question.)

  • 13
    I disagree with the downvotes. This is a perfectly on-topic and useful question, whose answer happens to be "Don't be ridiculous."
    – JeffE
    Commented Jul 17, 2014 at 18:49
  • 2
    @JeffE Doesn't "Don't be ridiculous" imply pretty directly "Your question is ridiculous"? What else might the asker have done that would be ridiculous? Written the question while balancing a trout on their head? Commented Jul 17, 2014 at 22:30
  • If your education system is worth its dime, the answer is "a university degree".
    – Raphael
    Commented Jul 18, 2014 at 16:20
  • What is the intended target of your question? A prospective graduate student, a postdoc, a candidate for a tenure-track position? It would be useful to specify it. Commented Aug 24, 2014 at 10:38

3 Answers 3


No, there is no useful research analog of FizzBuzz.

FizzBuzz is a rather limited test of programming ability. An incompetent candidate may fail at it, but passing this test in no way qualifies someone to work as a programmer. Some programming jobs attract lots of incompetent applicants, and it's worth filtering them out, but FizzBuzz is just a small step in that direction. The only reason we've heard of it is because it makes a great story when someone applies for a job but can't pass the simplest test.

For faculty hiring, there's no need for such a crude filter. The number of highly qualified candidates is much greater than the number of openings, and filtering out the incompetent is not a big deal. (If you spend a lot of time worrying about whether your candidates are incompetent, then something has gone catastrophically wrong with the search process.) Instead, the hard part is deciding who the very best candidates are, and FizzBuzz-style questions won't help with that.

For graduate student admissions, competence testing is more relevant. However, there's a fundamental difference from hiring a programmer. In that case, you are looking for someone who already has programming experience, and FizzBuzz helps filter out people who are bluffing about how experienced they are. Someone who fails could still learn to be a fine programmer, but you don't care since you're looking for someone who already knows how. On the other hand, most applicants to graduate school have only limited experience with research, and that's OK. You're looking for potential, rather than experience, and that's trickier to evaluate. I'm skeptical that any simple, clear-cut test can reliably predict research potential.


As I've said in another answer, the best predictor of success in research is... success in research.

The interview question for gauging someone's ability to do research is therefore:

"Tell me about your research."


As an interview question, I like this one:

"What's the most interesting discovery you have made in your research?"

Answers to this question can show what the researcher thinks is particularly interesting about their work, exposing some of their character.

It can also be useful to hear what they consider to be a "discovery".


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