WHAT DO I LOOK FOR?
Apart from all the typical stuff you might expect (intelligent, works well with others, enthusiastic), here are some other traits that are important to me when evaluating potential new members of my lab.
1. PERSONAL EFFECTIVENESS
Personal effectiveness is extremely important, and not just in grad school. It is shorthand for being a person who gets stuff done. Personally effective people:
Get it done on time and be a finisher. Personally effective people are goal-oriented, not excuse-oriented. They may plan ahead, anticipate potential problems, and meet deadlines. Sometimes if time is crunched the solution may not be to the standard they wanted, but it gets finished. They meet their responsibility. Of course, everyone needs a break once in a while. The point of personal effectiveness is that you work around problems to solve a task and avoid focusing on why it is not your fault that a task could not be achieved.
Take the next steps without needing to be asked. Do not be satisfied with only having achieved the step you said you would by the meeting or deadline. If you finish a step early, work out (or find out) what the next step is and do it. Because most steps take longer than expected, you will fall behind if you do not make up time when you can. Look at big picture aspects too. Do not just look at what your peers are doing; look at what more senior trainees are doing. See which steps of theirs you can take. Look at the conferences your senior colleagues go to and consider whether they could be something for you too. Are senior lab members attending colloquium talks? Join them. Are they talking about their research with each other, or with professors informally or at the pub after the colloquium talks? Maybe that is something to try. Look beyond the immediate future and your comfort zone.
Try logical problem-solving steps BEFORE contacting me. Ask around the lab to see if anyone has had this problem before. Plug the error message into Google and at least show that you have tried to figure it out yourself. You have just found out about a last-minute application deadline? Come in with a concrete plan to get it done instead of letting it pass you by. Call the coordinator and see if they may accept a late application.
2. COMPUTER PROGRAMMING SKILLS
Some experience with computer programming is a significant plus for any undergraduate volunteer or graduate student. Nearly all behavioral work requires a working knowledge of variables, if/then or for/while loops, counters, and basic variable manipulations. If you are interested in electrophysiology or neuroimaging work, then programming is important. It is difficult to complete a project during a Master’s thesis without some programming knowledge from the beginning or acquired early on. Acquire it as soon as possible. The specific language with which you are familiar is not so important, but Matlab or Python are good starting places; in my lab Matlab would be handy. There are huge numbers of online tutorials to get you started.
3. PROBLEM-SOLVING SKILLS
Scientific progress means entering uncharted territory. Many aspects of your everyday research experience will involve solving a problem in a new way or bringing things together that have been disjoint. Creativity, curiosity, and the drive to figure stuff out are important qualities of a researcher. This involves the right amount of skepticism, stopping for a moment if something seems odd (instead assuming it will be fine) and asking yourself why it is odd. Your experiment may not do exactly what you had planned, your data may look a little not right, the paragraph you wrote may not fully flow. Ask yourself why. Follow up to understand why (e.g., look at the data more in-depth). Be proactive in anticipating problems and solve them before they become a problem. I consider the drive to figure out why something does not seem right an important skill for people working with me.
4. APPLICATION TO FUNDING
Of course it’s easier for me to take a risk on someone who is self-funded (e.g., USRA [undergraduate] or OGS/NSERC/CIHR [graduate]), and the award will look good on your CV and help you get future funding. BUT, what really pleases me about seeing an application to external funding is the demonstration of personal effectiveness (see above). You are taking responsibility for your future, and are organized enough to take a step that requires significant advance planning (deadlines are often in September, 1 year prior to your graduate degree starting). This funding is not a requirement, by any means, but it's a significant plus.
5. KNOWLEDGE OF THE LITERATURE
People that follow up their interest with scholarly action are the ones that I want to work with. Make sure you have read at least one of the papers from my lab. Do not just tell me that you are interested in ‘speech and the brain’ or ‘that communication is really important’. I understand the sentiment, but it suggests that you do not really know what research is going on in my lab, or even in the field. If you are genuinely interested, read scientific papers on the topic (not just blogs and news articles).
~ Some of the above with courtesy of Jessica Grahn ~