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Get the UROPs that don’t get it

November 3, 2011

My selection process for UROPs is pretty loose.  It goes something like this:  I need to do a repetitive task to move a project forward so I let our lab manager know I’m looking to pawn off that work on an undergrad.  She forwards me the CV’s of the undergrads that contact the lab expressing interest and looking for a position.  I contact the undergrad with a short description of the project, attach a relevant paper to the e-mail and tell them to arrange a time to meet with me – often giving them a list of times to pick from.  This is the first big test.  Fully half of the people I contact don’t get back to me and about 10 percent tell me they’ve already secured a position in a different lab.  Great!  I’ve selected against the people who aren’t going to be good at communicating with me, who aren’t going to show up or who aren’t really interested.

The secondary selection process is even less stringent, but on reflection it is perhaps the most critical.  If the person writes me back and picks a time to meet, in my mind, all that they need to do to secure the coveted position of minion is to show up close to on time having at printed out and looked at the paper.  Here’s the thing though.  Thus far, all of the students that I’ve interviewed have admitted at some point during our conversation that they didn’t really understand the paper.  Every one of them.  More than the writing me back and showing up on time prepared, this has perhaps been key to “getting all the good UROPs”.  After their confession, I tell them of course they don’t really understand the paper.  That papers are written by and for people with at least a decade of scientific training.  Exactly the kind of training that they are actively seeking out by applying to work in a research lab.  Then, having reassembled their self-esteem, we’ll talk about what I wanted them to get out of the article in an understandable way.

Anyone who makes it through the first two selection processes is pretty much guaranteed to make it through the third, which simply selects for those that can deal with low-level university bureaucracy.  A few hours after the interview, I send a follow-up email telling them what they need to do if they are ready to enlist.  They follow those instructions and voila!  They become a foot soldier in my dark army of minions bent on taking over the world.

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