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I often hear that it's good for interviewees to also have their own questions to ask in order to show that they're interested and truly invested time researching the program/position, etc...

This might sound dumb, but what kind of questions are appropriate to ask?  I guess I'm just afraid of asking the wrong question and coming across as ignorant.

Personally I'm in the process of hunting and applying for full-time research positions, and the only question I can think of asking is if there are opportunities to publish/present while working at X Lab.  What other questions can an applicant/interviewee ask without looking ignorant and show that they're truly interested in the position they're applying to?  

What kind of questions are appropriate to ask a current lab manager?  Is it okay to ask things like, "Did you already have similar research interests to the lab when you started working there?  Did working at this lab help you focus your own research interests for graduate school?" or is that weirdly too personal and invasive?  

Maybe I'm just overthinking things. :(

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I'm not in psychology, but things I'd consider asking are:

  • Would publishing be a doable goal given the timespan of my stay?
  • Are there opportunities to present research at conferences/symposia?
  • Would I have a chance to undertake my own project, or would I mainly be assisting with other people's projects?
  • How did the the idea for the current projects first surface? (You'll want to refine this question so that it reflects the actual project and your own curiosity/knowledge).
  • What you do anticipate the future direction of the lab to be?

As for your last couple of questions, do you know that the lab manager actually went to grad school after working for this lab? Lab managers are all different. Some only have an undergraduate degree, some already have graduate degrees, while others are current grad students or postdocs. You can certainly ask about their experience, but don't assume anything beforehand unless you have reason to do so. If you'll be talking to the lab manager, it's perfectly logical to ask about his/her experience in the lab, what the dynamics of the interactions are between members, the PI's degree of involvement, etc.

Edited by ThousandsHardships
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I'm a current lab manager that's in the process of finding my own replacement. Here are some good vs. bad questions off the top of my head-


  • questions that imply you enjoy mentoring undergrads and being as inspiring to them as your undergrad mentors were
  • What, in your opinion, defines an absolutely amazing lab manager?
  • Asking good questions about their research that show that 1) you are very knowledgeable on the topics and 2) you are very interested. For example, one of my PIs had done research on how high status individuals perceived a person who belonged to both one high-status group and one low-status group. I asked if the pattern was reversed for low status individuals perceiving the same target and he was like "That's actually what I'm trying to figure out right now."
  • questions that imply you are primarily there to learn skills, methodology, and theory. Maybe questions like "I know as a lab manager you can sometimes get caught up with just managing studies and moving things along in the lab, but how would you suggest that someone working as a lab manager learn as much as they can during their time in the lab?"
  • you should ask the lab manager what he/she thinks is the kind of person who would really flourish in this lab. are there people who might have a more difficult time working in the lab?


  • maybe seeming too "materialistic" if that makes sense. It would probably be annoying if an applicant seemed like they were obsessed with posters, papers, and awards (gold stars to put on their CV) and less interested in learning skills and theory.
  • I think it's usually ideal if the applicant wants to stay more than 1 year because it can sometimes be distracting to be applying to PhD programs in fall and then interviewing in spring while maintaining the job. But if you do plan on applying this upcoming fall, maybe you might want to talk about things that will help keep your prof super happy while making good progress on your applications
  • I can't really think of any that are limited to lab manager positions and don't apply to any regular job. 

When I applied to lab manager positions, I had already applied twice to PhD programs, felt like I obviously needed way more experience, so I said that I knew I needed at least two years of experience before I was confident I could get accepted to a top 20 social psychology program. I was just looking for a lab in which I could just keep my head down, work super hard, and then hopefully have gained the skills and learned the theory (by reading in my free time) to become a competitive candidate for the fall 2016 cycle. I also mentioned that I love mentoring students in research.

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If you're applying to RA positions (as opposed to lab manager positions) I think it would be appropriate to ask how often you would interact with the PI. I didn't ask this when I was doing job interviews and I wish I had because I ended up in a lab where I only ever see the PI in the hallway. Also ask what the hours are because if it's a project that will require you to go out and about and do home visits, you likely won't be working a 9-5 job as you'll be at the mercy of your participants' schedules. 

Edited by 01848p
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@01848p or anyone else, any more advice specifically for RA positions and how those interviews differ from grad school interviews? I've only been through the latter, but I'm interviewing for an RA position soon and I'm not exactly sure to what extent it will be less formal and how the balance will differ between them vs. me asking most of the questions.

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50 minutes ago, NeisserThanILook said:

@01848p or anyone else, any more advice specifically for RA positions and how those interviews differ from grad school interviews? I've only been through the latter, but I'm interviewing for an RA position soon and I'm not exactly sure to what extent it will be less formal and how the balance will differ between them vs. me asking most of the questions.

I'm in an RA/lab manger combo role and doing the first and second round interviews for RA positions.  From my experience the formality is the same for grad school and RA positions, however the questions asked (and the questions you want to ask) are pretty different.  For my in-person interviews it's usually about 50% me asking questions to start and the latter half the applicant asks questions.  A good interview should flow like a natural conversation and one question will just lead into the next.  

As an interviewer I like applicants to ask specific questions about research projects and the positions itself.  If the lab has a website, read through it and come up with a question.  Even if the information is out of date, that's okay because it shows that you took the time to read the website.  I also like when people ask me what my favorite/least favorite thing about the job is.  I think it shows that the applicant is trying to understand if they are a good fit for the lab.  Also, ask what RAs from the lab go on to do (grad school, med school, where, etc).  Ask how the PI is as a mentor.  Really take the time to assess how happy the RAs are in the lab.  If they look beat down and miserable, then stay away.  If they provide glowing reviews of the lab and PI, awesome.  

Grad schools are assessing whether or not you will be good clinical psychologist.  RA interviews are to determine if you will be able to do quality research.  In the interview talk specifically about your research skills and what you can bring to the team.  Show, don't tell.  By that I mean every thing you say should be backed by a specific examples.  

That's all I can think of now.  Feel free to PM me if you have specific questions.  I am the hiring manager for 5 different job postings (4 RAs, 1 lab manger) and am happy to help.

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  • 1 month later...

Everyone had really good answers thus far. The one thing I would add is to ask about the culture of the lab / work environment. You may not have the luxury to choose between positions, or to turn down a position that seems dodgy, but if you do, I think the environment is HUGE. Perhaps ask about the current position-holder's typical day. Or what is the manager's leadership style? What opportunities are there to do professional development? When I was working full time as an RA, we would often do group interviews, with the manager and other RAs interviewing the applicant; this gave me a sense of the group dynamics. If there is an opportunity to talk to someone who would be a co-worker, perhaps try to figure out if they are happy, and if not, what's the problem. Is it something you wouldn't take issue with, or are they being over-worked and you would be similarly spread thin?

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I am currently a full-time research coordinator and my best advice is to think about what you would like to accomplish during your time as a coordinator or research assistant. Or even why you want to pursue a coordinator/assistant position. These jobs are great ways to strengthen the skills you will need as a graduate student and professional, but also to create a professional network.  

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