IT’S NEVER TO EARLY TO RECRUIT: How to find and choose research students…

The summer research season will be here before we know it! In this post, Dr. Bridget Gourley discusses her philosophy and strategies for recruiting research students. Be excited about your research, share it in your classes, talk about it around campus and recruit the students who are most excited to join you. 

I’d love to say, I’ve got a carefully calibrated structured system for recruiting and choosing research students for my group but that wouldn’t be honest, it is much more free flowing and varies year to year. Still there are important questions I ask myself as I think about who to welcome into my group. Stick with me while I address a couple of key things I think and sometimes argue with myself about.

I care passionately about making sure that ALL students…have opportunities to participate in research.

What kind of opportunities can you provide?

It might help to know that I care passionately about making sure that ALL students, really bright motivated students, those that just seem average, and those who come from groups not traditionally represented in the sciences have opportunities to participate in research. We all know that research, particularly done as part of an undergraduate education, is often a transformative. Everyone has stories of the apparently mediocre student who became stellar after a research experience. I don’t want to limit my group to just those students who stand out.

However, in any given summer or semester I consider whether I have the energy and time to polish a really rough stone, or whether I need to start with someone who already has received some polishing at a prior point in their life. I’ve learned over time to give myself permission to decide what investments I can make given my own starting point and upcoming goals. I weigh those against my internal compass about my personal values as an educator and research mentor by longer term averaging.

I’ve learned over time to give myself permission to decide what investments I can make given my own starting point and upcoming goals.

Group dynamics matter

Another consideration when recruiting or agreeing to a new member, is, who is currently in my group. I may have a student who has been working with me that would be a great mentor to a new student to the group. Or I may feel personalities suggest that two particular students aren’t going to be individuals who work well together. I may have the time to help two wildly different students learn to collaborate effectively or some summers I may only be able to take on students I think will work well together. So, while the answers to whom I might say yes to changes in different years, asking myself to think about those issues before saying yes does not. A related issue, it is great when I can keep continuity with more experienced students helping new students. In my environment sometimes that works out but often it is a fresh group of students working with me each time.

It is great when I can keep continuity with more experienced students helping new students.

How many can you meaningfully engage?

That brings me to another important consideration. Given the nature of current projects in my group, how many students can I effectively manage and have meaningfully engaged in our science. Being sure students can be meaningfully engaged is my benchmark. I have synthetic colleagues who have ways to divide projects up such that they regularly have five or six students meaningfully engaged working to synthesize a particular intermediate reagent, while others are working on attaching a variety of different functional groups. I respect and admire their orchestration. However, I’ve found that the nature of the way I think about projects, three students is usually my upper limit and I tend to prefer two. With two, one the students can help the other and doesn’t need me as an extra pair of hands as often. They provide crosschecks for each other about important steps in our protocols. They serve as sounding boards for each other regarding their planning and analysis. When I only have one student those tasks fall more directly on me. There are points where two students take more time to mentor, two recommendation letters later, two theses to edit, possibly two posters to review, etc; however, most of the time I find two less draining than one, and I find the richness of experience for both of my students better.

Interviewing the Student

Given what I mentioned about personalities you might get the impression I only take students I have had in a class and know reasonably well. That is a strategy many employ, and I probably employed more often earlier in my career. Now, I know how to interpret feedback from my colleagues about strengths they see in a student to help me decide whether a student and I would enjoy working together on a project. Also, when I sit down to talk with a student about my group’s science, currently probe location in reverse micelles, I’ll talk about what a variety of typical days or afternoons of experimentation are like and gauge interest for that type of day to day work. I talk about how research more often doesn’t work than does to see how students react to potential frustrations. I find ways to get them to tell me stories that let me see what type of creativity they bring to problem solving. I want them to want to work with me and be eager to accomplish something. I am more interested in inherent curiosity and motivation to do something than particular background skills. Certainly, I mention work in my group, how much fun we have, places we go to share our work, etc. to pique interest. In the end, I say yes to students that seem like they would benefit and enjoy time in my group, and I weigh carefully whether to take on a student that doesn’t seem eager to engage.

I find ways to get them to tell me stories that let me see what type of creativity they bring to problem solving.

Spread the word…and the excitement!

I always worry about how do I find the students who don’t know they ought to ask about research in my group, or whom I simply don’t know. My approach is to be a cheerleader for undergraduate research with every class and student I contact. I try to talk about research in all my classes, particularly my 100 level classes. I want students to know that participating in research is valuable –  no matter what their post college goals might be. During class, I am sure to share my excitement over a recent result, and I’m sure to mention and praise the current student involved. I take moments – usually in lab, while we are waiting for something to equilibrate  – where I talk more casually with students, “so you’ve heard you ought to consider research, how do you find out what research is done on campus?I invite them to come have a conversation about what that means in a no strings attached kind of way, advising they participate in the enterprise, not high-pressure sell to work with me in particular. I advise students to read the research posters that hang on the walls, to go see a faculty member, either during office hours or by making an appointment, just to learn more about what they are doing. I hope these strategies both directly and indirectly get the word out – that research is, at the very least, worth looking into! 

Final thoughts

So, what is my “take away message”? You have to know 1) in what ways and to what extent you want to  engage with students in your research group, then 2) decide specifically what you can support in any given semester or summer to achieve more immediate goals. Then, 3) adjust your recruitment strategy based on the semester/summer’s needs. Keep a rolling five year average in your head:  Are your strategies allowing you to support your long range goals? Are your strategies meeting current semester or summer needs? Then adjust to keep both in balance.


~Bridget L. Gourley, Ph.D. is a Professor of Chemistry and Chair of the Faculty at Depauw University.  Currently her students are working with her on the spectroscopy of reverse micelles, both steady-state and time resolved spectroscopies. The overarching research questions relate to a to better understanding of the behavior of water in confined systems.  Other students are developing a library of different sized gold nanoparticles with biomolecules attached as part of a collaboration to build an optical biosensor.

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