After just 30 days of officially starting grad school in the Synthetic Neurobiology group at the Media Lab, my advisor asked me to help interview a couple of rotation students and prospective post-docs. It made sense—those that I was asked to interview were interested the projects similar to mine, so it would be helpful to hear about my experience. But giving guidance felt weird as I had been in this lab for less than a year; I was (and am) still figuring things out.
Some of the questions the interviewees asked me were similar to what I had asked during my interviews before starting in the Media Lab eight months prior. How is communication with your advisor? Does the lab socialize as a group? What’s your work-life balance like? I had good responses to these questions since I had been evaluating those aspects of the lab since starting. I knew how to interact with my advisor, and how often we go out for lab dinners.
The questions that were harder to answer were the ones hadn’t come to mind during my own interviews. I was nervous of leading the interviewee astray on topics I wasn’t familiar with. Picking a lab for as a grad student or post-doc is a major decision in someone’s life, and I didn’t want to screw it up by taking a guess at what might be the correct answer. I often had to say, “I’m not sure” or “I’m quite new to the lab” and give them my underdeveloped opinion or point them toward a more senior lab member who might have a better idea.
One particular question that came up multiple times was how things are for a female in a lab that is predominantly male. The question isn’t all that surprising but was not something that I evaluated during my own interview process. The Synthetic Neurobiology group’s post-docs have about a 1:1 female to male ratio while the grad students I think are closer to 1:7. This was something I noticed before joining but it didn’t bother me enough to ask explicitly about. The environment didn’t feel ostracizing or have any signs of social dynamics that would grow into a problem for me. Thus far in my career, the academic labs I have worked in as an assistant have always had more male than female students, and I’ve even been the only female in a lab a couple times. Experiencing a variety of work environments, including a bad one, provided the contrast for me to see without asking that this group’s gender ratio was not creating a bad workplace.
So when I was asked about the gender ratio, it was difficult to answer because I am used to working in male-dominated groups, but I could see how the imbalance of males to females could make someone else uncomfortable. I kept my answers honest and was clear in explaining my viewpoint, giving greater context that might help them decide what will work best for themselves.
My advice to those going through the interview process: If you don’t have the time to go out and live a dozen lives (or work in three different positions before grad schools as I did), then ask a dozen people for their opinion and how they formed it. I try to leave interviews with a bit more wisdom than I entered, no matter whether I get the position or not. I’ve made it a habit to leave my interviewees with a point to reflect on—ask yourself if you think would enjoy doing this work every day for the next five plus years; if you can see yourself enjoying it, then go for it. After all, this person could end up becoming my classmate, fellow lab member, and friend in a couple of months, and I would want my friend to be in a position they enjoy.