Research assistant interview questions can be tricky. Interviews are an essential step in the hiring process and your answers can make you or break you. Whether you are facing video interviews or in person interviews, consider them as your opportunity to convince your potential employer that you are the ideal candidate for a certain position. In academic roles particularly, interviews tend to be really thorough and require you to prepare for your interview in advance. A position of a research assistant can carry a lot of responsibility and play a vital role in a research team, so interviewers have to make sure they are hiring the right person. If you have previously worked in similar positions, you might know what to expect, but it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to go through all the possible scenarios of an interview. In this article, we cover 25 of the most commonly asked questions and how to answer them.



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Usually, hiring managers like to structure interviews in a somewhat standardized way. They will start the interview by asking you some general questions to get to know you, and then they will ask you to elaborate on your background and previous work experience. After getting a general idea of who you are as a person and as a professional, they will try to figure out if you are the right fit for that specific role. 

Introductory questions

1.  Tell me about yourself 

This is a question that you will get in absolutely any kind of interview. This question is especially important for those looking to apply to medical school, as “tell me about yourself” is one of the most common medical school interview questions out there. And once you get to your residency interview, be sure to expect your interviewers to ask “tell me about yourself” once again.

This question should work as an ice breaker and provide the interviewers with interesting facts about you that they can go back to later in the interview. Learning to talk about yourself is an essential social skill in the workplace. You should sound confident, yet not pretentious, and avoid mentioning things that are irrelevant to that context, such as your relationship status or your plans for the weekend. Examples and personal experiences work really well illustrating what you are trying to say about yourself. For instance, if you mentioned you are a team player, mention a time when you collaborated with a colleague to achieve a certain goal. 

Try creating a list of the things you think are worth mentioning and coming up with a structure. Careful, don’t script it! It should be spontaneous, natural, and most of all, concise. It shouldn’t be longer than 2 or 3 minutes. 

2.  How would your colleagues describe you? 

The purpose of this question is usually to get a sense of your personality. Your answer might later be compared to what your references say about you, so be careful not to say only what you think they expect to hear.

The more detailed your answer is, the more assertiveness you’re going to show. Mentioning details make your answers more genuine and make you sound more confident. It would be ideal if you could back up your answers with anecdotes or mention specific situations in the workplace. For example, if you say that your colleagues would describe you as a problem solver, narrate a time when your way of thinking got your team out of a conflictive situation. 

3.  How would you define yourself in the workplace? 

Now they need to hear your side of the story. What others perceive might differ from what is actually going on inside your head. It is often a good idea to think of your answers based on what kind of professional profile they are looking for. For instance, assistants usually need to be very organized and be strong team players. Make sure to do some research on the company and tailor your answer based on what you find out about their work philosophy.

This doesn’t mean you should lie and say exactly what the job posting says regardless of your actual professional traits. But you do want to mention things that are relevant to the position, and that will make you stand out from the other candidates. . 

4.  How would you describe your ideal work environment?

You could link the answer to this question with the question we included above by saying that the ideal work environment would be one in which you are able to exploit your best professional traits. If you mentioned you enjoy working as part of a team, you could say that you would like to work in an environment with open communication. If you previously defined yourself as someone ambitious and proactive, it would make sense that your ideal work environment included growth opportunities. 

5.  What are your weaknesses and strengths? 

Candidates always hate this question, as it is a tricky one. As easy as it is to talk about your strengths, mentioning your weaknesses will either make you or break you. So, how do you answer “What is your greatest weakness?” The secret to this is to balance your weakness with something that makes up for it.

Again, you should use the job description to frame your answer, but here are a few examples for you to keep in mind:

“I am a team player, sociable, and love working with people. I am a fast learner and I’m highly motivated. I have strong analytical and organizational skills, and I’m used to working under pressure. At the same time, I struggle with negative criticism, which is why I appreciate open communication, and being able to express my concerns. Even though I have a good degree of technological literacy, I don’t have experience working with [a certain program]. I am, however, familiar with [its competitor].” 

6.  What was your greatest professional achievement? 

While this open-ended question is an invitation to talk about your biggest pride, you must be careful not to sound arrogant. The purpose of this question is often to find out what you value the most, what success means to you, and what your ambitions are. 

Use these questions as a guide to elaborate on your answer.

7.  What are your salary expectations?

Questions about salary don’t often pop up in the first interview, but it is certainly a topic that will have to be discussed at some point in the hiring process. Avoid providing the interviewer with an exact amount. It will seem like a demand that is not up for discussion.

Try doing quick research of the market, find out what the average salary for that specific position is in your area, and come up with a reasonable range. Being fully unprepared for this question can come across as being inexperienced and result in an offer that is below the average.

Questions About Your Background and Experience 

8.  Can you make a brief summary of your work experience?

Needless to say, the answer to this question should only include those experiences that are relevant to the position. The easiest way to structure it is by chronological order, highlighting those positions that you think are worth elaborating on. Make sure your answer is consistent with what you included in your CV.

A smart thing to do is try to make connections between your past experiences and the challenges that you would be facing if you are hired. 

Are you still working on your CV? Be sure to include a cover letter! Here are some tips on how to write a great research assistant cover letter!

9.  Describe your last research project briefly. 

Start by explaining the basics, such as topic, objective, and methods. Interviewers don’t only want to hear about the general aspects of it, but also about the role it played in your career. Make sure to explain why that research project was relevant to the scientific community.

Think of its impact. You must be able to justify why that topic was chosen and what you learned from it. Did it help you grow as a researcher? Did it make a contribution to your field? Considering all these questions will make you sound more passionate about your own work. Convince the interviewers that you have a solid background that provided you with the necessary skills to face your next challenge. Most importantly, highlight your own role in that research project and what exactly was your contribution. The interviewer has to make sure you were not just a passive observer, but an active member of the team. 

10. Provide an example of an obstacle you faced in a previous position and how you solved it.

The purpose of this question is to evaluate how you handle stressful or challenging situations. Tell the interviewer about a situation where you proved yourself to be a problem solver. What exactly was the obstacle? How were you able to solve it? What did you learn from it?

“During my previous role as part of a research team, the lead researcher had a personal issue and left the project unexpectedly. I was asked to take over and saw myself having to delegate tasks and manage a team for the first time. I decided to seek advice from an old mentor and attended a seminar on leadership and team management. Even though I did not feel prepared, I understood the importance of my commitment in that difficult time, and was finally able to finish the project successfully. Of course, I couldn’t have done it without the collaboration of the whole team. As a leader, I was open to hearing their ideas and suggestions to come up with a fresh approach. We all understood the circumstances we were facing and worked together towards success.” 

11. Would you describe yourself as being tech-savvy? 

Modern problems need modern solutions. Technological advances have allowed researchers to access countless resources in the workplace. However, using these tools wisely and being able to exploit them as much as possible requires a certain set of skills not every professional has.

Which software programs are you familiar with? How nimbly can you browse through databases? How much experience do you have working with computers? Younger candidates might feel more comfortable answering these questions, although some research positions require advanced knowledge of specific programs.

Make sure the interviewer understands that if you are not familiar with whatever software they expect you to work with, you are 100% willing to learn. 

12. Have you worked as part of a team before?

Most research projects require team collaboration. There are often several people involved, and being able to communicate openly and reach an agreement whenever there is some sort of dispute is essential. Research projects also involve making decisions constantly, as to the approach, the subjects, the methods, and even the role of each researcher in the final publication.

How do you feel completing assigned tasks or delegating work to others? Are you able to cooperate successfully with any colleague, regardless of how you get along in other contexts?

Mention specific moments in your career that demonstrate your experience with teamwork. Maybe a time when you made a valuable contribution during a meeting, or when you helped a colleague organize a chaotic database.  

13. Have you ever disagreed with a colleague? How did you handle it? 

Research projects can lead to stressful situations and friction between two or more team members. You must be able to overcome these situations in the best way possible. Take this example:

“Communication is the key to any team project. If a colleague disagrees with me, I will try to expose my arguments respectfully. Depending on the dispute, other team members could provide their point of view in order to decide the best course of action. If we can’t reach an agreement, I acknowledge that any final decisions would lie in the hands of the lead researcher.

I was once involved in a research team that was studying cognitive impairment in elderly patients. I noticed that since the study was being carried out in a prestigious private clinic, a great percentage of the study population had a high educational level, which is a factor that greatly decreases the chances of cognitive impairment. My suggestion as a research assistant was to change the eligibility criteria, to diversify the population of the study and prevent bias. Another team member argued that using stricter criteria would make it too difficult to collect enough data, and that we had to change the approach instead. Our lead investigator validated my observation, but agreed with my colleague’s point of view. I appreciated their consideration and accepted to go in the direction that made more sense to the team as a whole.”

If you're looking for tips on how to answer more personal interview questions, check out this video:

14. Have you ever led research groups? If so, how did you manage task distribution?

If you do have research management experience, this is your opportunity to provide real life examples of how you mediated conflicts between team members, delegated tasks and organized the course of the research project effectively. Mention your techniques, work ethics, and exemplify with specific situations.

If haven’t led research groups yet, you could mention it among your career goals and ambitions. This will show initiative and a desire to grow professionally. As per the second part of the question, you may still talk about your own task management skills and how you organize your work. You could also highlight your communication and leadership skills by adding that you are always willing to assist your colleagues if they are struggling with a task of their own, or if they need a second pair of eyes before they submit a paper. 

Questions About the Role

15. What interested you about this position? 

When you are asked about a specific position, you shouldn’t just focus on the tasks and responsibilities of the role, but also on your potential employer. Make sure to prove that you are familiar with their values and work philosophy. Research them if you have to, and be honest. Try saying something like this:

“I have always admired your work as a company, and as soon as I came across this position, I knew it was the opportunity I had been looking for. I was particularly interested to find out about your current research areas, such as _____ and _____, which I find especially attractive given my academic background. I also value the fact that your research assistants are given the chance to take part in multiple projects, which I consider an amazing opportunity for career development. After reading the description carefully, I realized it would help me achieve my long-term career goals while developing valuable skills. I am positive I will learn a lot while becoming a great asset to the company at the same time.” 

16. What are your expectations for this role? 

The answer to this question should be honest and optimistic at the same time. Avoid discussing negative aspects of a previous position, or even making comparisons. Talk about what excites you the most about this potential new role, how it would help you achieve your career goals, and how you picture yourself in it. Don’t forget to mention what you have to give in exchange. Provide the interviewer with the reasons why they should see you as a potential asset.

“I expect to improve my research skills, expand my knowledge, and make valuable connections. I also believe that, given my motivation, experience, and skills, I can make a valuable contribution to your research team. I can see myself leading research teams in the future, which is a goal that this position can help me achieve.” 

17. What makes you a good candidate?

Don’t stutter here, you have to sound confident and assertive. Explain how your background and skills match the kind of profile this position requires. Think of essential skills any research assistant should have, such as analytical, communication, and management skills. Additionally, mention something that makes you different from other candidates, and make sure to express your motivation.

“After working in this field for over 5 years, I have gathered enough skills to face a new challenge in my career. I have both excellent written and oral communication skills, which are essential to any research team, and have vast experience collecting, processing and analyzing data. Moreover, I have excellent knowledge of [a certain software program], which was listed among the requirements for this position. I am highly motivated and eager to learn as much as possible, and I always try to go the extra mile. As you can read in my CV, my skills and experience make me an ideal candidate for this position and I truly believe I could add great value to your team.” 

18. How do you imagine a typical day working here? 

The best choice here would be to stick to the job description. There is always a list of tasks and responsibilities involved in the role you are applying to, so you should be able to have quite a clear idea of how a typical day at this job would look like. You can always add that you would gradually like to prove your value as a member of the research team, increase your productivity, become more involved in the research projects, and gain more responsibilities in the long run.

Questions About Your Research Background

19. What type of research interests you the most? 

One possible way of answering this question would be by mentioning specific fields of study you have previously worked with. You might want to extend your knowledge of a certain discipline, or mention new fields that you find attractive. Find out which research areas are available at that particular company or institution and build your answer based on that.

Even though it is completely valid if you are open to working on any kind of project, you should avoid vague answers, like “none in particular”, or “any type of research would suit me”, as it might come across as lacking interest or genuine enthusiasm. Instead, highlight one or two areas of interest and mention that you are flexible and can adapt to all areas. 

20. Describe your research process briefly. 

By asking you this, the interviewer is making sure you know what you are doing. Your aim here is to prove you have enough experience, and that you can work independently.

Go step by step. Choosing a topic, gathering your materials and sources, establishing objectives and hypotheses, collaborating with colleagues at different stages, evaluating results, and writing a paper, among other research activities. Provide details and examples of past research projects and how you actively took part in them. 

21. How do you minimize errors in the workplace? 

Answer this question by exposing your task management skills. You need to demonstrate that you are detail-oriented and organized. It would be ideal to elaborate on any techniques that you like to apply in the workplace.

“I like making lists. That is how I make sure nothing goes under the radar. At the beginning of the day, I make a list of that day’s objectives. Every single item on the list should be double-checked. At the end of the day, I make a new list of the items that were sorted, and those which still need attention. I make sure to share this list with my colleagues so that we can all establish priorities and focus on what needs to be done that day or week.”  

22. What kind of sources do you usually work with during your research process? 

Always mention official and credible sources. If you are familiar with the industry, you should be able to name at least a few decent sources, if not several. Try to mention diverse types of materials and resources, like magazines, libraries, encyclopedias, databases, and even software programs. Adding that you resort to your network of contacts in search of new sources periodically would be ideal. 

23. What was your most important publication and why? 

Choose your answer wisely. You need to be able to explain why you chose that particular publication. Think of the following questions to elaborate your answer:

24. Do you have any experience applying to research grants?

If you do have it, try to describe the steps you would usually follow in order to apply for research funding. Explain how you establish what the costs of that project will include, how you find potential supporters to resort to in search of grants, what you do if your application gets rejected, and most importantly, mention a time you succeeded and describe it in depth. What did the project consist of? What did you include in your application? How was the process?

However, if you have never applied to research grants before, you might still know the resources available. Try to talk about what you would do if you found yourself in that situation.

25. Have you ever prepared research results for publication?

Along the same lines of the previous question, even if you don’t have any experience working on the results of a research project before its publication, you should be familiar with the process. The results section is essential to prove the value and scientific relevance of the study. You could talk about the importance of reporting your research findings as clearly as possible, using tables and figures to compare and analyze results in a more visual way, and confirming or rejecting hypotheses, to name a few aspects of a good results section.

Conclusion

Research assistant interviews are not like any other job interview. Candidates must provide detailed answers with relevant examples from their professional backgrounds and be able to prove that they meet the requirements listed in the job description. Displaying a positive attitude throughout the interview will play a major role when it comes to deciding whether or not you should move on to the next stage in the hiring process. By preparing your answers in advance, you will gain confidence and sound relaxed and assertive. Hopefully, this article provided you with some valuable insight to ace your next interview!

FAQs

1. How do I apply for research positions as an undergraduate?

There are many ways of getting involved in research projects. First and most importantly, you must determine your interests and what research areas you find most attractive. Many university professors work with undergraduates to collect data and help them manage a research project. Research them and their work online and approach them to express interest in collaboration.

2. What are the daily tasks of a research assistant?

Research assistants conduct interviews, collect data, assists in the development of tables, charts, and graphs, helps write and proofread academic papers, and generate reports, among other things.

3. What are the requirements to become a research assistant?

Although it would be a great advantage, you don’t need to have completed a master’s degree to apply for an assistant role in a research team. You can even apply as an undergraduate. Most premed students seek out opportunities like this to gain experience in the field of research.

4. Should I include a cover letter along with my CV?

Yes. A cover letter is always the best complement to your CV, as it allows you to get into the details of why you think you might be a good fit for a certain position, express your motivation and add aspects of your professional profile that are not explicit in your resume. The letter should be 100% customized to that position in particular.

5. What’s the average salary of a research assistant in the US?

A research assistant in the US makes an average of $62,000.

6. How is a research team composed?

All research teams have a lead investigator and one or more sub-investigators. There is usually also a data manager, a research coordinator, research assistants and a regulatory coordinator, who manages the protocol documents.

7. What should I do after the interview?

The first thing to do after an interview is send a thank you note by email or post, even if you already thanked the interviewer in person. It is a nice detail that will make you more memorable as a candidate. Don’t panic if you don’t get an answer, as it will not have anything to do with your candidacy.

8. What should I wear to a research assistant interview?

Think of it this way: it is always better to be overdressed than underdressed. As a rule of thumb, assume all interviews are formal, but if you are not sure about wearing a proper suit, a business casual style is never wrong either.

To your success,

Your friends at BeMo

BeMo Academic Consulting


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