Applying for a placement role at a research centre can be a daunting experience, so it’s important to understand what to expect. I feel I was fairly well prepared when I applied for my placement, but there are still a few things I wish I knew before applying.
I currently work at UCL’s Centre for Research in Autism and Education (CRAE). My role at CRAE is to assist with various research projects. So far, this has included projects focusing on classroom adaptations for neurodivergent children, as well as projects intended to improve quality of life for autistic adults. I’ve loved my placement so far and would encourage others to apply for similar roles – even if a research career doesn’t appeal to you, this kind of placement will teach you a range of useful, transferable skills that will benefit you in your final year of uni and in future job roles. I recently helped with the interview process for the next CRAE placement students, and so wanted to share some tips that I think are useful for anyone wanting to work at a research centre.
Just a note – remember that this advice is based on my personal experience at a specific research centre, and so may not represent the application process elsewhere. Despite this, I think the advice will be generally useful and is also based on feedback from my colleagues at CRAE.
Research the Research
My first and most important piece of advice would be to understand the research output of the research centre you hope to join. Whilst it’s important for any job application that you understand what the team or company does, and what their aims are, this is particularly important for research centres. Explore recent research from the centre and try to understand the values of the team. For example, within autism research, different research centres take very different approaches; some focus upon how society can be adapted and adjusted to benefit autistic people, and others will be more interested in the genetic roots of autism. It is therefore important that you have at least attempted to understand the values of the centre you hope to apply for. This will obviously be important when adapting to the role but will also be very useful during any interviews you have – this is because the interviewers are likely to ask questions that assess if you understand their approach to research, possibly with scenario-based questions. Your understanding of the centre should therefore shape how you approach interview questions.
Don’t ‘fake it until you make it’
Secondly, don’t pretend to know things you don’t – this might sound obvious, but it’s easy to fall into the trap of trying too hard to impress. Don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know or understand something before attempting to answer a question – I think it’s better to signpost that you’re making an educated guess rather than boldly attempting to answer a question you don’t fully understand. The people conducting your interview will know a lot more about research than you do, and so aren’t expecting you to know everything. They also won’t expect you to understand the ins and outs of their specific research. It is important however to express an interest – maybe relate an answer you give to a recent relevant documentary you’ve seen or a podcast relevant to their research. Maybe tell them about a recent research paper you found interesting – bonus points if you can talk about one of the papers their team has recently published. This would express your interest in the field AND would demonstrate your knowledge of their current research output.
Know what you want
Finally, be honest and be yourself – if not, you might end up on a placement that does not give you what you want. It’s important that what you expect from your placement year is reflected in the answers you give and in any questions you ask. The interview process is as much about you finding the right placement as it is your interviewer finding the right candidate for the job. An interviewer will be keen to find a candidate that they think aligns with what the centre needs – make it clear to them what you can offer to their team that others can’t, but make sure you are being as authentic as possible.
It is important to remember that if you don’t get the job, this wouldn’t necessarily be a reflection on you; it’s often the case that another applicant will align more closely with what the team needs, even if you have brilliant answers to questions. Don’t beat yourself up about it - move on and look to the next interview.
In conclusion, when applying for a research role, it is important to understand yourself AND the research centre, and how your needs and theirs might align – explore what the research centre does and be sure to know what you can offer, but also be clear on what you want from your year on placement. Good luck!