Make them.

We’ve got an incredible group of alumni and current students from the first six years of the HYPER lab —  at last count five most outstanding students in the department, three more that won most outstanding in the college, a Goldwater honorable mention, two NASA STRF winners, and a Timmerhaus award winner. We’ve won International competitions, helped people land jobs with the most cutting edge companies in aerospace, and even spun out a company. People are noticing and asking for my recruitment and interviewing strategies. So here goes:

I don’t recruit.

Not once in the first 5 years did I recruit a student from the general graduate student application pool. While I looked at and interviewed students from the pool, getting the right timing and fit from this process is exceedingly difficult and prone to error. With society’s current infatuation with rank based metrics, our lack of international connections and inefficient information transfer, the odds of a student choosing WSU over a higher-ranked school are low, despite reasons to the contrary. The old saying goes, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are at.” I’m a locavore first and foremost. If I was in India or China I would work with the local students there too. Suffice it to say, every student that is in or has come through the HYPER lab has had a reason to be here and was either already here or contacted me through personal network connections. That’s because personal motivation, or a story driving intrinsic values and needs, is one of the leading predictors of future success. Watch my TEDx talk for more on this.

So if you want into the HYPER lab, start with a very good reason to be here. Establishing your drive is the key to getting an interview. This is where things start getting tricky:

You can’t ace my interview.

Everyone and every organization has a process for interviews that they hopefully believe in, a list of standard questions, desired traits, a certain degree of narcissism (e.g. “Googleyness“). The reason you can’t ace my interview is that it’s a two way street– the needs of the lab are always changing and nobody is a perfectly timed fit. So to sum up, my interview process is one of determining fitness- both to the lab’s current needs and to the person you’re driven to become.

How do I determine whether you’re a fit? It’s complex. Here’s a start to the process.

1) Spacial and Temporal understanding: I’ll briefly glance at your typical metrics: GRE, GPA, IQ, etc. I don’t put much weight in these, you simply have to be minimally sufficient because they are indeed the standard. I remember many conversations with John Wiley, National Academy Member and former Chancellor at UW-Madison. He’s been on national level advisory boards for testing and use of these metrics. That’s why his statement of, “The GRE is completely incapable of predicting talent in Science and Engineering” carries so much weight with me. Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The story of Success  made a similar argument based on the analysis that you’re as statistically likely to win a Nobel Prize with an IQ of 130 as 180. Most decently successful folks in an accredited science or engineering program fit this criterion. Big success is much more a function of unique capabilities (e.g. resources) and timing.

2) Energetics and Resource understanding: This is what most consider “practical” skills, or rather what it takes to make or move something. Experience in making and tinkering with things helps greatly here. Said simply, look at something and see what’s wrong, missing, or where/how it will fail. Many interviewers get at this question through “tell me your hobbies or what you tinker with,” because many of our engineering programs no longer promote these capabilities. It turns out our brains have an inherent understanding of the 1st and 2nd laws of thermodynamics because they map so well to the physical world. But how you connect the in-class version of the theory to your intuition/judgement to achieve efficiency is the key.

3) Information/Empathy understanding: This is where my interview process builds on most others. This is the emerging field that is still being standardized. The best approach I have is v-meme stack analysis (summarized by Dr. Chuck here). I’ve posted about this previously. Essentially this comes down to how aware are you? How do you flow, process, synthesize, and respond to new information? How many ways/solutions can you see for solving a problem? Are you aware of not just the known-knowns, but the unknown-knowns, the known-unknowns, and the unknown-unknowns?

Just a reminder, there is no score or game to play with these. What I’m doing during our discussion is “binning” green-yellow-red. The questions have no right or wrong answer. That’s why you can’t ace the interview. It’s just a matter of timing what we need, where you are, and where you are headed. Whether we have the right system in place to propel you on your path is another question entirely.

And after all of the questioning about you, realize that this interview process isn’t just about you or me. Yes, I want people that teach me things. Yes, I want “dream teams” of people that fulfill the classic Star Trek roles of Captain Kirk, Ohura, Spock, Bones, and Scotty. Because when we have these diverse and well-contrasting teams, we perform highly as a community for the benefit of all.

One of my graduate students was at a NASA meeting for “best and brightest” and remarked that all of the other students came from labs with high (~50%!) rates of attrition, but our lab had never once lost a person without getting a degree. It’s because I/we don’t have the resources for failure, to fulfill the NASA mantra, it’s just not an option. Sure we don’t have the resources to keep everyone around either, but by the end, nearly all get to a place they wouldn’t have otherwise. So when you get in, don’t fear, it’s a process. One of my good friends and mentors recently told me, “Jake, in the entire time I’ve known you (~20 years), I’ve never once seen you sacrifice the needs of a student for personal benefit.” It’s simple, because you can’t, and if you do you’re kidding yourself!