The Light Bulb Problem

Found another fun web comic called Bug Bash. The June 13th strip brings up a silly interview technique: ask the candidate a thought problem that tells you nothing about the candidate other than his/her ability to rehearse the answers to silly thought problems. Yes, the light bulb problem can be solved with a little bit of thought, but does it tell you if a technical person is the right person to tackle a large multi-month complicated development project? I don’t think so.

When prospective graduate students come by my office to talk about joining my group, I usually ask them to tell me about their previous research projects. I can tell a lot about their background and ambition from their ability to answer this kind of open-ended question. A few pointed queries can break out of any rehearsed descriptions and let you know exactly how deeply and broadly prepared they are.

We’re facing a challenge now on how to design the graduate placement exams for the coming fall semester. Although this isn’t really an interview (the students are already attending graduate school), we want questions that will tell us about the students’ backgrounds and exactly what they know about basic physical chemistry. What are the best and worst placement exam questions you’ve seen?

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