Talent Scout: Hiring the Right Staff for Your Lab

Hiring the right staff for your laboratory can be a huge factor in the overall success of your research. The ability to spot potential in prospective employees is easier than you think.

The late Steve Jobs once said, “The secret of my success is that we have gone to exceptional lengths to hire the best people in the world.” The team often determines the success or failure of any venture, and the need for talent in laboratory-based research is no exception.

Scientists compete for the most promising prospects to staff their projects. As a result, finding the best candidates and convincing them to come on board takes some finesse.
It starts with knowing the role you are hiring for.

Looking for Potential

A report by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) emphasizes the importance of distinguishing between employees and students. Technicians and postdocs fall under the “employee” category at most universities and research institutions. They receive a salary and must adhere to personnel policies. Students, on the other hand, are there to learn and gain experience, not because they are being paid.

fiese two sets of relationships require different management techniques and hiring processes. fie goal is always to bring aboard intelligent and hard-working employees, but researchers must remember that they are more of a teacher than a boss when it comes to student staff members. These aspiring scientists can be mentored through their education until they become strong postdoc candidates.

Nobel prize-winning chemist Thomas Cech told the report’s authors, “Early in my career, when I couldn’t attract top postdocs, I put my energy into graduate students and technicians. fie graduate students are like raw lumps of clay that have the opportunity to mold themselves into something really great.”

One by One

Rather than rushing to fill an empty lab, a staged approach will ensure better talent. It is a good idea to hire an experienced technician who can assist in training other staff. HHMI recommends looking for someone who is familiar with the administrative processes of the institution. In other words, try to hire this first essential employee from within the organization.

Graduate students can be added to the mix once the lab is up and running and there is time to teach. Postdocs should come on board once the project has grown large enough to where big tasks can be delegated to them. Undergrads, however, cannot usually be designated substantial responsibility and require oversight. HHMI says to try one out on a single-semester basis and make a decision about continuing his or her role after.

Start Spreading the News

Finding top talent to fill these roles starts with a great job description. It should be both accurate and compelling — delineating the exciting aspects of the research in addition to the responsibilities and necessary qualifications. The human resources department at most institutions will have examples that can be used as a template.

Once complete, the description should be posted on the project’s website and shared through other organizational avenues. According to HHMI, the best way to recruit is through word of mouth. Candidates are often discovered at conferences, seminars, or even as students in one’s classes.

Postdocs can also be found by posting advertisements in publications and online directories that relate to the research area.

When writing advertisements and speaking to prospects, it helps to share the vision for the lab and its potential impact. Candidates also want to know about the culture and environment they may be entering. Mentorship potential is important too.

“Let potential staff know that they will be working directly with you and that you have an interest in helping them in their careers,” the report states. Transparency about funding and job security is also appreciated.

Career Interests

Each individual may have different motivations, but there are trends to how technicians, graduate students, and postdocs seek out positions. Technicians and grad students tend to gravitate toward new laboratories for the opportunity to work closely with principal investigators. Both groups aspire to be included in papers and bolster their education and resumes. For lab technicians, salary may be a strong influencing factor as well.

Postdocs, on the other hand, often prefer wellestablished laboratories with a proven track record of success. Because of this, it may take a few years for a new lab to attract top postdocs. However, they also take into account the research area, the institution’s reputation, networking and career advancement opportunities, and the ability to bring some of their work with them when they leave your lab.

Foot in the Door

After collecting applications, scientists should review all resumes and interview each selected candidate themselves. It is important to contact every reference listed if an individual is being seriously considered.

Publications can be an indicator of success, but HHMI says to keep in mind quality over quantity. Ideally, a postdoc will have one or two lead author credits.

“A middle-author citation indicates that the applicant contributed experimental expertise but may have had less to do with the project’s intellectual construct,” the report authors explained.

Grad students and technicians may also have some investigative experience, but the in-person evaluation is generally a good way to gauge a candidate’s knowledge and enthusiasm for the work.

Strong applicants should visit the laboratory and spend time with the other staff members to see how they fit in. Postdocs can be asked to present a seminar to the department, which allows colleagues to provide feedback.

For the structured interview portion, the right questions are key. The same set of inquiries should be asked of each individual, and the interviewer is best off avoiding personal topics to keep the discussion both professional and out of potentially dangerous legal territory

Short and open-ended questions tend to yield the most informative results. The interviewee should also have plenty of chances to ask questions of their own.

After this, the lead candidate is usually clear. The final step is to make an offer, but keep several other top prospects in the game in case the first choice does not accept.

For more laboratory hiring advice, see www.hhmi. org/labmanagement.

— Mapes is a Washington D.C–based freelance writer and a regular contributor to Endocrine News. She wrote about advanced business degrees in in the April issue.

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