Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Hiring Woes

I found one of the most important, yet untaught skills, is assessing candidates to make hiring decisions. I am going to honestly say that I have not mastered this skill. Unfortunately, that means I sometimes bring people into my lab who do not work out for one reason or another. Hopefully some people who are better at this will comment and help out. Here, I will tell you about some mistakes I made in the hopes that others can learn from them.

The thing that everyone always says is, “Don’t hire the first person who comes to you.” Of course, I totally hired the first person who came to me. It is hard to avoid because you are just so desperate for people. I hired a graduate student who had been in the program longer than I have. This should have been a red flag. If a student ca not find an advisor by the time they are in their third year, there is something not quite right with the student. As perhaps expected, this student did not stay in my lab. Nor did the next 2-3 who randomly knocked on my door. Looking back, it was clear that these first students were aimless and had no real interest in my research. As a naturally curious person, I am excited by many parts of science. I hoped that my excitement about my science would entice them. It did not. This is when I realized that people need to be self-motivated to do science, and no matter how excited you are, that isn’t enough for anyone else. Happily, I was able to recruit two excellent graduate students who have been very productive. The first rotated during my second year and joined the lab official in year 3. She is getting ready to graduate soon, and I am super proud and excited! {I should note that I can take students from multiple departments. Some do rotations, and the student have to pick by a certain time. Others just have to try out advisors, and it is more like dating.}

I did hold off on hiring a postdoc. I felt that postdocs are a lot of responsibility because you are somewhat responsible for getting them a job. This was also a mistake. I wish I had hired a postdoc earlier. My first postdoc was first author of our first paper that was fully initiated, performed, and completed in my own lab. My first postdoc motivated the graduate students through his consistent presence – something that was impossible for me to accomplish with teaching and traveling. My first postdoc was essential to establishing the research program of my lab.  Two more postdocs later, my fears of mentoring and placing postdocs has been quelled since one postdoc successfully started a tenure-track job last year. Although I wish I had hired a postdoc sooner, I know other WomenOfScience who had very bad luck with postdocs, and it was a more expensive error than hiring the wrong graduate student.

After multiple fails, I started playing hard to get with certain graduate students {the ones who have to go through the dating route, but not rotations}. When I first started, I would pay them right away to show I was serious. Much like dating, this early commitment may have scared them away. Now, they have to do a training period without pay. If nothing else, it saves me money!

But, the worst part is that I still cannot tell, even after getting letters of recommendations and conducting interviews, who will be a good lab member and who will not. I have taken to calling letter writers to get more candid and truthful reviews of candidate lab members, such as postdocs and technicians. For graduate students, I have no clear cure. I have missed out on good students, and I have tried and given a lot of effort on terrible ones.

These difficulties are not limited to my own lab.  These issues also affect larger-scale hiring, such as search committees when hiring new faculty members. When I witness faculty hiring I still think, “How did I get hired?” and “I have no idea what I am looking for,” at the same time. Unfortunately, in these cases, the stakes are higher. If you hire the wrong lab member, the most you suffer is for 1-year, given the typical contract. If you hire the wrong colleague, it is at least 6 years until tenure, and who wants to deny tenure?

So, if anyone has any helpful strategies, please guest post or comment. We who do not know are waiting to hear from you.

Comments on: "Hiring Woes" (3)

  1. […] LabOf One, WhatDoIDo?, YouBelong, HiringWoes, ManagementSolutions, GettingCopiesOfGrants […]

  2. […] long?) I have had a number of posts about research group management (i.e. here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). Wow! That’s a lot. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to manage my […]

  3. […] have tried to write about this before (post), but I think I was asking more questions and had fewer answers. After almost a decade of doing […]

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