Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Posts tagged ‘Postdocs’

Hiring – Better Advice

HelpWantedI 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 this, I think I have now learned some things – or at least made enough mistakes – that I can speak relatively intelligently about how best to hire. As always, there are multiple types of people you can hire for a research group. Undergraduates, technicians, graduate students, postdoctoral students, research scientists, administrative assistants, etc… Of course, as a faculty member, you will also have the opportunity to have a say about other faculty and staff hires in the department. Those are typically done by committee, and I have opinions about that process, too (more to come in future posts). This post is about some recent new practices that have been successful to hire people for your research group.

  1. Undergrads. OK, I don’t have much of a bar for undergrads. I do have a small hurdle. They have to fill out an application to be in the lab. The application is available on my website, or I send it to them when they request information about how to join the lab. When they turn in the application, they have to make an appointment to see me.  At that meeting, I describe the lab, some of the science, and how we run things. If they are still interested, they have to fill out an undergraduate contract. The contract has more specific expectations for hours and work. On the front, we decide together on how we will compensate the student: money via work study, credit via independent study, or volunteering. I am specific about the weekly hours, compensation, and I email the undergraduate program director or the personnel person in charge of getting the students paid at that meeting. We flip the contract, and outline the science that the student will do during their semester. I photocopy the contract – front and back – and keep the original, signed by both myself and the student, and they keep the copy. I have outlined this in previous posts, but it was a bit buried (post). Basically, if you are interested enough to fill out an application and make a meeting with me, you can be an undergrad in the lab.
  2. Grad students. I am apart of two different graduate programs because what I do is interdisciplinary. One program has formal rotations. The students actually work in your lab for a semester, and get to know how you work and vice versa. After two rotations, they pick an advisor, and that is where they stay until they graduate (or leave the program). The other program I am in does not do rotations. In fact, there is no formal, helpful mechanism for students to find their advisors. They basically have to try a couple, have some false starts, and then decide. It is like the most awkward dating game ever (previously described here).  They usually decide based on science, which I do not advocate (see post). For the students from the second program, I basically make them do a rotation over the summer for three months that I pay for out of pocket. At the beginning, I explain that it is a trial period, I even put it in writing. I pay them for their summer work, but that is the only commitment I make until the end of the trial. After the trail period, we have a meeting to discuss if they would like to continue to work in the lab.
  3. Postdocs. I recently hired a few postdocs. I had trouble getting good applicants for one, but had several reasonable applicants for the other. For both positions, I put out ads online. I think that was good because figuring out who has openings can be hard for recent grads who are applying (see post). In order to post an ad, I have to go through a formal process through my university equal opportunity office. Honestly, it totally sucked. They made it really long and difficult to get my ad out and to complete the hiring process. It basically took 6 months to fill one of the positions. This is terrible if you have to have results within a year for a grant. Once the ads were official and posted online, I started getting applications, and I definitely think I got applications from candidates who would not have applied if I had gone through the grapevine only. I made a spreadsheet for the applicants and set up a series of requirements including minimal requirements (which eliminated some applicants, but not many), and then preferred requirements. All the applicants who made it past that point were contacted to have a Skype interview, and I contacted all their references. In the Skype interview, I asked them about their work and described the lab. I basically tried to tell if they had some sort of red flag, but it is difficult to determine. The most important thing was to contact the references and ask them very direct questions about the applicant. I had a two-page set of questions (it really only took 30 minutes) where I asked about their research abilities, communications skills, work ethics, goals, and their personality and ability to get along with others. The last two questions I ask are: 1. Would you hire this person in your lab as a postdoc? and 2. Are there any red flags? You would be surprised at the number of people who say “no” to the first question. For the second question, this is important to make it clear that I cannot tolerate having a bad personality in a small lab, and I need to know if the person has issues. Honestly, every time I have called the references, and asked these questions over the phone, I made good hires. When I didn’t, I made bad hires. So, the most important thing in my mind is to CALL THE REFERENCES! After the references were good, and when possible, I had the applicant interview in person in the lab. I set up a whole day where they talked to other professors, gave a one hour talk on their research, and had lunch with the lab members at the faculty club without me. This last step was the most crucial because it was a litmus test of personality for the lab. I did not hire people based on this test if the people felt the interviewee was a jerk. In a small lab, the personality is crucial, but difficult for me to judge. The lab is a better judge, and I have to remember to always listen to them, no matter how good an applicant looks on paper.
  4. Technicians. I have hired a couple technicians/lab managers that didn’t work out so well. I now use the same process as for postdocs, and I think that will work better. Currently, I have a new technician who “grew up” in my lab starting as an undergrad and then a master’s student. This is a really great way to get a technician, but it is not exactly easy or common to find an excellent undergrad who wants to go this route.
  5. All. Lunch with current lab members. The lunch with the lab is the most important part of any interview, I think. I can’t tell you the number of interviewees who say stupid shit to the students when covering up their crazy for me. Plus, the personality meshing is so important, especially for a small lab. There could be a concern about racism or sexism, but educating students about their cultural biases, they can work to overcome them, as we all could and should.

So, what do you think? Any good advice on how best to hire people for your research group? Comment or post here. o get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Maternity Leave Considerations

Yawning-1I was recently having an email conversation with another WomanOfScience. She was describing her concerns about getting a tenure-track faculty position. She has a HusbandOfScience, and a one-year-old BabyOfScience, and they will all be on the job market very soon. She relayed a story about how, two weeks after giving birth, she was on the phone with a program officer at a FederalFundingAgency. The baby cried, and she was embarrassed and had her HusbandOfScience move the screaming baby to another room. She felt that the PO might think she wasn’t serious because she had a baby. This made me think of several things:

Would a man with a kid crying in the background have been as anxious about the sound?

People have all kinds of noises in the background of phone conversations. What if a dog had barked? That is annoying, but does owning a dog make you less serious of a candidate?

She was worried that having a baby would make her seem less dedicated, but she was having a phone conversation with a program officer 2 weeks after giving birth! What could be more dedicated?

I think we need to discuss that maternity leave is partially a medical leave! It isn’t just women being hard on themselves. When I was prego as a postdoc, I had two advisors. One was a WomanOfScience who had two kids, and knew that having kids can actually make many dedicated WomenOfScience more efficient and productive. The other was an OldWhiteMaleProfessor who had a stay-at-home wife while his kids were young. When I told him I was pregnant, he was happy. And he said how I was lucky that I had such a supportive advisor like him. This, as I know now, was a red flag.  Anyone who says they are super supportive is probably trying to convince themselves. As the end of my pregnancy loomed closer and my belly loomed larger, he started driving me harder. He would make me stay late – until 9pm to meet with him on a couple of occasions. My belly became too big to actually work on parts of my project. In particular, I was aligning optics, and I noticed the beam shoot across the room because my belly had accidentally moved the mirrors in the front of the optics table. I decided it was getting dangerous to be a fat prego in the optics lab. There was plenty other stuff to do, so I decided to work on other stuff.

One of the other things I was working on was a manuscript. My WomanAdvisor was reading drafts, making edits, and pushing it forward. My OWMP Advisor would not read it. WA said it would be best if I got it submitted before the baby came. I agreed. OWMPA still wouldn’t read it.  He finally read it and said it was ready to submit AFTER I gave birth!

One night I was working late, OWMPA asked me, “What are you doing on your vacation?” I said, “What vacation?” He said, “You know, when you are away.” I said, “That’s not a vacation, its maternity leave.” I was flabbergast. He said that he just wanted to check that I would be working while I was away. This was pretty ridiculous because up to this point, I have had one paper published in a high profile journal, a second that he wouldn’t read, and I already had a job waiting for me at UState, which I was postponing for a year to stay in the lab. In what world would I not come back to work? How could I possibly quit and give it all up just when I was getting everything I wanted?

Further, I have something to say else: MATERNITY LEAVE IS NOT A VACATION! It is a not a leave for fun. VACATIONS DO NOT START BY HAVING YOUR WHOOHA BLOWN OUT OR BEING CUT IN HALF LIKE A MAGICIAN’S ASSISTANT! Maternity leave is a medical leave because you have had a traumatic event destroy your body. It feels like you got hit by a truck, and you can barely move the next day. And, it takes you 6 weeks to physically recover from the experience. So, I hate when people act like maternity leave is anything but what it really is – a medical leave!

Let’s put it in terms an OWLP can understand: If you have surgery for, let’s say, a kidney transplant which cannot be done laparoscopically, and requires you to be cut in half, you would not expect that person to be reading papers and coming into work before the doctor-prescribed recovery time, right? It would be insensitive to expect that person to work, so why is to cool to ask that person to, say, submit a manuscript 6 days after giving birth?

So, let’s get real.

Women: don’t put so much pressure on yourself to act like everything is totally normal right after giving birth. Your husband may be able to go back to work right away, but you cannot because your body needs to HEAL. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Take your leave, get some sleep, and figure out being a mom. The time is really very short, and will not harm your career to be away for 6 weeks. What if you were in a car accident? and had to recover for 6 weeks?

Men: don’t act like maternity leave is not a real, medical leave. Women need time to recover, and it doesn’t mean they aren’t dedicated. It doesn’t mean they aren’t going to come back. Give them time to adjust. It will be alright.

I hope my description of the post-birth experience didn’t swear anyone off of having kids. Post or comment. Push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post.

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