Friday, June 20, 2014

Learning how to hire #4: figuring out who should be in your lab

I am back to hiring again, and though in no shape or form I feel like a know what I am doing, I figured out a few things from the past few rounds of hiring. So to follow up the past three installments of my "Learning how to hire" series (here, here and here), I am going to keep sharing what is going through my mind.

The one pieces of advice I have received from almost every senior investigator I asked for pills of wisdom about starting a lab was "Do not be afraid of the emptiness of the lab. Take you time in hiring the best people you can find." I had friends with lots of horror stories about wrong hires, so I tried to be very careful. I discovered that making the final decision about who should be in the lab can be incredibly difficult and that my thinking and my interview strategy have changed greatly compared to a year ago.

Sometimes take a calculated gamble. Last year around this time I was looking for a research assistant using Craigslist and wading through almost two hundred applications. I primarily needed someone who could help set-up the zebrafish facility, and I had to decide among professional fish techs, enthusiastic undergrads and professional lab techs with no fish experience. I was confronted with a wide range of salaries and qualifications. Would it be worthwhile to spend $70,000 on a professional aquatics tech who could get terribly bored, but save me the headache of starting an aquatic program from scratch without any experience? Should I go with a self-proclaimed fast-learner with a passion for neuroscience who had just finished college and just wing it? Then someone showed up out of left field, with extensive aquatic experience in the commercial sector, a background in neuroscience and a burning desire to come back into academia to pursue graduate studies. If your tech applicant already sounds like a graduate student, it is a really good sign. The gamble on someone who had an eclectic background paid off in spades, as we now have a wonderful fish facility which was showcased at a national facility management conference, plus I have someone who actually enjoys doing experiments.

Take your time to figure out what you need and be flexible. The first round of interviews I did took almost 6 months and $2-3,000 in travel expenses, but ended with two rejected offers. I focused on applicants with behavioral experience who ended up preferring to do more circuit-based approaches than the cellular/molecular work I do. There was a disconnect between the candidates I thought would be good for my lab and the career aspiration of students with the qualifications I wanted, so I had to regroup. I realized that I what I really wanted was someone whose passion was biochemistry and cell biology to do some kick-ass live imaging. So, that is the expertise I went after. Right now I need someone to staff the zebrafish project, but the candidates I have are very different from each other and I may need to be flexible in determining what I really want and what can be achieved with training.

Think in 3 to 5 year parcels. I am still trying to figure out what is sustainable. One piece of advice I received was to hire as many postdocs as I could to generate lots of preliminary data to get more grants.  While this does make sense to me, I also need to determine for how long I will be able to pay these people. There are lots of senior postdocs losing their jobs right now because the funding climate sucks. I am getting applications for very highly qualified people on their 3rd or 4th postdoc and while really tempting, unless it is an absolutely perfect match I have to turn them down immediately. They are way too expensive and my lab is too small at the moment to allow them to pursue their own independent projects. I do want my postdocs eventually to work on their own things and be successful, but the dynamics with someone right out of grad school vs. someone who has been leading projects for 10 years are very different. A postdoc on their 3rd experience cannot commit 3-5 years to developing a project and I cannot be sure that I will be able to pay them for that long. It's a lose-lose situation for both parties.

In the end, I think the choice of what your lab is going to be is a very personal one, based on the lab culture you want, your mentoring style and your publishing plan. I can assure you that having the right mix of people will make it fun to go to work every day.

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