How we hire research personnel

This is part 1 of a multi-part series about hiring research personnel

The people that work with us are unquestionably the intellectual fuel that drives our research projects forward and into new directions. People do the essential work. People keep the lab organized. People identify and solve problems. People put their heart into every manuscript or product. People are critical for success.

Before a research lab can get off the ground, they’ve got to find and hire the right people. Of course, everyone wants “the best” people working for them. But what does that even mean? And how is “the best” defined?

Principal investigators are notorious for putting surprisingly little effort into the process of identifying and hiring lab personnel. Some of the reasons include: “I know talent when I see it,” “I can teach anyonehow to do this,” “Students are cheap labor,” or “I don’t have time to learn or go through an evaluation process,” among others. After all, we are taught how to science during out PhDs and postdoctoral research positions—not how to identify, recruit, or retain people.

Some common things you’ll hear from tenured faculty are to look at their grades, or GRE scores (cringe). Do they have previous research experience? How are their recommendation letters? These metrics are biased and are not predictive of future success as a researcher. Letters of recommendation can be just as useless. If letters are not outright sexist (here are guidelines on how to prevent that), they are arbitrary or only generically positive, leaving the reader to ‘read between the lines’ to identify what is ambiguously relative or what is not stated positively.

Reflecting back on my own first two years as an assistant professor, I used similar excuses and the clearly ineffective ‘classic’ metrics. When I started in my tenure-track role, I had a series of tradeoffs to make. Learning how to hire was near the bottom of my long list of things to do. Skipping this taught me some important lessons (the hard way).

Given these complexities, how can applications be evaluated if the common metrics are so biased? We took a bottom-up approach and developed a hiring method that:

  1. Reflects our environment that values both mental and physical health AND productivity (in that order)

  2. Attracts diverse applicants & minimizes our own unconscious bias during the evaluation process

  3. Vests each existing lab member in the hiring process

  4. Hires “the best candidate while encompassing numerous definitions of “the best.”


Our hiring process

Over the last year and a half, we’ve developed a process for hiring that we’re very happy with and has worked well. The process was inspired by discussion with colleagues and several books, including Lab Dynamics, Rework, and It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work. We’ve pulled some philosophies, and evaluation metrics from these sources. We mixed it with some of our own ideas and made it into something that is uniquely our own. Also, while this process works for us, nothing is set in stone and we’ve got a lot to learn given that ideas around hiring practices and evaluation metrics continually change. So a key tenet of our process is that it evolves.

In the coming weeks we’ll dive into each step of our process in more detail:

  1. “Do we really need to hire?” Just because a grant was funded doesn’t mean we need to hire. Bringing a new person into the fold is a huge investment of time, energy, and money. We want to be sure we can commit ourselves to making them successful.

  2. Construct a position opening post that people want to apply to. We’ve all read job ads. Most of them are boring. As a lab group, we try to envision the candidate and construct a job ad that is attractive to people with those skills.

  3. Evaluate the applicants. We use a blind, data-driven approach to evaluating the applications. Everyone in the lab is vested in this process. We collect the data and analyze them.  We’ll discuss how we set up our rubrics to encompass several definitions of “the best” and assign scores.

  4. Interviews. For most positions, we have two rounds of interviews. We let the applicants know the questions we’ll ask ahead of time so they can be at their best.

  5. The Offer. We discuss the interviewed candidates as a lab group and rank them. We use rubrics as a guide, but subjective details matter here.

Next newsletter, we’ll delve into how we think about whether or not we need to hire in the first place.

Have a great week!


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