Running Lean

Deciding when to hire someone is not a one-size-fits-all process

Our hiring process begins when we make the decision to hire a new person. How do we decide when to hire?

An appropriate time for hiring might be when a new grant is funded. We’ve got a fresh influx of money and a long list of objectives to reach—it must be time to hire someone to get all the things done! Similarly, perhaps someone graduated or left our research group, and we’ve got outstanding experiments yet to be completed. Time to hire someone to fill the void left by the departing researcher, right?

Not exactly. Hiring a new lab member is a huge investment of more than just money. In today’s newsletter, I’ll walk through my current framework deciding when to hire.

The decision comes down to four factors: time, resources, interactions & efficiency.



TIME—Do we have the time to invest in a new member?

Hiring a new researcher—whether it’s an undergraduate, a graduate, or a technician—requires time. While it may not always require my time, it requires someone’s time—and everyone’s time is valuable. This time is diverted from other important tasks. No one ‘hits the ground running.’ It takes time to explain responsibilities. Time to teach skills. Time to show them how we do it. Time to get to know them. Time to guide them toward the mountain that is their project.

Therefore, first & foremost, we’ve got to have the time to ensure the new researcher is successful with us.  

RESOURCES—Can we financially support them?

Of course, if we’re hiring someone, we need to pay their salary. Salaries are almost always the largest budget item on every grant proposal we submit. But it’s not just their base salary we pay: There are employee related expenses (retirement, vacation, insurance, etc.), defined as a percent of their base salary, which ranges from ~3-30% depending on the position. Here at the University of Arizona, we also pay tuition for graduate research assistants (>$10K per year) and support them for the duration of their degree program (~2 and 5 years, MS and PhD respectively).

In addition to their salary, we need the resources to support the researcher’s project both in the short term and as it evolves. Sometimes this is tricky because of unexpected results or setbacks. My general rule of thumb when thinking about projects is that we’ll need 25-50% more project funding than if it worked perfectly the first time. Sometimes this is enough buffer, other times it’s not. But it usually evens out in the long run.

So, our second question that needs an affirmative answer: Do we have the resources to support the new researcher and their project? This is often the largest hurdle to hiring.

GROUP DYNAMICS—hiring changes social dynamics

Group dynamics and behavior have been studied by social scientists for decades (here’s a good primer). One of the main factors that influences group dynamics is the size of the group, which affects the strength and number of relationships among group members. Because lab groups are almost always in a state of flux, the strength and number of relationships within the group is also frequently changing. Bringing someone new into the fold changes the social fabric of the entire group. Because we can’t know a priori which relationships will be affected, or how they’ll be affected, we’ve got to be prepared for a new hire to shift the social equilibrium of the team.

This is more of a murky feeling than something quantifiable: is our group ready to welcome a new researcher?

RUNNING LEAN—Are we functioning efficiently?

When I started our group in 2017, I wanted to have a large research lab. My logic was that more people = more data streams that can be translated into more revenue. After ~2.5 years, of running our group this way, it was clear that I was over my skis and about to tumble down the mountain. The problem was that I didn’t appreciate that more people can also translate into increased opportunity for things to go wrong. More failed experiments. More attention needed. More decisions. More of everything. Our lab slack was a cacophony of needs, not a symphony of data.

I’ve since adopted the perspective that we strive for efficiency—running lean— not setting our sights on an arbitrary number of researchers or having “a large lab group.” This theme brings the previous three points together: How can we be as efficient with our time, resources, and social interactions as possible?

In most cases, trying to stay efficient means we don’t hire. Can we get everything done without hiring? Of course, this doesn’t mean piling on more work to the existing personnel or expecting 60+ hours a week. This means we try to creatively identify more efficient ways of doing things. Better use of time. Better communication. Shifting responsibilities to members that have more experience with a given technique. Limiting the scope of the project. It’s often a balance between all of these: placing the right people on the right projects at the right time within a well-defined, reasonable scope.

Running lean affords us other benefits. A smaller lab group is more agile and able to pursue new research questions quicker than larger groups. With fewer researchers, I can individualize feedback to allow each researcher to hone their craft. That way they can grow into the researcher they want and our intention and attention supports that goal.

WHERE’S THE PAIN POINT?

At some point, running lean can have drawbacks. Usually this is in the form of decreased productivity—too many projects and not enough researchers to do them. That’s when it starts to hurt, and projects start suffering. It’s time to hire someone new when we’re feeling the sting of too much work for the existing personnel—so long as we’ve got the time, resources, and environmental context to welcome someone new.

Once we’ve decided to hire someone, we’ve got to define the position and write a job description. This description is our interface with the outside world. It’s critical to attracting quality applicants. Next newsletter, we’ll take a deep dive into how we compose position descriptions.


PS- I have some more Clubhouse drop-in audio invitations. If you share this (or another) newsletter and tag me on twitter, (@Paul_Carini) I’ll send one your way. First come, first served, until they are gone.

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