A Laboratory Leader’s Manual for Hiring a Postdoc

Caroline Hill looks under a microscope in the laboratory

Caroline Hill (right) is a cell and developmental biologist at the Francis Crick Institute in London.Credit: Janie Airey

I want to hire people who are really driven: love research, love science, are innovative, ambitious and motivated. Especially people who are enthusiastic about the work we do and want to be a part of it.

Vacancies

If I have a specific vacancy, I’m inclined to advertise it on FindAPostDoc, Nature Careers, LinkedIn and Twitter. Social media has become a good place to find candidates. On Twitter, potential postdocs can see which papers come from the labs in which they are interested. It’s a good way to know what’s going on. Another thing I have found that works well is the use of field specific websites. For example, for a recent opening in my lab at the Francis Crick Institute in London – where we work on zebrafish (Danio rerio), a developmental organism – I advertised on the Zebrafish Information Network (ZFIN), an online community resource for researchers with an interest in zebrafish. I also advertise on the Node, a global community site for developmental and stem cell biologists.

I forward job advertisements to colleagues in my particular field of study. I did that recently for one of our positions and it worked brilliantly. Someone quickly wrote back and said they had the perfect candidate.

It used to be common for people looking for a postdoc position to just write to a group leader and express an interest in joining their lab. Some group leaders still say this is their main route to recruiting postdocs, instead of advertising vacancies.

The problem is that many potential postdocs may not realize that signing up is an option, and may lose out. I do not think it is an honest mechanism because it selects for a particular type of person. Also, this route of application is rather inefficient, because a candidate who is excellent you might write at a point that you do not have the funding; or, once you have received the funding and a position, no one can apply appropriately.

The interview process

Postdoc researchers who come for an interview should prepare themselves by reading published papers from the laboratory. It’s amazing how much not.

I had one person who came for an interview who had a folder with all our recent papers. She had read them all and marked things, and she had questions – which was impressive. The more a potential postdoc can convince a group leader that they really want to work in a laboratory, and have an active reason for wanting it, the better.

Part of the interview process is to get people to the lab all day. The candidate holds a talk so we can really see what their research is like, and then I usually have a good hour or something with them to tell them about the lab and our projects, and to see how they respond.

Then they have a chance to talk to everyone in the lab and then our colleagues can measure how interested the candidate is in getting involved. We want to see if they will ask probing questions and determine how well they will handle the team.

In addition to getting candidates to come in for an interview, they also have a 30-minute conversation with another group leader who has no self-interest and can be more objective. That can be useful.

Finding the right person

In my experience, it is worth waiting for the right person. Having someone who is not so interested in the project, or just does not fit well, does not benefit anyone.

Several times I did not expose mine and interview people, but none of them were the right fit. In these cases, it is best to wait. It could be that not enough people signed up, or the ad went on at a bit of the wrong time of year, or just bad luck.

I also learned that you can not learn ambition or motivation, but you can learn skills. I have often worried about hiring people with a certain skill and sometimes that is absolutely necessary. However, you may have people in the lab who can easily train the person, and getting someone from some other field can be very beneficial.

It is also important that potential postdocs think about the type of environment that would suit them best. There are differences between universities and institutes. With universities, as postdocs, there are probably more opportunities to train and teach students, in addition to doing research.

Comparisons

It is important to remember that finding a postdoc to join your lab goes beyond research. We train future leaders. At the Francis Crick Institute, for example, we have a postdoc training program that includes opportunities for postdocs to interview and hire students who will then work with them for ten weeks. It provides valuable experience for postdocs to improve their skills in hiring and supervision.

Finally, for a postdoc who is looking to relocate, they need to think about what kind of location they want to be. My lab is in London. For me, it’s important to make sure people really want to live in a big city. Some people like this lifestyle, but others want to live somewhere where they can be close to the lab, maybe in a smaller town.

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged.

Competing interests

The author does not declare competing interests.


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