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A lab leader’s guide to hiring a postdoc

Caroline Hill looking down a microscope in the lab

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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 doing research, love the science, are innovative, ambitious and motivated. Above all, people who are excited by the work that we do and want to be a part of it.

Vacancies

When I have a specific vacancy, I tend 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 what papers are coming out of the laboratories that they are interested in. It’s a good way of knowing what’s going on. Another thing I have found that works well is using field-specific websites. For instance, for a current opening in my lab at the Francis Crick Institute in London — where we work on zebrafish (Danio rerio), a developmental organism — I have been advertising 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 adverts on to colleagues in my particular field of study. I did that recently for one of our positions and it worked brilliantly. Someone wrote back quickly and said they had the perfect candidate.

It used to be common for people seeking a postdoc position to simply write to a group leader and express an interest in joining their lab. Some group leaders still say that this their main route for recruiting postdocs, rather than advertising vacancies.

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The problem is that a lot of potential postdocs might not realize that writing in is an option, and might lose out. I don’t think it’s a fair mechanism because it selects for a certain type of person. Also, this route of applying is rather inefficient because a candidate who is excellent might write to you at a point when you haven’t got the funding; or, when you have got the funding and a position, nobody suitable might apply.

The interview process

Postdoc researchers coming in for an interview should prepare by reading published papers from the lab. It’s amazing how many don’t.

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

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

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Then they have an opportunity to speak to everyone in the lab and that’s when our colleagues can gauge how interested the candidate is in joining. We want to see if they will ask probing questions and determine how well they will interact with the team.

As well as getting candidates to come in for an interview, they also have a 30 minute chat with another group leader who has no vested interest and can be more objective. That can be helpful.

Finding the right person

In my experience, it’s worth waiting for the right person. Having somebody that is not that interested in the project, or just not a good fit, does not benefit anyone.

Several times, I have cast my net out and interviewed people, but none of them was the right fit. In these cases it is best to wait. It might be that not enough people applied, or the advert went up at slightly the wrong time of year, or just bad luck.

I have also learnt that you can’t teach ambition or motivation, but you can teach skills. I have often been concerned about hiring people with a particular skill set and sometimes that is absolutely necessary. However, you might have people in the lab who can easily train the person, and getting somebody from a slightly different field can be hugely advantageous.

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It’s also important that potential postdocs think about the sort of environment that would suit them best. There are differences between universities and institutes. With universities, as a postdoc, there are probably more opportunities to train students and to teach, on top of doing research.

Comparisons

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

Finally, for a postdoc looking to move position, they should think about what sort of location they want to be in. My lab is in London. For me it is important to make sure that people really want to live in a big city. Some people love 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 declares no competing interests.

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