the hiring crap-shoot

Aug 28 2012 Published by under hiring, tenure-track OTJT

One of the hardest things of running a lab is hiring decisions. At least it is for me. My group is not so large yet (< 10 people), so we are pretty susceptible to the "dominant negative". If one person is a drag it can really slow things down. For everyone. I've been thinking about this a lot recently, because I'm in the process of hiring a technician. The first tech I hired I ended up firing, and that SUCKED. I really want to have a better outcome this time.

I had many, many applicants to the job that I posted, and I screened through CVs looking for those that had some relevant experience. And were able to write coherent sentences. I tried not to get too upset when folks claimed "proficiency in word"* or "excellent manual dexterity"** I narrowed down to about 8 that looked reasonable, and then I contacted references by phone. I feel like phone calls give me a chance to get somewhat "off the record" responses, and they take less effort than a letter. After talking to references I brought in four people for interviews. This is where things get difficult. There are two folks that I think would be good. HOW TO CHOOSE??

Seriously, I'm having a hard time here. Both of the candidates are fresh out of undergrad and looking to work in a lab for a bit before they go off for an advanced degree. They both have some undergrad research (not just lab courses), though one has slightly more experience here. All the references loved them, etc etc. I feel like it is now a crap shoot. No matter what I choose, it could be a disaster (or not), and one person is going to be disappointed.

I'm pretty sure it is bad for morale if I hire them both for a month and let them compete it out, Hunger Games style. Right?


*This is code for "I don't really know how to use computers but I can kinda turn them on and open really easy programs". ugh.


29 responses so far

  • Bashir says:

    What's wrong with manual dexterity? I imagine you guys sitting around titrating things, with pipettes, and microscopes and such things that involve intricate movements. Isn't manual dexterity important?

    (only sort of kidding)

  • scicurious says:

    My grad PI had a great policy of having anyone interviewing or rotating talk to EVERYONE in the lab. If all lab members gave good reviews, the person was in. Good way to make sure the lab keeps getting along.

    • gerty-z says:

      I do this with postdoctoral candidates, for sure. But for some reason that didn't occur to me for the technician. huh

    • rachael says:

      I second this--it's how I was hired for a tech position and I'm pretty sure meeting the other techs in my lab pushed me over the edge to get the job. Is it too late to ask if the applicants can meet some of the people in your lab for coffee? I had a post doc ask me questions about science, and I think I talked about my experience in a yeast lab/brewing beer with the other techs.

      Also, what _is_ the best way to put on a CV "good at not messing shit up"? Because that's what manual dexterity means to me. 🙂

  • becca says:

    There are actually job adverts where they put things like "manual dexterity" and "ability to lift up to 40lbs occasionally". I always assumed it was the result of HR.

    And honestly, I've got more than enough manual dexterity for pipetting and PCR tubes, but I do suck at electrophysiology when I've been caffeinated (and I suck at thinking when I haven't been caffeinated). So yeah, manual dexterity is a limiting factor for some lab skills.

  • Anon says:

    I was hired as a technician "Hunger- Games style" a few years ago. We were both hired part-time with the possibility of full-time in the future. It was a new lab, so there was no one to interview us except the PI. Within a few weeks it was clear that even though the other girl had publications and lab experience, she was not a good lab tech. Her previous experience turned out to be in the lab of a family friend who was doing a favor. 2 months later I was hired full-time and she was pushed toward an administrative assistant position somewhere else on campus. I'd say it was a good decision for my PI in this instance, because over the next few years she mentioned on multiple instances that if she had only chosen to hire one person, it would have been the other girl and it would have been a disaster.

  • Ewan says:

    I suck at hiring; if I were rating myself on PI skills, this would be very near the bottom. I have had three undergrad researchers flame out spectacularly (i.e. vanishing, being dishonest, sending expensive equipment off to be repaired without telling me or giving the destination any contact info, refusing to reveal data, and so on...) and one graduate student ditto (albeit fewer fireworks and everything left in order, but just quitting in the middle of a semester after abusing a colleague and being warned about it). I still have no clue how to screen for 'will, in fact, be a jerk.' Advice more than welcome :(.

  • meerkat says:

    The career center at my college recommended you put things like "proficiency in MS Word" on your resume (we're not quite talking CV level here). At least, it was included in all of the sample resumes they had. This might have been more important 25 years ago.

    • gerty-z says:

      Yes, maybe it is just historic. At one time that may have been a Legitimate Skill. But it is WAY out of date at this point.

      • meerkat says:

        I agree, but on further reflection, there was a six month period where proficiency in Office 2007 was pretty cutting-edge! Still, that ship has also sailed.

        • HFM says:

          I also got that advice from my college's career center, and also disregarded it as tragically out of date. Then I went on my second real interview, and got a comment along the lines of "it's a shame you don't have experience with word processing software". This was a serious flaw in my qualifications, of course, and how would I plan to overcome it?

          This was in 2008, and I've got a degree in a CS-heavy engineering field. It took me at least one startled pause to realize he wasn't kidding, and another several beats to come up with a more tactful response than "I'm in my twenties and my IQ is above room temperature, so I do too know how to use Word".

          So yes, I list MS Office on my CV now. I realize that for 98% of readers, it really should go without saying, but the other 2% are still kicking around and still screening resumes.

          • gerty-z says:

            wow. OK, I guess I can see this point. Still, I think it looks bad when that is the ONLY computer skill that one can list. It just makes the lack of anything more "advanced" so obvious, I guess.

  • A. Postdoc says:

    Techs are hard. You want someone that will get stuff done. Look for evidence of getting stuff done in their CV. Did they finish something big (and yes big might mean a summer), even if it is unrelated to their/your current field?

    On having the whole lab agree on new lab members, that is laughably funny. I've seen a lot of labs do that. But then the PI ignores the lab voices and just hires them anyway. That's how we got all our awful postdocs, dominant negative phenotypes that destroyed several areas of research.

  • darchole says:

    Wait you told the both of them there was only 1 other person in the running? That might come around and bite you in your a**. It's easier to hear you will not get the job, then you were in the running and then lost out.

    Do you read Ask a Manager? The blog might help with what not to do.

    I'm a tech, and I've never seen a lab that actually had a potential hire talk to the other people in the lab. How is talking going to help? Some bad apples are known right away, but most aren't. And you risk annoying people if you're not careful how you schedule this. In my current lab that last few techs (part-time) that we were looking to hire "volunteered" first (their SO's were grad students so were looking for a job that understand it was a limited duration thing.) One of them became apparent they were not cut out for any type of science lab tech job, and the other person who had no previous focus on science, was a perfect fit.

    There's also a difference between negative and pessimistic. I'm a pessimist, but it comes out in more in thinking about negative consequences AND what to do about them, rather than just being negative. However I make sure I'm nice to everyone in the lab, even if currently they're annoying the h*ll out of me, or making tons of extra work for me. No need to p*ss where you work. The biggest drag currently going on in my lab is the drama king/queen who is controlling in a passive-agressive way. Being negative isn't the only problem personality you can have.

    • gerty-z says:

      Actually, neither of the finalists know that I am having a hard time with this decision. AFATK, I am still considering many applicants that were interviewed. Neither of them is negative or pessimistic, from what I can tell so I'm not sure where that is coming from. Though I guess your point is valid.

      • darchole says:

        My only point is: that sometimes you can't take what other people say as the truth, and don't be caught into the trap of only looking for one thing to avoid.

  • Spiny Norman says:

    Where's the problem with morale if one of them just eats the other one? It shows dedication, it's free food (a far-fringe benefit), and the demoralized one just isn't around anymore. Yeah, a modest proposal, I know.

  • BrooksPhD says:

    I think Spiny Norman hit the spot here! The bones, picked clean and carefully reassembled will make a nice warning to other staff too!

  • Dr24hours says:

    I am terrified of hiring people (thank goodness I don't have to yet), because I fear not being able to give them enough to do.

  • My uni prevents the Hunger Games style of employment, one job posting, one hire. I think they had an issue with this before.

  • PQA says:

    Here is my advice... is there one that you want to be friends with, you can see yourself maybe having a beer with, etc. ? Then don't hire that one. The most common mistake I see is PIs hiring people they 'like', becoming friendly with them, letting go of boundaries, and then having it all bite them in the ass when not surprisingly the person starts acting less professional then the PI wants.

    • gerty-z says:

      This is not bad advice in general. I heard this A LOT when I was starting up my lab...and so I'm pretty careful about trying to maintain boundaries in this way. I don't know that I would want to have a beer with either of the candidates, FWIW. Let's just say that we are at very different stages in our lives/careers *cough* I'm old *cough cough*

  • I recently was charged with the hiring of a technician. After going through resumes and calling references, we brought a couple people in. The candidates interviewed with the scientists they would be working most closely with as a group, with a short visit with the PI afterward. I thought all of the candidates would be good, but a 10 minute discussion with everyone involved after the interviews were complete narrowed it down to one person very easily. FWIW, the person we ended up hiring has been outstanding.

  • DrLizzyMoore says:

    Clearly the only thing to do is either have them thumb wrestle or play rock, paper, scissors.

    OR maybe you trust your gut instinct better than you did with your first hire. Amirite?

Leave a Reply