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The Black Hole

How lab managers hire for science


We are very pleased this week to introduce a guest post from Damien Wilpitz, an experienced laboratory research manager at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Damien is also the founder and manager of Experimental Designs Consulting, a management consulting firm specifically tailored to new academic science faculty. His article this week (hopefully the first of many) focuses on a critical area where young investigators typically drop the ball – new hires.

Most academic life science investigators struggle in the early years of lab start-ups, not because of their science, but from poor lab management. Much of this mismanagement invariably comes from poorly managed teams. For example, we all know a postdoc, tech or grad student who doesn’t seem to be pulling their weight. We have no idea why the principal investigator keeps them around. They haven’t produced any data for months and they hardly come in.

Some investigators find it very challenging to manage difficult personalities or to fire people. These lackluster teams are usually put together by investigators who are the under stress to produce. Therefore they try to hire quickly and cut corners in the process. This is where mis-hires begin. The costs associated with mis-hires can be staggering.

The age-old saying goes, hire slowly and fire quickly. However time isn’t necessarily on the side of a young lab leader.

I’ve been a lab manager for the better part of two decades and consult on a regular basis with young investigators. I found solutions and trends that offer strategies to ensure a great hire and will save precious time.

1. Categorize candidates according to the lab’s strengths. Eliminate the rest.

To quickly filter through a lot of applicants, there should be key metrics or categories for screening applicants that play to the strengths of a new investigator. Identify individuals who lack skills that a new investigator can provide. A candidate applying to medical school or to grad school will be seeking research skills and recommendations.  Eliminate all other candidates who don’t fall into these categories. It’ll save time by eliminating applicants who are seeking alternative limiting resources, like higher pay.

2. Utilize technology to save time that would otherwise be wasted on scheduling.

Scheduling those in-person, face-to-face interviews can become a big time suck. Conduct preliminary interviews over the phone or via some form of video conferencing, i.e. Skype or Facetime. It’s more convenient for both the investigator and the candidate. Once you feel comfortable with candidates over a phone/Skype interview, you can then bring in the top two to three for a face-to-face interview.

3. Have an interview/dialogue with all references.

The third and most important strategy for hiring, and where spending time is actually important, is in the reference checks. I find principal investigators aren’t spending enough time on this part of the process. Reading a reference letter or email is not enough. It’s important to have a dialog with a prospective candidate’s references. This can create a clearer picture of the candidate. Letters and emails cannot convey the same level of intonations and emotions as human dialogue, and a lot of the most important information about a candidate can be inferred by reading between the lines.

I routinely use these strategies to help new and established investigators build strong solid teams. Great scientific teams start from hiring. By cultivating great teams through a purposeful recruitment process, your odds of continued success improve dramatically.

Jonathan Thon
Jonathan Thon is a serial entrepreneur and founding CEO of STRM.BIO. Before STRM.BIO Dr. Thon founded Stellular Bio where he served as CEO and chief scientific officer. Before Stellular Bio, Dr. Thon was an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.
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