Dear Molly Cule: How do I staff my lab?

Professor Molly Cule is delighted to receive comments on her answers and (anonymized) questions at mollycule@biophysics.org, or visit her on the BPS Blog.molly_cule_blog1

I’m a new PI. How do I go about staffing my lab?

First, congratulations on becoming a principle investigator! Now how do you make your laboratory successful and productive?  Many resources exist to help get you started, one of which is a guide to scientific management called Making the Right Moves.  This guide was developed by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and can be downloaded as a PDF from the HHMI website that provides resources to early career scientists: http://www.hhmi.org/programs/resources-early-career-scientist-development/making-right-moves. A full chapter of the guide focuses on staffing the laboratory, as well as managing a laboratory and developing a vision for your laboratory. Take advantage of this helpful resource.

An important step towards staffing the laboratory is considering what type of laboratory you want to run, which may be highly dependent upon your institution and startup package. As an example, there are big differences between the type of laboratory and laboratory personnel at a liberal arts college, a mid-sized research university, and a large medical school. This is where your vison for your laboratory comes in to play.  A helpful exercise to establish this vision is to look around your department and institution and observe the types of laboratories that are successful, but also to recognize that it takes time to build a successful laboratory. In generating the vision for your laboratory, you must weigh the costs and benefits of hiring a technician vs. recruiting a postdoc or recruiting undergraduate vs. graduate students to your laboratory. These costs and benefits do include monetary costs and benefit packages, but they also include differences in scientific acumen, capacity to work independently, and expected productivity. It is also important to recognize that technicians and postdocs are employees, but students are not. There are some subtle details that you will have to learn about related to these differences, but your departmental business manager or chair is usually a good resource for understanding these differences at your institution.

When I started my own laboratory, I thought the best place to start hiring was with a postdoc or lab technician. I wanted to hire a person with some knowledge of research, who would need minimal training, and ultimately be able to help get my lab up and running as quickly as possible. Next, I chose to proceed by acquiring students, who require more training. Do not be afraid to be picky about who joins your laboratory, it is okay to tell a student that he/she cannot join the lab. Although saying “no” can be difficult, it is necessary. Focus on quality, not quantity, in your hiring, particularly when you are just starting out.

Now that you’ve established where you want the laboratory to go and what types of people you want to have in the laboratory, you need to go out and get them.  You will need to create a job description that you can distribute on the human resources site at your institution, on the website for your laboratory, on  email list serves, and on job boards hosted by scientific societies to which you belong. It is very important to write a job description that attracts the specific skill set that you need regarding techniques that will be required, areas of research that you study, any minimum requirements that will be required for the level of the position, etc.

Once you have a set of applications, you will need to select candidates to interview  The interview is an important part of the hiring process, because you will want to determine the quality and ‘fit’ of an individual with your particular laboratory. Spend time generating a list of questions to ask during the interview. Think about why you are asking these questions, and be able to articulate (in your head or out loud) how and why the candidates’ answers to these  questions are important to the future success of your laboratory. Be aware of any red flags that suggest a person may not be a good fit for the position. For me, personality and ease of engagement between a perspective member of my laboratory and me are critical components of the interview process. You may have the most qualified candidate on earth, but if you and that person cannot easily communicate or get along, the working relationship will suffer. Remember, it is your laboratory and you need to assemble the best, most productive team possible to achieve the scientific vision that you’ve set out for your laboratory.

Once you’ve determined who would be the best person to hire, you will have to make an offer.  Many of the details related to these offers are less flexible that you may think, particularly when starting up a new laboratory. The pay scale may be dictated by the institution or tied to an offer letter related to your startup package. Hopefully these details won’t get in the way of you hiring the best person for the job, but you may want to investigate these details at the start of your hiring process, when you are drafting the job description

Good luck in staffing your laboratory,

Molly Cule

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