Hiring Part I: Getting ready

The success of your research group stands and falls with the people you hire. If you have great people, you’ll love your work, and your project will prosper. On the other hand, hiring the wrong person can make your life as group leader abominably difficult and, ultimately, make (parts of) your research project die. Good reasons to talk about the how of hiring. This is the first of four posts.


This post is part of the open draft for the Research Group Leader Book
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  • This post covers getting all your stuff together, deciding who you need, and getting out the ad.
  • Post II goes into how to decide whom to invite, and how to communicate with applicants.
  • Post III will discuss job talk and interview in detail.
  • Post IV will look at how to decide on a candidate, inquire with references, and what to do when you just can’t find the right person.

When you hire, you make a long-term decision that has great impact on your team and your project. But hiring is a lot of work. There are lots of rules you must know about and follow, and because you don’t do it often, you can have many insecurities. Therefore, it’s important to be thorough. Today’s post covers everything up to sending out your job advertisment.

Step 1: Find out about the hiring process at your institution

It’s unfortunate, but the first step is all about administration. Before anything else, make sure you know how hiring works at your institution. If you’ve never hired at this institution before, make sure you find out everything.

(By the way, because of all the things you have to attend to during the hiring process, you’ll love yourself if you created a workflow for it that you can follow.)

Here are the points to clear up within your institution. You probably need to consult several different sources, such as your department’s secretary, an experienced colleague, and the human resource department.

  • What forms will I need to submit once I have made my decision? At my university, I have to submit at least 4 documents. In one of them, I have to list all applicants, and give the reasons why I didn’t choose them for the position. Such things are good to know before you read applications, because you can write down reasons already with your first read.
  • How many people have to be in the hiring committee? Anyone in specific? For instance, find out whether the women’s or gender representative must attend interviews. If so, contact her well in advance.
  • What specific wording must appear in the job advertisement? Chances are there is a template you can download. It will have the obligatory legal paragraph(s) about people with disabilities, the commitment to increase the number of women employees, etc.
  • Can ads in journals and magazines be paid for? Are you allowed to use your funds for this? Is there a budget in your institution?
  • Can you pay travel cost of invited applicants? Are you allowed to use your funds for this? Is there a budget in your institution?

Step 2: Write down the job description

This is a step that is often neglected. There are 3 reasons this is useful:

  1. For most institutions, you will have to write or fill out a job description when the contract is made. This step will help you write it very fast.
  2. It will help you formulate the job advertisement.
  3. Most importantly, it will help you get clear on what kind of person you are really looking for.

Here’s what you should collect for the job description:

  • Look through the grant again and write down the tasks the new person has to do, and the methods she will use.
  • Write down which tasks the person must do independently, and for which she will have supervision or co-workers.
  • Think of any job requirements that might not be listed in the work package of the grant.
  • If you have a choice about it, now is the time to decide what kind of position (e.g. PhD, Postdoc) you will advertise.
  • Specify the start date and duration/end date of the position.

Step 3: Decide what kind of person you are looking for

At first sight, you might say that who you’re looking for is already defined by Step 2, the job description. But that is only partly true. First, it can be helpful to specify some personality characteristics you are looking for in the job ad. And second, you’re not just looking for someone to do the job, but also for someone who fits your team. Defining explicitly what kind of person this would be will help you a lot when you get calls from potential applicants asking about the position, and it will sharpen your eye during the interview process.

Here are some points to think about:

  • Skills and qualification. Can the knowledge and skills for the position be acquired in your lab, or does the person have to bring them?
  • Strengths. What are the key strengths the applicant needs to have for the job? What strengths will be important for the project, but also for other aspects of the job (group communication, working independently, writing skills, etc.)? It can help to prioritize these.
  • Personality. What personality traits do you wish the person to have? For example, is it most important to have a communicator? Or rather someone who is thorough and diligent? These kinds of criteria will depend on the job for sure, but also on the situation of your group, and on yourself.

When making this list, it helps to picture the new person at work. Don’t just hastily write down three or four “nice terms” (“motivated, communicative, friendly”), but identify what’s really important for the job.

Step 4: Time plan

It’s good to do interviews with at least one other person. This person should be at least at the level of the one you intend to hire. Consider choosing someone of the opposite sex than yourself. This can make the interview situation more comfortable for the applicant.
So, don’t forget to find one or several colleagues for your hiring committee, and schedule time slots for the interviews that work for everyone.

If you plan to ask applicants to give talks, then let your group know when to expect those.

If you want to offer applicants to talk to your group members, again, alert them in advance and make sure those that are important for the advertised position will be in the lab during the interview phase.

Decide on an application deadline that is in accord with your institution’s rules. There might be a minimum time between posting the advertisement and the application deadline.

Step 5: Advertise

There are many ways to advertise your position.

  • Your institution probably has some dedicated web pages for open positions. In fact, you may be required to post the position there.
  • Publish the position on your group’s website.
  • Send a note about the advertisement to relevant mailing lists (e.g. conference lists, academic associations).
  • Post the position on online job boards. Ask around where others in your field post their positions.
  • Send the advertisement to your network and ask them to alert people who might be interested.
  • Post on Twitter and ask for retweeting.
  • Post on Facebook; ask other labs to post on their Facebook pages, too. Ask labs with many followers.
  • Mention the open position at the end of a conference presentation, or hang up a note next to your conference poster. Ask colleagues and your team members to do the same for you.
  • Finally, if you know people who would fit, and who you would like to have in your group, alert them directly about the position. Make sure they understand that you are asking them to apply, and are not offering the position without application (unless you are).

If you are not getting enough applications, you can intensify your efforts. Tweet again; call colleagues and ask them for recommendations, rather than sending emails.

Special case: How to proceed if you already know who you want to hire

Sometimes you’ve already decided on a candidate, such as a student who excelled in her Master’s project.

First off, make sure you are certain about your decision before you commit. If you aren’t certain that this person has everything you want for the job, consider inviting her to apply along with everyone else.

Second, make sure this person is committed to the position and won’t jump off at the last minute. Otherwise, you’ll have to start the entire hiring process then, and your project will be delayed. It’s best to openly address this point, ask right out whether the person is decided upon the position, and ask for expressed commitment.

The most tricky part might be that your institution will force you to advertise the position nonetheless. This will depend on the country and on the type of institution you work in. For instance, German universities are required to always hire the best possible person for a job. Therefore, they reason that you cannot make a decision without having given everyone the chance to apply.
In this case, find out the minimum requirements for your job advertisement: what is the shortest deadline you may set? Where are you required to post? Make sure you comply with those rules, as your hire will not go through otherwise.

Do you have any good tips on how to prepare the hiring circus? Let us know in the comments!

In the next posts, we’ll cover how to decide whom to invite, and how to communicate with applicants; we’ll cover job talk and interview in detail; we’ll talk about how to decide on a candidate, inquire with references, and what to do when you just can’t find the right person.


A book about hiring that I found very helpful is Who: The A Method for Hiring by Geoff Smart and Randy Street. It is written for companies, and bigger ones at that. It recommends implementing an entire “hiring culture” and a series of interviews. Don’t be discouraged by that: there’s loads to learn from it for the down-to-earth hire you’re doing in your research group. With respect to the content of this post, it lays out the idea of really getting clear about who you need.

If you are interested in the concept of strengths, and how they differ from personality, look at StrengthsFinder 2.0: A New and Upgraded Edition of the Online Test from Gallup’s Now Discover Your Strengths.


This post is part of the open draft for the Research Group Leader Book [about] [read more].

Photo credit: DonkeyHotey / Foter / CC BY

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