Hiring Part II: From applications to interview

In this second of four posts on hiring for your research group, I cover how to communicate with your applicants, and how to choose who you should invite.

who to invite -- many choices

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

Post updated 2015-08-24:
added screening interview, revised para on calling references, new resource


  • Post I of the Hiring series covered getting all your stuff together, deciding who you need, and getting out the ad.
  • This post will go 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.

You’ve probably scanned your applications as they came in. Once your application deadline has passed, you’ll have to go through them thoroughly. At the same time, your applicants are waiting for a word.

Acknowledge the receipt of the application

Communication with applicants is often inadequate in scientific contexts. It puzzles me. The way you treat applicants reflects back on your group and yourself. I think it’s best to treat applicants the way you’d like to be treated if you were in their shoes.

This starts with a friendly acknowledgement that you received the application. Let the applicant know that her documents have arrived (even if you are receiving them by email!), and that you appreciate their interest in the position. You can use this first email contact to set yourself apart from many other labs who play black hole and neither acknowledge receipt nor communicate much otherwise.

Instead of waiting until the deadline has passed before you send out receipts, it’s nice to send out the receipt when the application arrives. State again the deadline, and indicate when you intend to send out invitations. This gives candidates an idea about the process, and avoids letting them hang in the air as happens in so many hiring situations.

I mention on the side that this part of the hiring process is easy to delegate.

Going through applications

For each application, I start with the CV — the “hard facts”. The most important thing is checking whether the applicant meets the criteria you listed on the job ad, and, if you jotted down additional criteria you’d like to see in your candidate, check for those as well.

Other things to check are the university education; any other experience the candidate may have from outside the university, such as real life jobs; internships and abroad experience; and papers.

For Postdoc positions, if you want to be sure that a candidate is really proficient in a skill or method, the best evidence is probably that she has one or more publications in which she used it. This is a conservative criterion though. For instance, PhDs who apply before they’ve handed in their thesis may not have published the relevant paper.

After studying the CV, I read the motivation letter. I don’t give it too much weight, because my experience is that applicants overstate their experience. Basically, anything a candidate claims in the motivation letter must be reflected in the CV. Therefore, I use it to check whether I’ve overlooked anything in the CV.

Finally, it can be enlightening to check the content of the CV and motivation letter against information you find on the internet. I once had an applicant who told me in the letter that his dream was to do a PhD in Germany, but had a linkedin profile that stated he wanted to emigrate to Canada and was looking for a job there. Mmmh.

Contacting applicants for extra information

Sometimes you’ll be torn about whether someone might be fit for the job or not. Maybe the motivation letter is very convincing, but you are in doubt as to whether the specialization of the candidate is fitting for the job on offer.

In such cases, you can simply contact the candidate and try to clear things up. Small questions can be cleared up by email. Other times, it might be more appropriate to make a phone call.

Should I call references?

Calling people who know your candidates can be useful. However, it is usually best to make these calls after you’ve met the candidate.

If you call references before the interviews, then you will potentially have to make a lot of calls, and this eats up lots of time.

More importantly, the information you obtain from the references will bias your view of the applicant. This can go both ways: if the references were positive, you might not scrutinize the applicant enough in the interview.

If the references were negative, you might even skip an invitation although the candidate would have been great for you. I’ve seen students about whom I showed little enthusiasm when asked as a reference get along great in another group. References are personal, and not objective. Better first get your own impression.

And last not least, you actually will know much better what to inquire about if you call the reference after you’ve spoken with the candidate.

We’ll talk about how to best lead a phone call with a reference in the fourth post about hiring.

Choosing who to invite

After you’ve studied the applications, you now have to decide which candidates you want to meet.

Keep your options open

Your aim during the hiring process is to gather as much information as possible to make the best decision. Therefore, don’t narrow down your list too fast.

  • Invite a large number of applicants. Especially if you are a more or less normal scientist (that is, you are not the King Kong of your research field), do not assume that the candidate you choose will accept your offer. Candidates usually apply for several positions and might get to pick.
  • For that same reason, do not reduce the number of interviews because one or two candidates appear much better than the rest.
  • The same goes for situations in which you have a favorite candidate (e.g. a Master student who did his thesis with you). First check your options. Then decide.

Pre-screen interview

You can potentially save a lot of time (and, if you do refunds, money) by conducting pre-screen interviews by phone or Skype. In these interviews, you check the general fit of the candidate and decide whether you will invite the candidate for a full interview.

The book Who: The A Method for Hiring suggests the following questions for screening interviews:

  • What are your career goals? — Check whether the candidate’s large-scale ideas fit with your position.
  • What are you really good at? — Check whether the points the candidate lists fit with the list you made.
  • What are you not good at or not interested in doing professionally? — Try to get a clearer picture about the candidate. See whether you find any no-gos.
  • How would your previous bosses rate you on a scale from 1-10? — This questions aims to make the candidate look at himself from a third person perspective. It affirms that you intend to contact references, and this hopefully makes the candidate reply truthfully.

You would invest about 30 minutes, and try to obtain some 10 strengths and weeknesses/disinterests. The aim is not to cover every little detail. Rather, you want to weed out any applicants who clearly don’t fit for the position.

The coin’s flip side: Not enough applications

But what do you do when the pool of applicants is not what you were hoping for?
For instance, when only one or two, or even none of the applicants meets the criteria you’ve set?

This is a difficult situation. Some possibilities are:

  • For each candidate, decide whether you think she will be able to learn the skills and methods you require. Invite candidates who have demonstrated that they learn quickly, adapt well, and seem genuinely interested in your position.
  • Decide whether some criteria you set can be dropped. This is definitely not an ideal thing to do, unless you’ve set your criteria very high. Invite those candidates who are missing only things you judge would be nice but aren’t vital.
  • When you read about hiring, you will usually be told that you should never hire a person you are not convinced of. This is good advice. Keep in mind that you will be stuck with this employee for the duration of the project. Therefore, your last option is to intensify your search. Go back to advertising, asking around for recommendations etc.

Writing invitations and rejections

Writing invitations is the easy part, given that you’re bringing the candidate good news.
In your invitation,

  • state the date and time you want the candidate to arrive
  • tell her where she should go on campus and in your building
  • detail the interview process, such as talk, interview, meet colleagues, lab tour
  • state whether you will reimburse travel
  • ask for confirmation that the candidate will actually come, and set a date for this feedback.

The harder part is writing to those who you will not invite. But don’t just let those applicants hang in the air, waiting and never hearing anything. Instead, inform them about the status.

  • Inform applicants of whom you are certain you will not invite that you have now chosen those candidates for interviews who best fit the position, and that you are not inviting them. Be friendly. For example, wish them success for their further search.
  • If you have many applicants, and are only inviting the best of those, you can consider making a waiting list. Tell candidates who don’t make it in the first interview round that, at this point, you’ve invited those who fit best. Let them know that their application is nevertheless interesting and that you would like to invite them if you do not find a match in the current round. (Remember though that you should always invite a good number of applicants from the start, so don’t make invitation rounds with 2 candidates each…)
  • Sometimes applicants you reject ask for feedback. Help them. You don’t have to be long, but don’t ignore their request.

Should I use Skype for interviews?

We’ve talked about pre-screening interviews, and those are done by phone or Skype. But what about the “real” interview?
The short answer is: it depends.

Especially when you cannot reimburse travel, Skype is an adequate alternative for candidates from abroad.

The downside is obvious: giving (and hearing) a job talk over Skype is awkward. You don’t really meet the person. The candidate does not see the lab.

Therefore, Skype is probably best used at a preselection phase. Before you and the candidate would then make a final decision, you’d presumably try and arrange a real visit.

How do you choose which candidates you invite for interviews? And how do you communicate with your applicants? Let us know in the comments!


Who: The A Method for Hiring by Geoff Smart and Randy Street is helpful also for the contents of this second post. They suggest doing a screening interview by phone, and they lay out exactly how to do it.


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

Photo credit: floodllama / Foter / CC BY

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