Hiring Part IV: Making your decision

We’ve looked at preparing and getting clear on who you need to hire; at sifting through applications; and at the candidate interview. Today, we’ll turn to the final steps: checking references and making the decision.

make a choice and hit it right

This post is part of the open draft for the Research Group Leader Book
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  • Post I of the Hiring series covered getting all your stuff together, deciding who you need, and getting out the ad.
  • Post II went into how to decide whom to invite, and how to communicate with applicants.
  • Post III will discuss job talk and interview in detail.
  • This last post of the series 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.

After you’ve seen all the candidates who were potential fits for your position, it is now time to make a decision. You should have all the information available to choose the best fitting candidate(s). In Post I, you made a list of all the things you wish for — skills and qualifications, strengths, and personality —, and you can now compare what you found out about each candidate with your wish list.

Personality and strengths

For your decision, personality is just as important as the candidate’s competency.

Optimally, you’ve included the most important character traits and strenghts you are looking for in your criteria list, such as work ethic, motivation, and some personal characteristics. Also look out for character traits that you can’t or don’t want to deal with, and that don’t fit in your group.

It is also important to check the chemistry. Listen to your guts. Did you get the impression that you can have a good working relationship with the candidate? Does s/he fit the team? A team member with bad chemistry can be deadly for the group: expect a decline in cooperation, loss of enthusiasm in group meetings, shallow discussions, to name just some. Put positively, if the chemistry is right, the new candidate will be a catalyst, bring new wind into the group, and give valuable impulses — just by being herself.

Remember that you’ll have to be with the new team member for several years. Always ask yourself whether you imagine that this time will be comfortable or difficult.

And don’t just consult your own guts. Consult as many people as you can. Those who interviewed along with you will have a good impression of the candidates. Ask them about their gut feeling, and whether they would hire the person.

Finally, don’t forget your team members who attended the candidates’ job talks, showed the lab, and met the candidate in private. Chances are they have strong opinions for or against some candidates. Hiring against the will of the group will kill the chemistry right from the start.

Skills and qualifications

These are probably somewhat easier to judge than personality and strengths. Revisit your notes of all interviews. For each candidate, check whether they meet the criteria you set out with in Post I, where candidates fall short of, and where they exceed your expectations. If a candidate lacks an important criterion, cross her off the list.


Some candidates will usually fall off your list for one reason or another. Now you can rank the remaining candidates. At this stage, I’d recommend ignoring whether you think the candidate will actually take your offer or not. Just rank according to who you would like best. Take care to weigh in personality, strengths and chemistry enough, and don’t be blinded by qualifications beyond what you expected to find. Both aspects need to come together.

Consulting references

The very last step before offering the position should be a reference check. Optimally, all you need to do in the reference check is to look for confirmation that the candidate fits your position, and that you haven’t overlooked anything.

As a courtesy to the candidate, ask her beforehand (best during the interview, or else later by email) whether you are allowed to call prior supervisors and colleagues. Be wary if the candidate wants you to skip someone from her recent past, and make sure to find out why.

Questions for the references

The aim of calling a reference is to make sure you didn’t overlook anything that speaks against the candidate, and to reassure that the person fits with your group and the position on offer.

I’ve found that asking (just like being asked…) what “the candidate is like in general” is a difficult question to answer. But it does give the reference the opportunity to communicate what s/he thinks is most important about the candidate. However, more often than not, you’ll probably just hear some general platitudes. Here are some tips to get more out of the conversation with the reference:

  • You can start out with asking the reference to confirm the basics — time and duration of stay in their group, methods used etc. This will hopefully confirm what the candidate told you, but will break the ice.
  • Ask specific questions about concrete projects, events, and contributions. This is exactly the same technique as when interviewing the candidate herself. It helps the reference to recall concrete behavior.

  • Ask about the strengths of the candidate. Also ask about the weaknesses. You can offer the responses the candidate gave you to the reference to see whether s/he agrees.

  • Ask about points that are important for the position, such as whether the knowledge of the candidate is what you think it is (e.g. for methods), writing abilities etc.

  • You can describe your position and ask whether the reference thinks the candidate fits well.

  • You can ask whether, if the reference were you, s/he would have any concerns when hiring the candidate.

Making the offer

If all is well, now is the time to contact the candidate to offer the position. It’s nice to do this personally, i.e. by phone, and not by email. Take into account though that the candidate may have other applications running in parallel, and might need some time to think about your offer. Just ask that they tell you their decision within a day or two.

A phone conversation also gives you the opportunity to clear up anything that is still unclear.

In my experience, there is little negotiation for Postdoc and PhD positions.

  • Money is usually not negotiable, so easy peasy on that one.
  • Starting date can be more tricky, e.g. because the candidate has to finish the current qualification, or wants to travel etc.

  • Of course, you might also get a “no” from your candidate. Bummer. If that happens, you move on to the next person on your list.

    Informing everyone else

    Your favorite candidate(s) might not accept your offer. Therefore, it is smart to not cancel the other candidates you have on your list prematurely. The easiest way to go about is to be vague about when you will make your decision when you speak to the candidates in the interview. Don’t give a date; just say something like “in about two weeks” or so. That way, you will have enough time to call several candidates and even give them decision time.

    Write or call candidates who you have decided not to offer the position. Let them know as soon as you are sure about your decision (but not before), and not before you have gotten a definite yes from your applicant. Always be respectful. Put yourself in the candidate’s shoes and treat them as you would like to be treated yourself. I say this (maybe too often?), just because my experience has been that communication in hiring situations is often inadequate. I don’t know about your field, but mine is small. The chance is big that I will meet the candidate again at a conference, or that she will take a position in a befriended lab. Even if the candidate made a bad impression, stay respectful.

    What if you’re left with no candidate?

    Sometimes, your interviews are disappointing, or all candidates you had on your list decline. That’s tough.

    From all advice I’ve gotten from mentors, and from all I’ve read, everyone recommends not to hire if you’re not certain that the candidate is really what you want. This can be really difficult. After all, you’d like to have your position filled when the project starts, or the work will potentially not get done.

    Despite the pressure, keep in mind that a wrong choice can be just as bad for your project. Therefore, if you didn’t find the right person in your first batch, it’s best to go again. Start from square one. Especially, intensify your search by calling on your network. Make calls instead of sending mass emails. Ask around. Referrals are often the best way to find prospective candidates.

    All the best for your search!

    This post concludes the Hiring series. Please do post comments and questions about any aspect of the entire process. Do you have tips I didn’t mention? Do you have better strategies? Find the comment box at the end of the page.


    If candidates decline your job offer, maybe you can do more to show what makes your group an attractive workplace. This post on Tenure Chasers has some good tips.


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

    Photo credit: Lars P. / Foter / CC BY

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