Tagged hire

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
[about] [read more]


  • 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

    Hiring Part III: The candidate’s visit – job talk and interview

    The candidate’s visit to your lab is the most important step in the hiring process. Yet, it’s all but easy to be the interviewer, and it can feel just as daunting to be on the hiring side as to be the applicant. In today’s post, the third of four on hiring, we’ll look at each part of the candidate visit: talk, interview, lab tour, and meeting the team.

    hiring interview

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


    • 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.
    • This post 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.

    In many cases, the candidate’s visit to the lab will be the only time you meet in person before you make a hiring decision. Because you’d like to get to know the candidate, it’s good to have more than just an interview. I suggest the following structure:

    • Candidate gives a talk about his recent work (e.g. his Master thesis, her PhD work)
    • Interview
    • Tour through the lab and, maybe, the university
    • Candidate meets several members of your research group, preferably those he will have to interact with most later on

    Let’s look at each of these items.

    The job talk

    Presenting your work is one of the most important aspects of a career in science. By asking candidates to give a talk, you get the opportunity to learn about several important aspects about both the candidate herself as well as her work. What exactly you look out for might differ from field to field; here are some points that I’ve used in the past:

    • How does the candidate present herself? Can you imagine her presenting work for your group at a conference?
    • Is the candidate able to find a balance between scientific detail (to show off her qualification and specialization) and generalization and abstraction (to be able to reach the audience that, usually, will not be particularly invested in the presented work?
    • Did the candidate choose a good story line? Does one part of the talk lead to the next?
    • Can the candidate handle questions? Does she understand them? Can she give a satisfying reply? If not, can she gracefully save herself? Does she allow other viewpoints? Does she stand firm on her own?
    • Do you get the impression that the scientific skills the candidate used for the presented work are what you are looking for?

    The second reason a talk is a great tool for getting to know candidates is that your team and, potentially, others around your group can all meet the candidate and get an impression. Before the talk, instruct at least some of your team to ask questions.

    After the visit, make sure to ask as many attendees as possible about their opinion. I’ve often found surprisingly converging opinions, but I’ve also had candidates about whom the feedback of the group was dichotomous. This is important feedback you shouldn’t overlook and ignore.

    And third, be aware that it’s also the other way around: the talk is a great way for the candidate to meet everyone and get an impression about the environment he would be getting into.

    Therefore, make sure your group makes a good impression! Have a drink ready for the speaker. Clear up beforehand whether questions should be asked during the talk or afterwards. But most importantly, what will make the most positive impact is when your group is curious and involves the guest in an interesting discussion.

    The interview

    The interview is the core of the application process. All the more you may be surprised that the correlation between what most interviewers get out of an interview and the later success of the interviewed candidate is zero.

    This is because interviewers ask the wrong questions.

    The best predictor for future behavior is past behavior. Therefore, the biggest mistake you can make is to just freely ask candidates about how they do something, or how they think about something. Instead, your questions should focus on uncovering how the candidate has acted in the past, and specifically what outcomes he has produced.

    I recommend the book Who: The A Method for Hiring if you want to go deeper into outcome-related questions (advisable!). However, the book suggests a series of four interviews, which I suspect is overkill for most university / research labs. In addition, most of the positions we fill are connected to qualification – a PhD, a Postdoc –, and I think that it’s not sufficient to ask about performance in this context. I suggest the following blocks of questions, partly extracted from Who, for a single long interview:

    1. Of course, you want to know about the goals and interests of your candidate. You can ask questions like
      • What are your career goals?
      • Why are you interested in this position?
      • What are your expectations?
      • What do you want to have achieved when the contract ends?
    2. Find out what strengths the candidate has. You can ask
      • What are you really good at (professionally)? Try to get a good number of strengths, about 10. To learn about past behavior, ask for specific examples for each strength. Don’t settle for general replies such as what the candidate “usually” does.
      • What accomplishments are you proud of?
    3. Find out about weaknesses. Ask
      • What are you not good at, or not interested in (professionally)? As for strengths, try to get a large number of responses. This is difficult. Many candidates come prepared for a question about weaknesses, and follow the common advice to name strengths disguised as weaknesses, such as working too hard, being too persistent etc.
        Those aren’t what you are looking for. Aim at being able to delineate a profile of your candidate – this consists of what he can, but also of what he cannot do.
      • You can guide your quest by asking things like Tell me about a project that didn’t go well, and why; and What do you think your boss / collaborator / colleague will say when I ask him about your role and performance in this project? These questions prompt the candidate to think about herself in a third person perspective; apparently, we are more realistic about ourselves then (similar to when you answer questions about yourself while looking in a mirror…). Write down the replies to such questions so that you can check them with references later.
    4. If they haven’t come up, ask about specific areas that are important for the job. For instance, writing is a topic that a lot of PhDs and Postdocs have difficulty with. Again, ask about specific examples.
    5. Find out about culture fit. Relevant aspects are
      • what are the candidate’s expectations about guidance and mentorship? Do they fit with what you offer?
      • How will the candidate contribute to group life? Think of teaching methods to others; helping with statistics or programming; participating in group meetings etc. As before, inquiring about past behavior and concrete examples will prompt more reliable answers.
      • Another point that is often relevant is expectations about and willingness to teach.

    If you conduct the interview together with another interviewer, it can help to agree on forehand on who will ask about what topics.

    With all these questions, don’t forget to give the candidate the chance to ask her own questions, and have a short but complete introduction about your scientific project and / or the position ready.

    Lab tour

    If your research group does lab or experimental work, then I guess every candidate will want to see the rooms and equipment he would be working with. Besides that, the lab tour is great for two additional reasons.

    First, it gives you the opportunity to probe the candidate more. I have often found that the conversation gets easier, more informal while walking around.
    * You can use things in the lab as triggers to ask new questions, such as about experience with certain methods etc.
    * Observe what kind of questions the candidate asks about the lab. For instance, if you are showing the equipment for a method the candidate claims to be fluent with, this often shows in detailed and competent questions. If such questions don’t come from the candidate, bring them up yourself: “How did you solve technical problem X in your past work?”. I’ve had some candidates tell me that, oh, that was usually the task of the lab technician – not the greatest proof for expertise, is it…
    * Depending on the candidate’s background, the lab tour is a great opportunity to talk about specific work, such as experiments you’re running.

    Second, the lab tour is also somewhat of a sales tour. Make sure to show the candidate everything that is potentially interesting for her. Speak about possibilities, about the funds you have (if you do) to add equipment if needed. Ask what the candidate thinks may be missing from the lab.

    So, use the lab tour to sell your position, and to get to know the candidate more! If you feel you’ve learned enough during the interview, you can also hand the lab tour off to a team member. If you do, it’s good to discuss with that person beforehand what you find important.

    Meeting other group members

    Meeting future colleagues can be a key point of a candidate’s visit. It gives her the chance to ask questions she might not dare to ask you. By talking to group members, the candidate can get an impression of the group’s culture: Are the team members enthusiastic about their work and the team? Are they bored?

    This part of the candidate’s visit is pretty much out of your hand. If your team doesn’t like you, it will breathe through. But even if you think that your team thinks you and the group are great, it’s helpful to discuss prior to the visit what you’d like for your team members to talk about.

    • Encourage your team members to openly talk about the group culture and climate, and to answer questions about how you are as a boss. Any new team member should know what she’s getting into, positive and negative.
    • Encourage your team members to ask their own questions of the candidate, so that they can add to their impression from the talk.
    • You can delegate certain topics to team members, such as the lab tour or presentation of a scientific project. Just always remember that the team member you delegate to can’t read your mind: Tell them what you find important, and what points she should not forget to bring up.
    I’m curious to hear all about how you structure job candidate’s visits to your research group. And I’m especially interested in questions you’ve found useful in the interview. Write a comment!


    Who: The A Method for Hiring by Geoff Smart and Randy Street is very helpful for getting a grasp on the kinds of questions that are useful in interviews.

    The Professor Is In: The Essential Guide To Turning Your Ph.D. Into a Job is a book about getting tenure in the U.S. The interview part is interesting, but won’t help you so much to construct useful questions because it focuses on getting the candidate through partly weird questions of a committee. But the chapter on the job talk (Ch. 34) is good to look at when you think about the criteria for a good talk. It is also worth scanning over the chapter on outraging questions (Ch. 37) – the questions you shouldn’t ask.

    The Manager Tools podcast has some episodes on hiring, such as Setting the bar high (but google for others). This podcast is always very detailed and step-by-step. Sometimes it all takes a bit longer than you wish it did, but you really get in-depth info.


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

    Photo credit: dollen / Foter / CC BY

    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

    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
    [about] [read more]


    • 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