Tagged starting up

Initiating, planning, and running collaborations

Collaborations are everywhere in research. They are the Number One way to import methods and expertise into your research group, and to export your own knowledge to help others go new ways.. They also give your team members additional training opportunities. So today’s post is all about initiating, planning, maintaining, and quitting collaborations – both for PIs and their group members.

together we can

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

In this post, I address collaborations both from the view of the PI, and from the view of a scientist in training. One of my PhDs asked me to write about this topic, and it’s definitely one of the topics that should be discussed and taught during graduate training.

Being strategic about collaborations

I first collaborated at the very beginning of my PhD; of course, this collaboration had been initiated by my supervisor. Then, nothing followed for a while. When the first opportunities presented themselves toward the end of my PhD, I was thrilled and jumped at them. But I found that with my first papers out, and with becoming known in my field through conferences and talks, there were soon more opportunities than I could possibly serve.

At this point, senior scientists told me that I should be strategic about my collaborations. So, while it might be take what you get at a very early stage, opportunities for collaborations abound once you’re at the stage of Postdoc or PI. And then, each collaboration you agree to means saying no to others.

The three most important questions to ask about any potential collaborations are:

  • What am I looking for, and what is my gain? Some aspects are access to data acquisition and anaylsis methods; expanding into a new topic; getting into a new social network. You might have others.
  • What can I offer the collaborator; what is his gain? One important thing you can always invest is your time and effort.
  • Therefore, is this collaboration worth investing my and my team’s time? And, what other work, projects, or collaborations will I have to sacrifice to be able to handle this one?

Responding to invitations to collaborate

…if the PI is asked

As PI, inquiries can go three ways:

First, the collaboration might involve you directly, such as writing a review paper together, writing a collaborative grant together, or providing expertise only you as PI own in the lab. In this case, you have to answer the above questions about the value of the collaboration; probably more importantly, you have to decide whether you have the time to take part.

Second, the collaboration might rather involve someone in the lab, for instance, an expert for some fancy method. Of course, the decision whether to start this collaboration should involve that person. But step one should be for the PI to decide whether it strategically fits the lab. Step two is to discuss with the lab member whether the collaboration will advance their career. The worst way (though this happens quite a bit in real life) is to inform the lab member that, by the way, there is this new project they will soon be working on in addition to all the other stuff they are already doing.

Third, a potential collaborator might ask to work with or in your group. Although the first response to this is usually that as long as that person comes with their own money and do the work, all is fine, any such collaboration does require your supervision, and, at the latest when the resulting paper must be written, considerable time. If the student wants to join your lab, it is also important to think about whether s/he will fit into the group, and how much your lab members will need to be involved in the project. Accordingly, don’t forget to ask them.

…if a lab member is asked

Lab members are probably most often asked to contribute their expertise. This means, they will have to invest considerable time. Let your team members know whether you are open to them discussing collaborations, and at what point you want to be involved. On the one hand, they are on your pay roll. On the other hand, they are on a career path. The further they are in their career, the less they will be willing for you to impose decisions on them. To take conflict by its horns, it is best to discuss openly how much freedom they would like, and how much you are willing to give.

Your team members are likely less experienced with collaborating than you are as a PI. So share your experience with them, and help them get their priorities straight for effective career planning.

…in any case

It’s a risk to enter a collaboration with someone you do not know. I’ve read that some people advise to collaborate only with people you know well. I personally don’t think this is realistic if you want to build a relatively wide network of collaborations. However, it is important to get to know your collaborator as much as possible before giving the final go.
Ask others in your network. Most of the time, someone has information about your prospective collaborator. Furthermore, trust your gut during the initial discussions. If it doesn’t feel right, consider letting it go. And make sure all important aspects of the collaborations are negotiated up front and agreed upon by everyone.

Initiating collaborations

Initiating a collaboration is probably the easiest part of the whole endeavor.
It usually takes as little as a conversation at a conference, or an email.

Your approach will be most successful if you communicate the following things:

  • What is the specific project / topic / experiment you are proposing?
  • What is your background, your lab, etc.?
  • What time frame are you thinking about?
  • Who will pay for the project (travel, living expenses, experiments), and/or does it involve writing a grant?
  • What is your investment, and what would you like the collaborator to provide?
  • What result are you aiming for? (In most cases, this will be a publication.)

You might not communicate all of these points at once; in a conversation, you can contribute them piece by piece when they fit. If you go via email, some things might be discussed only after initial contact has been made.

Your collaborator will have his own agenda and ideas, and might propose alternatives to your own ideas. Don’t be too quick to say yes to everything. Remember to evaluate the collaboration strategically. Therefore, before you make initial contact, know what you really want out of the proposed collaboration.

Planning the collaboration

Once it’s clear that both sides are generally interested, it’s time to do some real planning:

  • In your own lab, make sure people know who is involved in what way.
  • Specify the project. Decide on the exact experiment or product. Make sure everyone is on the same page.

  • Discuss who will provide funds. If the collaboration involves someone staying in the other’s lab, this includes travel and housing cost. Make sure to think hard about all types of cost that will arise: experimental subjects, materials, publication cost etc. If grant writing is necessary, agree upon who will provide which parts.

  • Discuss a timeline.

  • Discuss authorship of a prospective publication. This can feel very weird, especially when you do it the first time. But it really helps to clear up everyone’s role in the project ahead of time. For instance, the first author will be expected to do pretty much all the work noone else feels responsible for. The last author will probably be the one to provide funds for experimentation. But these things will depend on your field, and on the specific situation.
    Discussion about authorship is especially important if junior members of both collaborating teams are involved: both might want to use this work toward their qualification (e.g. PhD), which is often only possible with a first authorship. Equal contributions are becoming more common, but might not be admissable in all graduate programs. As PI, be sure such administrative aspects are cleared up well in advance to avoid dark hours for your PhD later.
    Discussion about authorship is also relevant for the seniors of the collaborating labs, as last authorship may be important for tenure, success-oriented funding, and salary increases. Here, too, shared authorship is becoming fashionable. Again, it’s smart to clear up the consequences of author order in advance.

  • Distribute tasks. Where will what work be done? Who will program the experiment? Who will do what analysis? Who will write? Will there be student assistants who can support data acquisition? It’s good to know these things early on.

Maintaining the collaboration

Schedule short status checks to show your collaborator that you have the project in view. If the work is done in your collaborator’s lab, ask for status updates if they are not provided. If the work is done in your lab, be proactive: let your collaborator know how it’s advancing regularly. If it is not advancing, let him know too, and explain the reasons.

If your lab members are involved, make sure they represent your lab in the way you expect. For instance, ask them to give you and the collaborator regular updates. Make sure they keep their deadlines, and communicate well in advance when they see that they can’t keep them.

If the collaboration goes well – and this mainly means: if everyone gets a long well, and mutual trust has developed – one collaboration will lead to another.

Handling problems and taking the exit

Not every collaboration goes the way you imagined. There might be personal issues. You might learn that you do not trust your collaborator, or that their work ethic differs from yours. It’s possible that your collaborator does not deliver what he promised, or passes deadlines by months.

Whatever the reason: if you notice early, bring it up in your meetings. Your collaborator might not be aware that he is not meeting your expectations. Or he might think that you are fine with how it’s going as long as you don’t complain. As PI, let your collaborating student know that you will support him if the collaboration becomes difficult. As a junior researcher, claim your supervisor’s support if you don’t get enough.

Yet, sometimes all the talking does not result in the changes you want to see. There can come a point at which the value of the collaboration has become too low for you to maintain it. Or, to say it in more colloquial words, at some point, it’s just annoying without benefits.

At that point, consider ending the collaboration. There might be some reasons that make you feel you can’t, such as if your collaborator is someone really important in the field whom you do not want to cross. But even then, think hard whether you can find a way to exit gracefully. If you can’t come up with a good solution, ask a mentor or a colleague you trust.

The more work has gone into a project, the less we are inclined to let it go. Yet, if the situation in the collaboration is such that success does not seem probable, any additional effort going into the project is too much.

Celebrate your wins

And because I don’t want to end with such depressing things as quitting collaborations, let’s instead end with something happy: when a collaboration ends successfully, don’t forget to thank your collaborators. A phone call or email can be adequate. Or a dinner with all project members at the next conference. Or raising a glass of sparkling wine over skype.

Now, all the best for your collaborations!

I’m sure there are more tips for collaborating, both from the view of the PI and of junior scientists. Please share them below by leaving a comment!


Others have discussed how to quit a collaboration if it doesn’t work anymore.

The book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less is a plea for reducing the number of things we do. Certainly something to consider when planning collaborations. Then again, don’t forget that collaborations build your network like nothing else.

Photo credit: DonkeyHotey / Foter.com / CC BY


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

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

    Are you available to your team?

    When your group grows, two trends make being available to the team more difficult: you are more often gone from the lab, and an increasing number of team members multiplies the requests for your time. It can be difficult to find the balance between making yourself available, following your calendar, and getting your own stuff done.


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

    I recently interviewed candidates for a Postdoc position in my lab. One of the questions I ask is what the candidate expects of me as a supervisor. To my surprise, two candidates replied that they would like to get a response to email within 3 to 5 days. One of the candidates paused, looked out the window, and then carefully said: “Yes, that would be nice.”

    Why it’s important to be responsive to your team

    Advancing a science career not only brings with it a team that works for you. At the same time, we are more and more absent from the lab, sitting in administrative meetings, giving talks, visiting conferences, or finding some quiet to write.

    As the head of my team, I hope that my team members will make the right decisions when I am not there. Yet, from the day to day experience in the lab, I know that there are often situations in which a PhD or Postdoc would ask my opinion if I were available. On the one hand, it’s nice if they don’t, and leave me to concentrate on the stuff I’m doing. On the other hand, it’s hard to know when it would actually be critical that I make a decision myself, and detrimental if the team member decided not to ask, fearing to disrupt my work.

    First and foremost, not responding to a team member’s inquiry communicates that your priorities are elsewhere. People quickly feel disrespected, whether this is what you intend or not. Beyond that, holding off responses for several days can delay important work of the team, make you miss opportunities, or force your team members to make potentially disadvantageous, if not right-out wrong, decisions.

    Some tools you can implement to help you being available

    Even if availability appears unproblematic in your group right now, it could prove helpful to install some tools before your schedule becomes unexpectedly busy. Here are some ideas.

    • Regular meetings hold off ad-hoc disruptions. Many things don’t need to be solved at once; but they also can’t wait several weeks. Similarly, many potential questions are foreseeable. If you schedule short weekly meetings, or have open time slots that can be booked by your team, then you’ll have less interruptions during other times.
    • Make your cell phone number known. If you are regularly gone from the lab, give people the possibility to call you. If you don’t like to be called, you can ask to be notified by SMS when you are needed. This gives you the possibility to respond when you have time. If you won’t be reachable or don’t want to be called, let your team know.
    • Separate team email from other email. Email is one of the hells of today’s working world. I try to check email only twice a day, and have notifications turned off on all my devices. But when I open my Inbox, I can have a fear-inducing number of new email.
      • To prioritize your team, you can use the filter functions that most email apps provide. For instance, you can have email by your team members display in bold, or in a different color, so they pop out.
      • Organize your email notifications. Some email clients allow you to specify for which kind of email you want to be notified. For instance, Mac and iOS allow you designating your contacts as VIPs, for which you can set up separate notification rules.
      • You can set up a separate email address just for “emergencies”. Ask your team to use this email when it’s urgent. If you use this approach, consider turning on notifications for that account, and make sure you check it regularly.
      • An easier way might be to use keywords in email titles with your team. This combines well with filters. For instance, ask that urgent emails start with URGENT, and filter such emails to be displayed in a different color. To avoid spam being filtered incorrectly, you can use an additional keyword, for example your lab name’s abbreviation, e.g. MyLab URGENT. Keywords also help you scan for important email more generally. For example, it can be very helpful to always mention in the title the project the email is about.
    • Use Evernote for offline communication. My lab uses Evernote with notebooks shared by all project members. Following up on critical projects, or checking on a designated “what’s up” note in the project notebook relieves everyone from writing emails, and automatically documents the project progress.

    It’s worth playing around with these different methods to find the combination that best works for you and your team. In my experience, putting these kinds of tools into place takes a bit of getting used to for everyone. Some people will tend to call too often; some not enough. Some feedback will help tuning.

    What are your stuggles with availability? Have you found well-working solutions? Let us know in the comments!

    Related Resources

    Mashable has some helpful tips on filtering in Gmail.

    Find out about how we use Evernote in the lab in my Evernote Hacks series.

    I’ll write about regular meetings sometime, but until then, there’s some interesting stuff to learn in the Manager Tools Basics podcast. Look for posts about One-on-One meetings; also see their website. Warning: these guys talk a lot. Helpful. But lengthy.

    Photo credit: KaylaKandzorra / Foter / CC BY


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

    Remove yourself: start leading, stop micro-managing

    When you were a PhD and Postdoc, you became an expert for the scientific methods you used for your research. Stepping up the career ladder as a group leader, you use your hands-on scientific expertise less and less, and your work is dominated by conceptual planning and team leadership. I’ve said before that the step from Postdoc to research group leader is very similar to that from expert to small business leader: the most important step of the entrepreneur is to remove himself from the everyday business.

    remove yourself

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

    Any business depends on its owner – but, as Michael Gerber explains in his book The E-myth, often for the wrong reason!

    Gerber explains that the biggest mistake small business owners make is that they stick to doing expert work, that is, the work they used to do so well that they decided to base their own business on it. This ties them up, and they aren’t free to do the work for which their business should really depend on them: leading and expanding.

    As leader of your research group, you face the same challenge: to get stuck in the day-to-day research and to fail stepping up to steer. The solution is to systematically “remove yourself” from the research work. A weird thing to say, isn’t it? Yet, before I started leading my own research group, those who already did consistently told me that my work would change. So, rather than waiting until you can’t wait any longer, make it an explicit aim from the start: remove yourself.

    3 reasons to remove yourself

    Why would you consider to remove yourself? There’s at least 3 important reasons.

    Your job description has changed

    First and foremost, you now employ people who do the operative work. Your role in the group is to lead. Some of the tasks that come with being a group leader are rather obvious, such as making decisions and structuring everyone’s responsibilities. But maybe the more important part is that you now have to grow and develop your group. This means that you have to write and revise many more papers than before; decide when you need new people and new money, and write the grants for it; make sure that your team members develop new skills and expertise and coach them. You simply won’t have time for operative work anymore.

    The idea of scale

    In business, scale refers to doing more of the same simply by adding one more. One more McDonald’s. With one more set of employees who have exactly the same functions as those in all other McDonald’s franchises. Look at my post on Michael Gerber’s book, the E-Myth, which lays out the idea of scale for small businesses in more detail.

    The idea of scale ports directly to your research group. It means that you have to make sure that you can get more research done by simply adding new people to the team. This will only be possible if the work in your lab does not depend on you. If you have to train every new lab member yourself, then there’s a tight limit to the number of new people that can join. If you have to invest significant time into every project that is running in your lab, then the number of projects is seriously limited.

    Make your group sustainable even in times when you can’t be there

    remove yourself – but stay in controlAs you climb up the career ladder, you’ll have more stuff going on outside the lab: talk and conference invitations, review boards, administrative meetings etc. You’d like to be sure that work gets done when you can’t be there.

    You might find that writing and planning – of which you’ll presumably be doing more than before – is easier in other places than the office, and decide to work at home on some days.

    And if you are planning to take a break from work or to reduce your working hours to raise children, this point is especially important. You’ll be much more calm about being gone if you know that your group’s work continues, and that you will be notified only when it doesn’t.

    So why am I still here?

    As the leader of your group, your main responsibility is to steer where the whole thing is going. Of course “removing yourself” cannot mean that you have nothing to do with your group anymore. It means that you stop doing the operative work that you used to do and for which you became expert during your PhD and Postdoc time. Yes, you drop all that to free yourself for a different kind of work: planning, expanding, guiding, supervising, thinking, and writing.

    6 strategies to remove yourself

    How can you set up your group in such a way that you can remove yourself? Although you want to be able to be gone, the research group is still your baby, and you have to be in control.

    I’ll give a brief list of strategies, and pick each point up again in separate posts later on.

    • Delegate. The most obvious thing to do is to hand off as many tasks as you can to your team. Your work should be the things that a) only you can do, and b) you do best. This means that you have to hire the right people – those who can take over as much as possible of all other tasks. I’ve written about delegation here.
    • Templates, Workflows, and Instructions. Create documentation of the knowledge that is necessary to do the research right. I’ve posted about this here.
    • Create a group culture. When you aren’t there, then your team must make its own decisions. You would like those decisions to be the same ones you would have made yourself. The way to ensure that is to have a group vision and culture. If you and your team share the same priorities and values, then everyone will make compatible decisions. Development of a group culture requires explicit communication with the team.
    • Set up an organizational structure. It must be clear who is responsible for what; who can answer what questions; what kind of events may be handled entirely without you (and by who); and for what kind of things you want to be kept in the loop, or make the final decision. You can delegate some leadership roles to some of your group members, e.g. Postdocs. Make sure they know what you expect of them, and where their competence ends.
    • Set up communication. Make sure you can be reached. For example, hand out your mobile number, or have an emergency email address for your team that you check even when you don’t check other email. Everyone should know how to best forward information to you. There are many interesting options for team communication besides Email, such as Evernote, Slack, Gitlab, Google Docs, and Asana. I’ve posted on being available here.
    • Set up regular meetings. It is essential to have regular meetings with the group, and with each team member. Many business people recommend weekly One-on-Ones with individual teams members; I’ve found that this is good for new lab members, but can be too much later on.
    What strategies are you using to remove yourself? Share it in the comments!

    Photo credits: walking up stairs: Pexels; waving woman: Starbug / Foter / CC BY


    I’ve mentioned Michael Gerber’s book, the E-Myth, in several posts, for example in my review of the book, and in The Scientist as an Entrepreneur.

    Tim Ferriss has written a lot about the idea of removing yourself in his book, The 4-hour workweek. The book’s aim is rather different from this post’s, but it is full of thought-provoking ideas that can be used for our purposes.


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

    Starting in a new place with new funding: what should be on your list

    If you’ve just received grant money to set up a research group in a new place, or have been offered a leading position or professorship, there’s a myriad of things to make sure, check, negotiate and set up. Check this list to make sure you’ve got everything covered.

    todo list

    I’m trying to make this an extensive check list of all the things you should look at when you start your research team or science group. Not every point has to fit everyone. But everyone should be reminded of all relevant things here.

    This is work in progress!! If something is missing, please give feedback in the comments!


    Note: depending on what kind of position you are negotiating, some of these points are really obvious, but for other jobs they may not be. Some points might not apply to you.
    This list is geared towards first-time grants (e.g. ERC starting grants; German Emmy Noether grants) and (German) junior professorships, not towards negotiating a full professorship. There will be many more points for the latter (a list to come later).

    Your own work situation

    • When does the contract start? When does it end?
    • What is your salary?
    • Can you get training for your new challenges? Ask your funding agency whether they pay for some training; ask whether your university offers training.

    If you are your new position is not a professor position in Germany (e.g., you got an Emmy Noether grant):

    • Is it possible to negotiate your salary? Check what steps are necessary to rise to the next income rank (e.g. TV-L15). It might be necessary to submit a request the administration to be placed in a higher income rank.
    • What is your status? Are you considered equivalent to a junior professor? Or are you considered “just a postdoc”? In election and in administrative decisions, is your vote a professorial vote or not?
    • Are you expected to take part in administrative meetings? (Germany: Fakultätsrat; Professorium; …)

    Your group’s work situation and your new lab

    • Where will be everyone’s office? How man people should share an office?
    • Will you be provided with computers, other hardware, software? If your research includes CPU or memory intensive computations, make sure that you will be provided with adequate hardware.
    • Can you use somebody else’s lab(s)? Are there labs that are shared by everyone? Do you have to share your own lab?

    If your grant includes equipment:

    • Who is going to order it? This will depend on the funding source and cost of the device. For instance, the German Research Foundation purchases equipment >50.000€ itself.
    • Make sure you know what is being ordered. Depending on when you obtained the quote you submitted with the grant, there may be newer/better products. Find out whether you can purchase those.
    • Find out when your equipment will be delivered. This can be important information for you to decide when to hire new team members.
    • Are you required to document anything? This may be the case especially with EU money (work hours, what people are working on etc.). Find out early and do it right from the beginning to save yourself lots of headaches later.
    • Do you need to submit an ethics proposal before you can do your work?

    Your new team: hiring

    • Make sure you find out all the rules of your institution first.
    • When should your team members start?
    • Where do you have to advertise your positions? Where else can you advertise? Is there a budget for ads? If not (probably not…), then can you use your funding?
    • Can you refund applicants’ travel cost (often no)?
    • How long does the position have to be advertised?
    • How long does it take from your decision to hire someone until that person gets a contract?
    • What is the procedure for interviews? Who has to be present? Does the women’s representative have to be involved, or even be present for the interviews? Do you need to involve the personnel’s representative (Germany: Personalrat)?
    • Find out beforehand how you have to document the application process. For instance, at German universities you will have to give reasons for every person that applied but you did not invite; you might have to show what you did to encourage women to apply; etc.


    • If you’ve never had to do with financial administration in science, you’re in for some struggles. There will be lots of rules about what you can buy, and how. It might be worth to meet the administrative person who is responsible for you in person.
    • Find out whether you can sign your own purchase orders.
    • What can you buy from your grant money, and what not? Check wether the funding agency excluded anything (they tend to). If you really need what was excluded from your grant, can you get it from the university? In Germany, ask about “Grundausstattung”.
    • Do you have a yearly budget apart from your grant money?
    • Do you get parts of the overheads that your institution gets from the funding agency? If so, what can you spend that money for?
    • When does your grant officially start? For instance, at the German Research Foundation, the grant starts with the first money spent. If you are ordering equipment early, so that you have it when the team comes in, then your grant will already be running. In this case, make sure you know when the grant ends. Often, you can prolong the grant’s running time if this does not add any cost. So, although your grant started with the order of the equipment, your team will be able to have the expected duration for their contracts.
    In your experience, what other points are important when someone settles in a new place? Are there things you wish you had known ahead of time? I’d be curious to hear about it in the comments!


    Look for courses you can take to get acquainted with leadership, administrative aspects, finances, etc.

    In Germany:
    Courses of the Deutscher Hochschulverband
    Courses of the Zentrum für Wissenschaftsmanagement


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

    Photo credit: Emily Carlin / Foter / CC BY-ND

    Education discounts: save money almost everywhere

    You can save quite some money by claiming discounts that are often announced only in small print and in hidden places on websites, and sometimes negotiate even better prices for many products and services you use.

    education discounts

    As researchers, our funding is usually tight, especially when the group is still young, funded maybe by just a single grant. It’s often not easy to decide for a purchase, even if you feel that it would be valuable to the team.

    Education discounts

    Luckily, many companies offer education discounts. Most of the time though, these are not advertised on their web pages. So, you have to write them and ask.

    To give you a few examples, companies that will give you a discount are Evernote, Dropbox, Tresorit, Microsoft (e.g. for the iPad Office version), Asana, Apple (google Apple education for your national website though), and toketaWare. These are just a few examples, and many other companies offer discounts as well.

    First off, it often looks as if education discounts are for students only. Usually, this is not true. Mostly, if you teach, or even if you just work at, a university, then you are eligible for education discounts. If in doubt, write them and ask…

    These discounts can be substantial, as high as 75% off the regular, advertised price! I don’t think I’ve found a software over 10$/€ that doesn’t offer a discount. Discounted prices are becoming more and more important with the current trend that software is sold via subscription models (“only $4.99 a month!”), so that you sign up for long-term costs. For example, the serious plans of online storage companies like Dropbox and Tresorit can cost in the hundreds if you want to use their business plans for your entire team. But even if you only want to buy the “professional” (single user) plans, many apps and softwares nowadays cost near 100$/€ per year.

    But not only software companies offer education discounts. Hardware companies and stores, like Apple and Dell, do as well.

    Yearly subscriptions

    If the product you buy is sold as a subscription model, another way to save some money is usually to pay on a yearly, and not monthly, basis. Most companies cut their prices by 1/6, that is, they give you 2 months free.

    This option is often, but not always advertised on the pricing pages — so again, if you don’t see this option, write them and ask!


    Finally, you can often negotiate your price. I’ve been surprised about how fast many companies will get in touch and offer discounts when you indicate that you are interested in buying their product – even before you’ve asked for the lower price. They might offer to call, and if you are seriously interested in the product, take them up on that offer: this makes negotiating faster and easier.

    You might wonder what kind of leverage you have to negotiate. I’ve found that companies consider different aspects valuable, so they might be worth bringing up.

    • The first step to get a better price is to just ask, “Can you offer me a discount?”, or “Is there something you can do about the price here?”
    • Be aware of your leverage. For instance, a young company really needs customers. You usually wouldn’t bring this up in a conversation, but keep it in mind. Don’t simply say yes to the first offer.
    • You want to buy several licenses/seats/…: the more you need, the higher is a potential discount. Negotiate harder if you are planning to increase the number of licenses in the near future.
    • You might be willing to take a reduction in service for a lower price (e.g. less storage from a cloud service than advertised). You can combine this with asking “Is there another way to reduce the price?”, so that they can offer you to take out some aspect of the regular offer. You can also try “I could pay X%. Is there some way to modify the offer so that you can meet that price?”
    • You are considering several similar services (e.g. different cloud storage services). Get quotes from all of them. Bring up the price in the negotiation with the other ones. When you do this, you will hear arguments about why the product that you are negotiating is better than all the other ones. So before you throw price comparisons at the sales representative, think about what aspects are important to you.

    So: Try it and start saving today

    For some people, it is normal to ask for discounts. For most, it feels weird and difficult at first. It did for me. But I can say that I have saved substantial amounts by simply asking whether I can get a better price, and sometimes by being persistent about wanting a better price after an initial “no”.

    Also, don’t worry about hearing “no”. You won’t always get the price you hoped for. Still, negotiating is a normal part of business. The sales person won’t think bad of you.

    Most of our funding is tax money. It’s not just nice to save some money here and there. It’s also responsible use of our resources.

    Have you had positive or negative experiences in trying to get better prices for some products? Have you found good ways to negotiate, and good arguments to bring up during negotations? Share your ideas and experiences in the comments!


    If you feel insecure about negotiating, it might be worth reading a book on it.

    Secrets of Power Negotiating (Inside Secrets from a Master Negotiator) by Roger Dawson is a collection of small chapters, each of which talks about one tactic or “trick” in negotiations. Many of them can be used in “small” everyday negotations like the ones I talked about here. Not all parts of the book are great, and the style is a matter of taste. But I found the first ⅔ of the book interesting and useful. (Warning about the last third of the book: try not to get a screaming seizure when you read the part about negotiating with Europeans).

    Bargaining for Advantage: Negotiation Strategies for Reasonable People by G.R. Shell is a much more moderately written book, based on scientific investigation about negotiation. But it talks about large negotiations, and could be useful, for example, to prepare for negotiating a job position or a collaboration contract with a company.


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

    Photo credit: Tax Credits / Foter / CC BY

    The trouble is… (or: why this blog exists)

    It’s a long road. Here’s how it all started, and why I’d like for you to come along.

    long road...

    Welcome to ScienceLabLife, my blog about leading, supervising, and managing a research team, group, or lab.

    How I got here…

    If you’re a researcher or scientist who leads a team or group, chances are that the reason you got to where you are now is that you found a passion in the science you (used to) do. That’s how I started, too. I acquired skills to do my research, became expert in analyzing my typical data, and wrote papers about my discoveries. Then I moved on to be a PostDoc and was given responsibility to supervise some PhD students of my supervisor. Shortly after, I wrote two grant proposals that secured my own funding, including several PhD candidates who who are now doing “the real work”.

    …and how it’s all different

    Here’s the trouble: none of what this new situation of having my own group required of me was in my area of expertise. Sure, I had observed other supervisors and formed some ideas about what I thought they had done well, and what not. I had some ideas and intuitions about what I wanted my group to be like.

    My mentors and supervisors had told me that my job would significantly change once I start my own group. I would not be doing much “real scientific work” — experimenting and data analysis — any longer.

    Though I’m still doing some of that “old stuff”, most of what I do now is certainly very different from what I used to do as a PhD and beginning PostDoc. I find myself teaching and coaching my group members, evaluating their scientific ideas, making sure they thought of everything when they do their experiments, reading and revising what they have written, and trying to come up with effective and efficient ways to keep track of what everyone is up to.

    I’d be lying if I told you that I don’t enjoy the challenge. I’ve found it highly rewarding to build my own thing. To set my own priorities. To make the decisions. But I would also be lying if I said that this all came natural, continually worked well, and that I always knew what I was doing.

    Sound familiar?

    map If so, then welcome to my blog — I hope that the posts I plan to publish here will be of use to you: help you finding the balance between doing science and leading; suggest strategies and tactics that help you succeed with your group; challenge the way you think about leadership; share some everyday hands-on stuff that, in my experience, works well; and, along the way, perhaps be fun, too.

    Sometimes I’ll post things that I have established because I have found them useful. Sometimes I’ll post about ongoing “experiments” and ideas. I’m a curious person, and I’d like to know when you find something helpful, and when you don’t, and when you agree or disagree. So do let me know about your experiences, opinions, and your own tips by leaving comments underneath the posts, or by emailing me directly. I’ll be delighted to have discussions with you!

    If you decide that you want to follow along, sign up for email updates. I will then send you a note when I make new content available.

    Photo credit: Unsplash (both photos)