Starting and Maintaining Your First Laboratory (Part 3) - Hiring Great People

Interviewing and Hiring Staff

Every PI knows that carrying out great research requires great staff.  Every PI also knows that interviews are critical for recruiting the best person for the job.  It can be difficult to carry out interviews effectively, especially if you haven’t done so before.  So here are a few tips to get you started:
  • When interviewing, whether formally or informally, start by introducing yourself and the lab’s main themes.  Pose some questions to the student to see if he/she knows you or what you are doing and then elaborate more precisely. This is a good litmus test to asses if the student took the time to read about your project in your website or to talk to the rest of your lab.
  • Interview undergraduates (for graduate school) – Ask mainly about what field(s) interest the applicant, what he/she aspires to learn and do in their project. Try to assess their motivation levels and ambition to pursue challenging projects and career choices to see if the student would be a good fit in your laboratory.
  • Interview masters graduates – In this type of interview your goal will be to assess how the applicant copes with scientific conduct including working in the face of uncertainty, troubleshooting unsuccessful experiments, and analyzing new results.
  • Interviewing post-doctoral fellows or lab managers – Check recommendations (see below), expected aspirations and verify whether the applicant is choosing your lab as a first choice or last resort as that might affect their long-term employment potential.
  • Recommendations from previous PI’s – These are very important though require a degree of caution and verification. While you can learn a lot about the candidate research-wise from their previous experience, PI’s can give either over-rated or under-rated assessments of the applicant, which are subjectively influenced by PI’s personality and the nature of the relationship between the PI and the applicant.


Regardless of your applicant’s professional level you should explain your professional and personal expectations of the future employee. Don’t forget: a lab is first of all a social framework. It takes only one rotten apple to spoil the whole bunch.

When hiring for any business-related venture (and make no mistake, your new lab is a type of small business), we can miss and realize we have chosen badly. Make sure you set a two-way bailout term (usually six months is sufficient) in which each party can decide to withdraw from the PI-mentee relationship without repercussions.  This is highly recommended because (a) you can’t really predict the applicant’s chemistry with you and with the rest of the new lab members and (b) the applicant can find the lab, you or the subject unfitting. It is better to lose a student than to keep an unmotivated person in the lab.


In our next post, we’ll talk about acquiring equipment and how to combine all your start-up efforts to create a well oiled lab machine.