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Interviewing- Social Fit vs Endogenous Competence; How do You Find or Create a Great Lab Dynamic?

Posted By Connections Editor, Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Heather O’Leary, Novella Guidi, Simon Haas, Daniel Lucas, Eric Pietras, Cédric Tremblay, and Sofie Singbrant-Söderberg.

From the start of scientific training, and persisting throughout a career, there are consistent states of either trying to find a lab to join or identifying people you will hire for your own laboratory. Both of these can be exciting, but challenging, prospects and this article focuses on providing insight on finding the right lab for you as well as choosing the best people to hire for your lab. To address these important topics, we sent out a survey to obtain multiple perspectives from both the side of how graduate students/post docs found laboratories they wanted to join, as well as insight from Principle Investigators regarding what they are looking for when they are hiring.

We started this quest for knowledge by asking postdoctoral fellows how far in advance of needing to start their postdoc they started looking, and the value they placed on aspects such as funding, size, publication history, mentoring, technical support, life balance, and social interaction between lab members. They started looking for a fellowship on average 6 months to a year before they were planning to finish their Ph.D.’s, and many of them did not have a specific location in mind. As one would expect, funding and publication history were high on the priority list. Other important aspects in their search for a good postdoc lab were finding a project they were excited about, a good mentor and good life balance (location, activities and time). Additionally, many responders commented that they weighed if it was a more junior or senior PI as. Many stated that they felt a young PI could be very motivated for productivity and provide more hands on mentoring, but have the drawback of being under stress for tenure, which they may not obtain, and would not be as well known in the field. We then asked if there was a certain interaction, question etc. that made them know a specific lab was going to be the right or wrong choice. The response was relatively unanimous; it was more the general lab atmosphere/sense of happiness of the lab, the ability to determine where previous graduate students and postdocs from the lab ended up, and the personality of the PI that played the largest role in their decisions. Interestingly, questions they wished they would have asked prior to choosing a lab (but didn’t) included the average time from start of a project to publication, the ability to utilize technicians if needed, if the PI is a workaholic, the overall social interaction between the lab members, levels of collaboration between teams of the institute, the lab members typical interactions and relationship with the PI, if lab members get together sometimes for coffee/lunch, and last but not least, the average time allowed for traveling to scientific conferences etc. per year.

To address the PI side of hiring into a laboratory we asked both junior and well-established PI’s how they go about hiring someone new for their laboratories, and what characteristics they focus on. In addition to the required posting in their own universities and mentioning it when they give talks, many PI’s advertise available positions using social media (such as Facebook, Twitter and Linked In) and society pages (such as ISEH’s facebook page), as well as placing the position on their own lab web pages to obtain a broader applicant pool. When hiring students and postdocs they are looking for someone who is excited about the work with a strong work ethic, good organizational skills, is trustworthy and has good hands. Interestingly, almost all respondents said that they greatly value their lab dynamics and that they would take a (good, but) slightly lesser candidate that had a good personality and is a team player over a slightly more capable person that may not fit comfortably into the lab group. To that end, many PI’S reported having the current lab members vote on incoming students, postdocs and technicians and take those votes into heavy consideration.

Obviously, a PI will want to know why someone wants to work in their lab, what projects they are interested in, what their overall goals are and what they want to do when their training is completed. Some more non-conventional questions they have found to be telling included: Please describe your worst day at work ever. What do you want out of this position/experience and why? Why do you think this experience will help you? What is most important to you in life? What do you feel you need from me as your mentor, and what do you need to be successful? Other topics of interest included what they are passionate about (that is not science), how they handle disagreements with peers and colleagues, how they personally resolve conflicts in their life, as well as a time they failed or succeeded at something, what they learned from the experience, and what they might do differently.

Surprisingly, information from CV’s and references, although clearly utilized, was not uniformly weighted in their importance. However, there were a few things that almost all PI’S surveyed said raised a red flag and would make them concerned about a candidate. These included a disorganized CV or one with may spelling or formatting errors, non-productivity in previous setting (graduate training or previous postdoc), frequent change of teams for unclear reasons, or not listing previous graduate or postdoctoral mentors as references. To that end, many of the PI’s surveyed do not heavily rely on actual reference letters, and may not call the references unless they know them and feel they can trust that an honest opinion will be provided. Others said that they call the references, but only to look for large red flags such as creating a bad lab environment, not being able to focus etc. When making the final decision on hiring a candidate, most PI’s that responded said that they weigh heavily the input of the lab as well as the passion, collaborative behavior and complementary skills of the potential hire.

Interestingly, in multiple articles and videos discussing this topic with Nobel Laureates,1 Drs. Martin Chalfie (, Randy Schekman (, and others, suggest that most people go about interviewing for a postdoc in the wrong way. They encourage potential postdocs to take the time to carefully read the work of the lab, and apply as more of a colleague, suggesting experiments they would like to do based on the work that has already been done in the lab and say that they don’t even read applications that do not have some insight into the work. These comments suggest that scientific effort and fit is extremely important in the choice of a laboratory, while maintaining the lab dynamic is also critical.

Taken together, it is important to choose a lab or lab members that will enhance you and that you in turn add value to, both personally and professionally, resulting in an ideal win-win scenario for everyone.

*The ISEH New Investigator Committee (NIC) would like to thank everyone that contributed to this article by filling out the survey*

1) Nobel Prize Inspiration Initiative, Insights from Nobel Laureates, for scientists everywhere. (

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