I received the following letter:
I was going through your blog yesterday trying to find any advice about whom to hire as a first lab personnel when you start a new lab. Is it ideally a technician, experienced, or fresh? Or a postdoc? I have interviewed a postdoc candidate who is eager to join and a too experienced lab assistant whose boss has lost all the grants. Somebody advised me never to hire a postdoc until I get somehow established, because he/she will just grab my projects and be gone with them. If you could give me suggestions, I would appreciate it very much.
Sincerely, Fresh Jr. Faculty Member (!)
I wrote a little reply, and here’s what I said. I’m blogging it though, so y’all can add your 2 cents worth- and remind we where we have had this discussion before..
Dear Fresh Jr. Faculty Member-
I haven’t posted anything about this, but others have on various blogs to which I can’t recall the links right at this moment. My advice is that you hire an intellectually and technically skilled person that will be the backbone of your lab, can train people, is interested in and motivated to do the work. This person must get along with you, be able to manage and teach people who work for you, and keep your lab running. Really- someone to be your right hand and run the place while you are writing … Which will happen sooner rather than later, let’s face that right now. Sometimes technicians can fill this role- sometimes postdocs can fill that role. But- one skillfull, productive person will set the tone in your lab and will be the one that students follow from moment to moment… hiring an excellent person in this position can contribute heavily to get you tenure.
I hired a postdoc when I was in your position. This worked well for me and I’ll tell you why. My postdoc is very technically skilled, a great teacher, a patient person, works well on a team, and very importantly loves the subject area and is invested in her own success. She came highly recommended by her former boss, whose recommendation I trusted completely. She has multiple projects she is working on, and although we haven’t had a discussion about what she would take with her should she leave the lab I am confident that if we did we could work this out to our mutual satisfaction. I have not heard that you shouldn’t have a postdoc until you are ‘established’ for the reasons you have been advised. And I’m not sure there is any unwritten rule about that- and to my knowledge what a postdoc takes from their postdoctoral laboratory to start their own lab is the subject of a negotiation between the PI and said postdoc. I definitely don’t think you should put off hiring a postdoc out of fear!! Skilled technicians who are able to do all of the things I list up there as required (and I’m sure the regular commenters on my blog will have their opinions about other requirements) are also excellent first hires.
As for the experience vs. fresh aspect of hiring a technician, I’m sure readers of the blog will have a lot of opinions. I can see both sides- if you hire someone experienced you spend less time training this person up front. The downside of this is that this ‘experienced’ person may not do things the way you want them to be done, and may introduce bad habits to your impressionable trainees… On the other hand, a ‘fresh’ technician with little experience is going to take some time for you to train but then hopefully will do protocols the way you want them done- (you want to be sure that they will stick around for some time i.e. you want to know up front that they don’t have a different career plan for next year). At the beginning of my own career I was a junior faculty member’s ‘fresh’ technician, hired after that person had a very bad experience with a technician who was much more experienced. This worked out perfectly for both my boss and myself- I wanted to learn and I was reliable enough to do exactly what he taught me.
And Hey- Congratulations on your faculty position!!!
And now, I’m collecting opinions…