Dear DrDrA… (Postdoc vs. Technician?) (UPDATED)

I received the following letter:

Dear DrDrA-

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…


8 thoughts on “Dear DrDrA… (Postdoc vs. Technician?) (UPDATED)

  1. It doesn’t matter at what level this first person is coming in at. Can the person effectively do the things you need done? Is the person dependable? Is the person passionate about the research? However, my advice is to make this decision carefully. If you hire the wrong person right out of the gate, you are potentially in BIG trouble! If you are unhappy with this first person, who is helping set up and establish your research program, it will probably take at least 6 months to give up on them, get sufficient documentation, and fire them. With a 6-7 window for tenure, 6 months is ~10% of your tenure clock. I recommend the BWF-HHMI Making the Right Moves or the CSH At the Helm books for further information on this issue and other questions related to getting started as a new investigator. good luck

  2. The other thing I suggest in addition to drugmonkey’s thread is to ask other profs if they can split the cost of a tech. We hired a tech recently who is shared between 3 labs. 2 of the labs are new asst profs, the other is a tenured fogey. So the tech is helping with equipment ordering and setup, getting students going on projects, etc. It doesn’t hurt to ask and in these crappy funding times, sharing personnel might be good for you and your colleagues so it’s worth a shot.
    Lorax is absolutely right about hiring someone good for your lab. Getting started is stressful enough, you don’t want someone draining you.
    Good luck.

  3. Thank you, everyone!
    This blog has really helped me during the time I was looking for a faculty position and also negotiation period last year. Now, I am at the new place trying to settle down. I book marked this web address in my new office computer and realized that there are less topics about “after landing”. Thank you, DrDrA for your continuous mentoring!

  4. Fresh JFM- I’m glad I could be of help! I will try to put down some thoughts about ‘after the landing’… just for you!

  5. The only little bit I have to add here is that you should make sure you know the policies on termination at your institution BEFORE you hire someone. I hired the WRONG person for my first lab manager position, but luckily we have a probationary period of 90 days where we have the right to terminate for any reason. After that it gets very, very, VERY difficult. So I had to make the decision to terminate very fast, and even though documentation isn’t officially required, I still had to submit all my appraisal and disciplinary meeting notes to HR before they would process the termination. So be careful!!

  6. Arlenna- You are quite right about this- also if someone is coming to you from WITHIN your institution the 90 day probationary period won’t apply unless you explicitly state it in your offer letter that the internal hire you are making will have a probabionary period of XX days in length. … I don’t know if this applies to every institution, but it applies to mine and I’ve seen people get badly burned by this.

  7. Pingback: Salaries and Personnel to Start Your Lab… « Blue Lab Coats

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