New Lab Startup — Personnel (or, Who to Hire and When to Hire Them)

As indicated in my intro post, I’ve just moved from Georgia Tech (I was there for ~4.5 years) to the University of Michigan. This means that I am in the process of setting up a lab all over again, this time with the added twist that my lab at Georgia Tech is still going. (For the most part, that makes the transition much smoother, but it also makes my life a lot busier.) I thought I’d go through some of the personnel-related aspects of setting up a new lab, since I’m in the midst of that right now.

I think the biggest things to think about are:
1. Who to hire (a big question here is whether to hire a technician or a postdoc with startup funds)
2. When to hire them.

I asked a lot of people about the technician vs. postdoc question when I was starting at Georgia Tech. Most suggested a tech over a postdoc, which seemed confusing to me, because I thought that a postdoc would be more independent and do lots of writing. And that can be true (and I’ve been lucky to have postdocs like that), but it also can be the case that postdocs need as much training as a tech, won’t stay as long, and will spend a lot of time working on getting papers from their PhDs out. So, based on that advice, I thought I was going to hire a tech. But then I was approached by someone who was finishing up her PhD in a microbiology lab, was interested in doing more ecological research, and who wanted to stay in Atlanta. It was clear that having her in the lab would open up new questions that I was interested in but didn’t have the skills to tackle (including molecular ones, and more microbe-focused ones), so I hired her and that worked out well.

Here at Michigan, I know I need to hire a technician. I already have two postdocs (one stayed at GT, one moved with me to MI) and a technician who stayed at GT, but will really need a tech to help set up and run the lab here. We have tons and tons of Daphnia cultures that need to be maintained (they are currently at GT, but will move to Michigan in October or November), and having a technician to do that and oversee the lab is enormously helpful. We also will want to start checking out local field sites (autumn is our big field season) so that we’re prepared for a full field season next year, and a tech will be able to help out with that. My lab space won’t be ready until early October, though, so it didn’t make sense to hire anyone sooner. If we didn’t have a whole bunch of cultures to move here from GT, and if we didn’t want to start doing field work right away (e.g., if we had the more traditional summer field season), it may have made sense to wait a bit before hiring someone.

I do wonder whether it will be more challenging to find a tech in October. I suspect it’s easier to hire people to start in the summer, since then you have the option of hiring new graduates. My technician at Georgia Tech was an undergrad in my lab for a semester, and then stayed on as a tech after graduation (and has been a phenomenal tech). But, that timing didn’t work out this time, so I’ll just have to hope that things work out well now.

Anyway, those are some of my thoughts related to hiring people when you start a lab. I’d be interested in hearing what other people did, including their thoughts on the postdoc vs. technician issue (which is one that comes up a lot, it seems, at events for new faculty in the sciences). I suspect there’s a fair amount of variation depending on the type of lab that you have (especially if it’s theoretical vs. empirical).

3 thoughts on “New Lab Startup — Personnel (or, Who to Hire and When to Hire Them)

  1. Pingback: Advice: a compilation of all our advice posts, and a call for new advice topics | Dynamic Ecology

  2. Pingback: Crossing ‘the pond’ for science* | Small Pond Science

  3. Pingback: Creating environments where it’s okay to make mistakes and ask questions | Dynamic Ecology

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