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Postdoc interviews

Well oru lab is hiring! I wanted to start like that so no one got excited thinking I was doing a postdoc interview, I have a postdoc lined up thankfully. But because it’s hiring, we’ve been interviewing potential postdocs to fill the role. Our lab does things slightly differently (from what I’ve seen anyway) and we interview the candidate as a group, separately, and we get the chance to share a meal with them and hear about them in a not super stressful environment. It’s a lot of work, but a lot of fun. I’m exhausted and I wasn’t even the one being interviewed! So if you haven’t been a postdoc before (and why would you, you’d have to be crazy to get a PhD… oh right), there’s a process to it.

This will be the second postdoc position we’re trying to fill and the fourth or fifth interview I’ve been a part of, so I have a bit of experience here. I’m glad I get to see how it works (at least in our hospital) and have so much hands on experience with it. I know how it works on the university side (thanks to the school lab), but the process is far less hands on, there’s no real communication with the postdoc in the school lab prior to the hiring process, which is fine I’m not particular to one way over the other. Part of why I think the hospital lab does it the way we do is because we’re a smaller group. The school lab went through a major growth recently (after COVID steadily shrunk the lab) so it’s somewhat impractical to be part of the interview process and weigh in on it.

So what does the process look like? On the hospital side, we have a relatively constant pipeline which means at this point I know what to expect, for the most part. We tend to split it into two days, but the second is short. The first day involves a tour of the lab, talking to the people who handle the hiring process, meeting others on the research team, and giving a presentation on the work they did. There’s some small breaks thrown in, but it’s an all day event and we get some one-on-one time to interview the postdoc. By interview I mean talk about the work we do, the stuff that we like, the stuff we hate, etc. It’s not a grill the person kind of interview, more like explaining what life is like in the lab and how we operate.

The day ends with dinner and we do it as a lab. It’s a good way to make sure the person gets the chance to see us all interact, but also gives them a chance to relax a little in a non-hospital setting. Since COVID is still a big thing (come on people…) we have had to take precautions on this part of the plan in general. Previous years we’ve simply had delivery and had the meal in some not so clinical, but still hospital area. It’s a huge hospital and there are many areas that don’t “look” like a hospital, so this was easy. This year we managed to find a good place to eat outside, so we got the chance to go out. The weather was nice, so that also played a factor in the choice.

The second day is far easier. Previously we would meet with the potential postdoc away from hospital-PI so we had the chance to talk freely about the work (so they knew what we were saying was not just due to them being around). This ear we got our time way from hospital-PI in the first day, so the second day will be a brief breakfast with hospital-PI to ask any other questions the person may have and just to have an excuse to have a nice breakfast (haha). Then if we’re all in agreement and the postdoc still wants the job, well then we make the offer and with a little luck they start a few months later (anywhere from 3-6 months depending on other commitments).

Now obviously I’ve seen it go both ways, we agree they are a good fit and make an offer or we agree they are not a good fit. I’ve also seen us agree they would be great, only to have the potential person turn down the offer for whatever reason. Mostly we try to be picky and I hate saying it like that, but it’s true. The environment is high stress, or maybe not even stress, more like high speed? There’s a lot going on and we have to quickly adapt to schedule changes or other mishaps. OR experiments for example can change on the drop of hat and we can either spend hours waiting or rushing to get to the experiment in time. These are things we warn (warn is a strong word… more like give notice to) the person about.

Luckily this interview went well from our side. Hospital-PI and I had a long conversation about the person and agreed that it seemed like a decent fit. The person seemed excited, had a lot of interest, and seemed willing to learn, which was the biggest thing really. Oh and the person also asked how I didn’t have my PhD already, which ouch… but they meant it in terms of all the work I’ve already done, which yeah, I agree. But it was a funny thing to hear (literally funny, not sarcastic) and made me feel a little better about the feeling like I’m doing a ton of work compared to some of my peers. Then again everyone has their own path and this post isn’t about me, so that’s all I am really going to say about that for the moment.

So as of right now it seems like they will get the offer. There are a few things that will complicate the matter and it’s not a for sure thing yet, but I don’t think we’re going to find a much better fit any time soon. Our lab does very niche research or rather research that isn’t widely done (yet) so finding the perfect person has never happened, we don’t get people with experience in the exact stuff we do, but we find people somewhat close that we can train the rest of the way. Mostly we just look for people interested in learning and people who really like the research we do, because those are the people who tend to try to improve the work and make the experiments better by proposing other ways of doing things or additional things to measure/look at.

In short, it’s not as much about the stuff the potential person has done or knows, but more about their willingness to learn and having at least some experience in something adjacent to the stuff we do. Anything from neuroscience to engineering, but also biology, kinematics, or anything related to rehabilitation. A whole spectrum of possible knowledge base really. So if you’re about to transition to the postdoc world, it may help to keep that in mind when you think about applying to a lab. Not every lab is like mine, and while we’re unique, we’re not THAT unique.

2 responses

  1. I’ve been through job interviews that had me talking to a collection of different people and lasted hours, but never one that spread over two days. You’re very thorough. But I suppose that’s wise when hiring into a small group; every one you add has to be right.

    How long do postdocs usually stay with your lab, once you have them?

    Liked by 1 person

    November 3, 2022 at 10:53 pm

    • Yeah it’s a bit of being thorough on our end, but also making sure the postdoc knows what resources are there and impress them a bit too. We send out an itinerary and pay for the trip expenses as well.

      A normal timeline for postdocs depends on the person, but it can last anywhere from two to four years. Two is the normal since these days you’re expected to do multiple and a “postdoc” phase is on average four years, so two in one lab, two in another, then off to being a PI in the ideal case. That’s a lot of moving, so there’s a lot of people annoyed that it’s basically required to do two postdocs now.

      Liked by 1 person

      November 4, 2022 at 11:58 am

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