The First Lab Hires



You, the PI, have been granted your wish. Your proposal has been accepted and funding of a new lab is on the way. You are now extending your feelers to find the appropriate people to staff your lab. Time passes, you are interviewing, but only what you consider average scientific talent turns up for the interview. Of course, you can’t wait, AND you want the best. But why would the best take a chance on you, the young and barely known PI? You have a notoriety problem. Since the grant clock is ticking, and you can’t afford to waste time two two now consider possibilities: Do it all yourself at an great cost to you and your family, or  take a chance on untested staff and hire away – you have the money.

The situation is not hypothetical. As I sat in one of the Starbucks hangouts in Singapore, I witnessed the conversation between two PIs, a young one and a veteran. I had arranged the meeting between them. Here is in point form the wisdom that was shared during the meeting by the veteran PI, Dr Judy Sng, senior lecturer at the department of Pharmacology of the NUS School of Medicine:

  • Do not hire without first assessing the skills and attitude. These cannot be assessed during an interview. “I usually do a written test assessment, for example a simple molar calculation, PCR reactions,… I also invite the potential new hire to meet other people in the lab first and get the feedback from them after the candidate leaves. During the visit, I invite the potential candidate for a meal with the rest of the lab. That’s where you can see how candidates behave and interact with fellow members. You can tell if they speak condescendingly to their peers during a simple meal.”
  • Technicians first, Postdoc later, and Students last. “Yes, if you hire technicians to start your lab, the scientific development is slower than if you start hiring postdocs. But not all postdocs like setting up a new lab. Time is precious to them. They join the lab later, perhaps 1-2 years after lab setup. The consequence of starting with technicians is that you have to train the technicians while doing workbench yourself. Older technicians tend to stay with you longer than young ones. Their stability brings much relief when you start up a lab.”
  • Students are both an asset and a liability“They may be the very ones who will join your lab in the future. Bringing them in give you a chance to evaluate them, and see if they will stay for the long haul. On the other hand, students will drain you, your resources, and your staff, particularly those who have thesis to write and need data. Those who just intern do not need to have data. Training any student will cost you, so choose only interns with a potential to become staff.”


Dr Sng also shared other points not directly related to new hires, but they reflect her experience and are certainly worth sharing in this blog. They are about other PIs, family, and teaching duties.

  • Once a PI with a lab, everyone other PI wants you as a collaborator in their grant. Be selfish and work on your project first. You have to be VERY selective and learn to say ‘No, thank you’. But it is an excellent way to build relationships with your peers.”
  • Keep sane, value your family. “You have a child, I have mine too. Papers and grants matter, but kids are growing up fast. Although the days with little children seem never to end, the years actually fly by. It is important to balance your time well and spend time with family.”
  • Teaching takes more time off your already crammed schedule. Envisage teaching at a much later stage, not right away when you create your lab. I only felt comfortable to start technology transfer through teaching in the fifth year of my career. Creating lecture material is hard and takes time.”



Author: jllebrun

General Partner at Scientific Reach - training scientists in the science of clear writing and presenting - grants/papers/posters.

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