Lab managers are amazing

Or at least, my lab manager is amazing, and I am so very glad that I decided to hire her.

I have hang-ups around spending money, and I’m trying to be very conservative with parting from my precious, precious start-up funds. However, I did decide to use part of my start-up to hire a lab manager, and I am extremely pleased with that decision so far.

I did a pretty intensive search in the fall, which in my field is a very early time to be looking for a lab manager. There were a few reasons why I didn’t follow the traditional timeline: I had time in the fall to manage the search, I knew for sure that I’d be making a hire (whereas a lot of folks wait until later in the year to find out if they’ve gotten a grant or if their current lab manager plans to stay on for another year), I thought that posting an early job ad might help me recruit folks who knew what they wanted to do and had their act together, and I wanted to give the person I hired peace of mind (since they would know for the entire spring semester that they had a job waiting for them instead of feeling anxious about their future or scrambling to find a position).

I think I wrote a post earlier about decisions that I made quickly, like what color furniture to put in my lab, things like that. In contrast, hiring a lab manager was a decision I made with a lot of deliberation. I received about 60 applications, which seemed like a lot given that I’m starting a new lab and no one knows who I am, and also given that I did this search earlier than most other people. I interviewed six people, and I spent some time thinking about good questions to ask before I did the interviews.

The question that ended up being most helpful, and also most fun to talk about in the interviews, was asking each person to tell me about a project they wanted to work on in my lab. This showed me how familiar people were with what I do and separated applicants who seemed like they would excitedly and competently work on their own ideas from applicants who would just be good at following directions. This might be less important in a lab manager for an established lab, but I don’t have any students or post-docs right now, so I wanted my lab manager to work on their own projects and hopefully write papers with me in addition to doing the administrative parts of the job. I also told people in advance that I would ask this question, so I had a chance to see how they prepared.

Another question that was really helpful was asking people to tell me in detail about one prior research experience that they had — the one that was most relevant to my lab. All of the finalists had a lot of prior research experience, and I wanted to get a sense of what skills they had acquired without listening to a list of everything they had ever done. Asking them to pick the most relevant experience was a good way of streamlining their answers while also giving me a sense, again, of how familiar they were with what I do.

I also had a bunch of other questions — maybe about 15 total? The interviews lasted between 45 and 75ish minutes, and the biggest driver of the difference in length was what people had to say in response to the question about a project they would want to work on. The strongest candidates had a lot to say; they had thought about a project they would want to do in the lab, had interesting things to say about it, and engaged with me when I asked them follow-up questions. A couple of people seemed really good on paper but didn’t seem prepared for this question; they did things like tell me a research question without being able to articulate how they might answer it, or they told me that they would work on whatever research I wanted without proposing new ideas of their own. A big factor in my final decision of who to hire was the answer to this question; the person who got the offer had a well thought out idea that complemented my research nicely, and it was an idea I was excited to work on together.

After this whole process, I am very, very happy with the person I hired. After a bunch of years supervising undergrad research assistants, many of whom were doing research for the first time, I find myself surprised at how quickly my lab manager can get things done and how independently she can work. I mean, I expected these things from a lab manager, but expecting something in my head and experiencing it are not always the same thing. It is an enormous help to be able to tell her what needs to be done and then be able to rely on her to figure out how to do the thing. Especially when setting up a new lab, there are ten thousand small things that need to get figured out, and I really appreciate having my time free to do bigger-picture things. Also, my lab manager and I seem to click well interpersonally, which is always a plus.

It’s early days, so of course things might arise later that I’m not anticipating right now. But so far I am a huge fan of lab managers, and my lab manager in particular.




Author: Happy Balloon

I am a new assistant professor in a STEM field at a research university. If you think you've figured out my actual name (which, sadly, is not Happy Balloon), please refrain from posting it anywhere here. But please do feel free to post all manner of other comments!