Recruiting talent in academia

There seems to be a growing consensus in business management discussions that human capital is now the determiner for success, more than strategic planning or even finance/funds available. This looks to apply very well to scientific research organisations where positions seem to be increasingly difficult to fill in. In this post I explore a few ideas around recruitment of talent in academia.

The reasons for the rising importance of talent in organisations may be worth studying separately, to understand what applies to us, but they are a bit complex to deal with just in a few lines. Summarised: the speed of change in our society has increased, with accelerating scientific discovery, technological innovation, social changes, and other changes that apply only to some sectors or regions. Because of this, successful organisations now appear to be the ones that can make quick decisions and adapt to these unplanned changes, as strategic planning is usually not able by itself to prepare the organisations to keep everything under control and be competitive.

Once we realise how important it is to recruit talented people into our organisations, questions arise about the kind of talent that we need or how we find and attract it.

Imagine a new position is going to be offered in your organisation and the first thing you do is probably to prepare a job description for it. When doing it, reflect on what technical skills are actually critical and which ones can be (quickly) learned on the job. A way to do this is to go over extended lists of questions that can be asked in an academic interview, adapt them to our field and open position, and realise which are the few ones, both technical and non-technical, that we want good answers to. Is a good understanding of our niche field, or the handling of a complex equipment a critical skill? Very probably yes, but exactly why? Thinking about the why may allow us to understand better what is that we more importantly ask from a successful candidate.

Not only technical skills are important. The interview and any other interactions with the candidate is a good chance to screen for the right attitude, values and behavioural skills. These are not the same in all organisations or labs and some positions may require good relationship building skills while others more abilities to work independently for instance. It’s a good idea to use the curriculum of the candidate to learn about character. Use the education and work history to ask about the person as a whole, not only about skills but also about what’s important in their life and how they made decisions. Ask question like “Let’s walk through your time at X”, «let’s talk about your role in project/paper Y», to find out about accomplishments, transition to one role to another, low points, and what the candidate considers more important in an authentic way (this is called chronological interview).

Build a talent pipeline. It can make a great difference to plan a bit in advance and have our network of contacts active for recruitment. We also should be open to adapt to the conditions of the talent we want to recruit. In academia it happens frequently that the time window to hire is quite narrow and the candidates available not as good as we had imagined. Usually when awards are granted new positions need to be filled quickly.

Recruitment of talent can start early.

But then the postdoc we want in our team is not yet available, or we didn’t have the time to receive enough competitive submissions to the job offer. Maybe it’s worth delaying the hiring process a few months and attract the right people even if it means losing a bit of the award budget. Ideally when a position is opened in our lab we would have already two or three names in our head that we would be happy to recruit.