It is critical for lab managers to hire job candidates who will be real contributors and not just those who have learned to interview well. So when I interview job candidates, I ask them to discuss real examples of their skills and accomplishments. It’s easy for job hunters to say they are outstanding scientists or engineers, are excellent communicators or leaders. However, look for actual examples in their résumés and cover letters. Ask them to provide examples during screening or on-site employment interviews.


Oral and written presentation skills


Also ask them for examples or evidence that they’ve developed the generic skills such as teamwork and leadership they claim in their résumés and cover letters. For example, when candidates claim to have excellent oral presentation skills, I check to see if they have given many papers at conferences. If they are members of Toastmasters International, this is evidence they are working to improve their oral communication skills. So I’ll ask them if they are members and to describe their most recent Toastmasters speech project. Of course their discussions with you and your coworkers during interviews provide more evidence of their oral communication skills.


Job candidates’ employment interview seminars provide excellent evidence of their oral presentation skills as well as their scientific accomplishments. Questions from the audience can indicate how the candidate goes about solving scientific problems.


Another common claim is excellent written communication skills. Their résumés and cover letters can provide evidence of this. So can their e-mails.


Questions to experienced candidates can provide information on how they solved or helped solve business problems. For example, have they accompanied sales representatives on customer calls? One question I like to ask candidates in one-on-one discussions is, “What are the three most important qualities that make you a good lab scientist?”After they answer I will ask them to provide specific examples of at least one of these qualities.


Leadership skills


Currently it’s “hot” to claim leadership skills. Check their résumés and cover letters for evidence that they have held leadership positions in on-campus and professional organizations. I usually ask candidates questions about these leadership activities.


Leadership in the work environment is also relevant. For example, during my post-doc, my professor frequently traveled on business. I filled in teaching his sophomore organic class. I also supervised his graduate students in his absence. During interviews I would provide an anecdote about how one of his graduate students, who was intimidated by the professor, had an experimental technique problem he just couldn’t solve. I kept the story succinct but did provide details of the problem. His difficulties led him to absent himself from the laboratory for days at a time. I called him in one week when the professor was out and we worked together on the problem. By going back to basics, we found an acceptable solution in a day. I made a friend for life.  


Probing other skills


Meeting deadlines is important. So I ask experienced candidates for examples of how they met project deadlines. I also ask them for examples of how they worked with a supplier or a customer to solve a problem. I ask them to quantify or explain results in terms of time or money saved, increased output or improvement and do not ask about proprietary details.


I ask new graduates, postdocs and experienced laboratory scientists how their achievements and skills can be applied to the job for which they are applying.


Put all this together and it can provide good evidence of how the candidate will fare as an employee in your organization. Probing these issues during screening interviews can help assure that you invite only the best candidates to on-site interviews.