Lab Manager | Run Your Lab Like a Business


A blue tinted image of a magnifying glass lying on top of several sheets of a printout of resume documents. All information on the resume is fake.
Every lab or research project requires special strengths.
iStock, peepo

Recruitment: Searching for the Right Skills

The best candidate will offer much more than just technical excellence

by Sara Goudarzi
Register for free to listen to this article
Listen with Speechify

Chris Jock’s job is to recruit talent. As the director of clinical/lab practice at Actalent, he delivers specialists in engineering and sciences on a contract basis to help leaders support their business goals, be it managing all work streams or providing project-level support in the performance of different activities within a laboratory context. To deliver the right crew for every project, he looks for some key skills in each candidate. Those abilities, as he’s learned the hard way, need to go beyond just technical expertise, and include, for example, communication skills.  

Jock learned this lesson prior to joining Actalent when he and his then-colleagues were looking to put a team together for a client. They focused on finding candidates with technical and scientific competencies, those with diverse work experience, and the ability to work in a matrix environment. Jock didn’t pay as much attention to the candidates’ communication competency and technology platform literacy. 

As a result, there was significant delay in getting accurate financial information to their customer, and though the team’s abilities didn't affect the products’ release, it did impact the client being able to accurately account for certain costs in the performance of that work. 

Jock, who has four decades of experience, is now keenly aware of the qualities one should look for in talent, ones that go beyond lab bench abilities and scientific competencies. 

The right ingredients

Every lab or research project requires special strengths. Specifically, Jock focuses on four key areas—what he calls talent ingredients. The first is work experience. He looks for individuals with perspective who can bring some unique understanding or proficiencies that help customers solve their problems. Second is flexibility. Jock seeks individuals who have a variety of core past experiences or have taken on non-core task assignments, all of which demonstrate they are flexible. Third is the ability to work in a matrix or multidisciplinary environment: “As we know, more and more projects [are] becom[ing] more complex and they bring in more components, whether it's a key component, whether it's advanced materials, or whether it's actual chemicals,” Jock says. “You're working with a diverse group of individuals to develop a new product and bring it to market to get it to the consumer, or the patient, depending upon the environment you're in, so that kind of team player ability [is key].” 

Jena Johnson, lab manager at the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences’ entomology department at the University of Georgia agrees that working in a scientific setting is a team effort. 

“Once I review the candidate’s resume, I am looking for eye contact and a sense, through our often too brief interview, that the person is pleasant and responsible.”

“While many experiments must be set up and monitored by one researcher, it takes a team to supply many of the tools for that experiment,” Johnson says. “In our lab, researchers need lots of healthy insects on a daily basis, clean and sterile glassware, reagents that they can locate, and disposable lab supplies. So, each experiment takes a team to set up.”

That is why Johnson makes it clear to student workers that even though they are doing seemingly simple tasks, such as washing lab dishes and prepping them for the autoclave, those duties are important to the success of the lab and should be performed with care.

The fourth quality Jock looks for in candidates is the ability to demonstrate competency in communicating research and methods.

“No longer can scientists and engineers work in isolation; they've got to be able to articulate regardless of what level they're at,” Jock says. Technical staff need to be able to convey issues to one another and to the stakeholders, those vested in making decisions. That competence, he explains, must be delivered in three ways: verbal, written, and electronic. 

Communicative skills can create a friendly environment, which makes the workspace more pleasant to be in and can potentially have longer-term consequences, such as lower turnover. “I say ‘good morning’ to everyone when I come into the lab each day and I think simple social behaviors like this are important,” Johnson says. “While not every lab member needs to be uber-sociable, it’s nice to have one or two who help make the atmosphere pleasant.”

The right recipe

Although these are the qualities that make potential job candidates attractive to an employer like Jock, he also searches for the right proportion of competency in each of the four areas when choosing a team member or assembling a team.

“It's really getting back to what is the right combination of ingredients: What is the recipe you're trying to create?” Jock says. “What's the solution you're trying to bring to the customer to meet their business needs? You're interacting with diverse stakeholders inside and outside of your walls. So, you have to really look at it in total, not in isolation.”

To ensure that the candidates have the right amalgamation of ingredients that consist of hard technical competencies, as well as non-technical competencies, it’s important to not rush the recruitment process when putting together a team. Taking that extra bit of time to make certain the candidates fit an organization’s needs can be rewarding in the end as the work can move much quicker once it gets going: “Slowing it down to speed up is my advice,” Jock says. 

And while managers take time to better acquaint themselves with the candidates, they will also pick up on the more nuanced qualities of a personality that will reveal if a person fits the vibe and culture of the lab. “Once I review the candidate’s resume, I am looking for eye contact and a sense, through our often too brief interview, that the person is pleasant and responsible,” Johnson says. “If they show enthusiasm when I show them a large cage of blood-feeding mosquitoes then that too is a point in their favor.”

It’s often keeping those four non-technical skills in mind that make the difference. This became apparent after Jock learned his lesson from the experience that ended up causing a delay in getting precise financial information to his client. Taking those lessons with him to a different company, Jock and his team did a thorough job of not only looking at candidates with technical skills but who also possessed non-technical skills, such as competency and literacy based on the solutions that needed to be delivered to their client. “As a result, we were able to deliver the talent quicker than our competitors did and on top of that, we actually were able to deliver well over $500,000 in cost for our customer,” Jock says.