Hiring Best Practices in the Life Sciences

11/13/20 | 8 MIN READ

For life sciences startups, hiring is one of the most important steps they will take. 

However, many entrepreneurs have little to no prior experience in making hiring decisions. Many of the tips discussed here will apply to hiring in any industry, however there are points that apply specifically to work in the sciences and moreover, to startups.

1. Make sure hiring is the right move

In most biotech and medtech startups, the biggest expenses are space and people. Scientists and engineers garner higher salaries (even just out of school) than many other workers. Therefore, hiring a full time employee should not necessarily be a startup’s first move when the work gets to be too much for current staff.

If there is not about 40-60 hours per week of necessary work to be done, then startups should consider other options first. Can a particular experiment type be outsourced? (Check out this blog post to learn about contract research organizations.) Would a consultant spending just a few hours per week on a project be sufficient? Or, could a consultant take on some of a current employee’s responsibilities, freeing that person up to complete additional tasks? For certain types of work, such as technician-level tasks, it might even be possible to find a part time employee. These are all questions a startup should consider before jumping to hire full time staff.

2. Craft an effective job posting

Finding the right candidate starts with writing a good job posting. An effective job posting does 3 things: 1) Helps the company understand what they need from a new hire 2) informs job seekers what the company is looking for, and 3) helps the hiring manager quickly identify a few potential candidates from many applications. Note that only one of these is directed toward the job seeker; creating an effective job posting is mainly to assist the company.

The components of an effective job posting include an explanation of what the job entails, such as daily tasks, responsibilities, and potential projects. This can help the startup in determining if a full time employee is necessary, as a short list probably means the answer is no. Job postings should also include the skills that a person would likely need in order to do this job well. Here it is important to differentiate between skills and experiences. As stated in this LinkedIn post, “When you hire for experience you're hiring someone's past... When you hire someone's skills, you are hiring their future.” For some job duties, having a skill is more predictive of success, and in other duties having prior experience is better. This is because skills are generally transferable to new tasks regardless of prior experience, whereas experience requires multiple skills to have already been developed and utilized. For example, a scientist with molecular biology skills like pipetting and reading protocols can apply them to different assays in the lab, regardless of which specific techniques they have done in the past. In contrast, navigating the regulatory landscape is easier with a guide that has been there before. If what a company mainly needs from them is to know how to get from point A to point B experience will get them there, but they won’t necessarily know how to navigate between two unknown points in the future. Therefore, companies should have a clear understanding of where they need a candidate to have skills and where they need a candidate to have experience before writing a job posting.

As for the other details of a job post, it should include the company’s web address, a brief description of what the company does, instructions on how to apply, where to direct questions, and optionally the date when the company plans to stop accepting applications.

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3. Advertise strategically

When it comes to finding the right person for a job at a biotech or medtech startup, there may be some confounding variables. For example, these industries have low rates of unemployment, so the right person probably already has a job. Getting a job posting in front of someone’s eyes who isn’t looking for a new position is a challenge. Plus, startups often are searching for a person with skills from multiple different areas, such as a stem cell biologist who also has experience in organic chemistry. The likelihood of such a person existing is low, and the likelihood of finding them when they aren’t looking for a job is even lower. Therefore, startups have to be creative in how they advertise openings. Job sites like Indeed and LinkedIn get postings in front of a large number of people, but they aren’t necessarily the right people. Instead, HR website Insperity recommends companies try targeting specialized job boards, industry organizations, and social media.

4. Streamline the application process

Because the most desirable candidates for a job may already be employed, they are more likely to quit in the middle of an application if it is too long, difficult, or confusing. Applications should be just long enough to get the most important information about a job candidate, such as their resume, contact information, and answers to any specific questions that will allow a startup to easily eliminate applicants that don’t fulfill the most basic requirements. If the application is in PDF format, startups should make sure that the form fields are fillable. If the application is an online form, then it needs to be tested to be sure it works. These simple steps can be the difference between a highly qualified candidate applying or not.

Even a lagging website can cause applicants to lose interest. A website with little to no information about the company may mean they don’t apply at all. Therefore, startups should work on making themselves more appealing to job candidates. Websites should convey “professionalism, legitimacy and respected status,” per Insperity’s blog. This is true for any professional website but even more for a startup. Startups are seen as high-risk when it comes to employment, so the goal should be to convince a potential applicant that the business knows what it is doing and is well-regarded in its field. To further mediate the deleterious effects of perceived risk, startups should also communicate the exciting aspects of what they do. If a job or company sound boring, why would a highly skilled professional leave his or her well-paid, stable position at a larger company?

5. Evaluate candidates on paper

Once applications start arriving, the next step is to start screening them. The most basic methods of screening resumes include looking for grammar/formatting errors, gaps in employment, and any discrepancies between their online information and the resume. Speaking of resume, if a startup is hiring a scientist they may submit an academic style curriculum vitae (CV) rather than a resume. If the startup specified that they wanted a resume in the application, this could be considered a lack of attention to detail. If CV’s are expected as part of the applicant’s package, they require different screening criteria than a resume. Resume’s are limited to relevant experience, skills, and education, whereas a CV details a candidate’s entire academic and professional history. These can take more time to sift through, so requesting that even scientific applicants submit resumes can make the process significantly more efficient.

6. Prepare for the interview

There are many articles online about how job candidates should prepare for an interview, but the interviewer also needs to be ready in order to make the most of the experience. On the hiring side, interview prep should include determining the questions that will be asked of each candidate, learning about the candidate’s background via online sources, and reviewing the laws around hiring and interviews.

In choosing the questions to ask an interviewee, some should be asked of every candidate in order to have a basis for comparison. Other questions should be based on each candidate’s specific experience as stated in their application or resume. What the interviewer asks about is important, but also how they ask the questions. Too often, inexperienced interviewers ask questions that allow candidates to simply answer yes or no. For example, “Do you know how to run this assay?” may seem like a good question to ask a candidate for a or technician position. However, the candidate could answer in the affirmative even if they have only ever run that assay once, five years ago. A better question would be, “Tell me how you utilized this assay in a previous job.” This is an open-ended question that requires the interviewee to describe the assay enough for the interviewer to learn whether or not they truly understand it or just performed it once long ago.

Startups frequently require their employees to be able to both work on a team and to take independent initiative. Asking a candidate if they can do these things is useless since anyone can say yes. Asking a candidate to tell you what they would do in situations that are likely to come up at work, however, is highly informative. For example, when hiring a person who will report to an already over-stretched manager, their ability to take the initiative is essential. The interviewer could ask, “What would you do if I asked you to run an assay you have never done before?” Answers such as, the applicant would look up the assay online, look for the company’s protocol for that assay, or other independent activities suggest an independent problem solver who would be unlikely to ask their manager before trying to figure it out themselves.

Going into an interview without knowing something about the candidate wastes everyone’s time. Interviewers should be sure to read through the candidate’s application and pertinent online information shortly before the interview. It doesn’t make sense to have the interviewee repeat information that is already readily available. This also makes it easier for the interviewer to spot any discrepancies between what the applicant says and what they submitted.

Finally, before interviewing anyone, it is prudent to review the current labor laws that pertain to what can and can’t be asked of a job applicant. For example, in California it is illegal to ask someone what they made in their previous position. This law went into effect in 2018 to prevent employers from basing a salary on previous earnings rather than current perceived value. Federal and state laws governing labor can change frequently. Breaking these laws can be easy to do by accident if one is ignorant of them and can cost a company greatly.


7. Select the right interviewers

During the interview, best practices include standard niceties such as being on-time, greeting the candidate, conducting the interview in a location free of distractions, and including the person who will be directly supervising the new hire. Some startups make the mistake of having the CEO conduct all interviews, and while this is usually done with the best intentions, it can result in less-than ideal hiring decisions. The direct supervisor likely has the best insight into what is needed for the job and moreover, knows what kind of person he/she prefers to work with. Plus, meeting the person they’ll be reporting to helps the job candidate to decide if they are interested or not. One of the top reasons why employees quit is a bad relationship with their manager, so starting off on the right foot is helpful.

Additionally, it is a good practice to have at least one other person from the company present during the interview. This is not to intimidate the candidate, rather it is to provide a second opinion. Ideally the second person will be part of the department or team that the candidate is applying to work with. This individual may want to ask a portion of the planned interview questions or jump in with follow-ups. After the interview is over, they can discuss with the main interviewer what they thought of the candidate. Maybe there was a misunderstanding that they can clarify, or perhaps the main interviewer was feeling tired and therefore unenthusiastic about a truly excellent candidate. Second opinions are helpful for many reasons, plus they help a startup team feel included in important decisions.

8. Making the offer

After completing interviews and whittling down the list of candidates to a couple of stellar choices, it’s time to make an offer. Of course the budget for this position will have been decided prior to even creating the job post, but most companies will have a range of salaries in mind and the exact number will depend on a few factors. If the chosen candidate is already employed, they will likely require more money and better benefits than someone who is currently out of work to convince them to make the change. If the candidate seems surprisingly perfect for the job, they may be worth more to the company as well. And if they were the only suitable candidate, that could mean that there are few other options out there, making this person more valuable. In general, it’s good to keep in mind that there are many ways to find salary averages and ranges online, so it should be expected that the candidate knows what they are worth.

After choosing the salary, other considerations may include whether to offer equity shares in the company. Some startups use offers of equity to offset low salaries, but this method doesn’t often work. Equity is better used as an incentive to stay on at the company and work toward the shared goal of increasing the company’s value. A highly valuable tool for recruiting the best talent is to offer a good benefits package. Health insurance, paid vacation time, and retirement plans are all excellent options. In the situation of a startup that is too small to partake in some of these, there are organizations such as Insperity that can assist.

Once the specifics of an offer have been decided, the next step is to communicate them to the candidate. The offer letter should spell out exactly what is being offered in terms of salary, equity, benefits, and other key information such as where and when the employee is expected to work. Carta, Inc., a Bay Area based company, created what some call the best startup offer letter they have ever seen.

Hiring is an incredibly important part of running a startup. It is an expensive process to do well, but it can be much more costly to do it poorly. A strong team made up of talented employees that enjoy their work and are fairly compensated is the best platform from which to launch a startup in any industry. In biotech and medtech the right team may be more difficult to find but they will similarly contribute to a company’s success.


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