Recently a colleague hired a postdoc from a pool of several candidates who applied. This candidate had the most suitable skills for the job but failed to acquire some other relevant skills, and the project is going nowhere fast. I think these stories are not rare at all.

Given the specificity of skills needed to complete certain projects, the importance of delivering results and the scarcity of funds, I wonder whether some faculty actively seek the right people instead of waiting for them to apply.

To make it clear, I don't mean universities hunting superstar faculty.

  • 1
    Probably varies by field and other things.
    – Buffy
    Dec 26, 2020 at 14:38
  • Did your colleague or colleague's group have all the skills when they started the project or were they relying totally on the postdoc to acquire all the necessary skills? In the latter case, I'd say that your colleague got the strategy wrong. When you start a project, as a group, you should already have the skills or you should know how to acquire them, so that if a newly hired person fails to acquire certain skills, someone else can back them up for that part. Dec 26, 2020 at 15:00
  • Some software development skills are not as good as they could be, Massimo Ortolano. She can do it but in this specific case the tasks are very time consuming.
    – Jenior
    Dec 26, 2020 at 16:06
  • To me, when I hire postdocs, I expect them to learn new things - that is part of the postdoc experience, showing they can keep learning. But, you set them up for success. If excellent software development skills were required and you do not use that to screen candidates, that’s on you.
    – Jon Custer
    Dec 26, 2020 at 17:42
  • 1
    Postdocs aren't students. Dec 26, 2020 at 22:00

2 Answers 2


In comparing my experience at several places, and my wife's (in a different field), I think there are two radically different models.

  1. Department has X postdoc (or equivalent, under a different name) positions. Open search to fill based on generic criteria, some degree of importance to "this person will have good research fit here". Faculty encouragement limited to encouraging promising new researchers in one's network to apply, speaking up that they are a good fit, and then making the new hire feel "welcome". As @Buffy wrote, making potential applicants aware, encouraging them to apply is fine, but nothing can be promised, and there is no obligation of the hire to work on any project in particular.

  2. Research lab (Centre, Unit, one professor...) hires postdocs funded by own research funds. While there are generally obligations to evaluate all applicants for the position equitably, a lot more flexibility and expectation for the lab/group to source suitable applicants, and the position criteria may well end up much more targeted to a specific applicant.

By the way, the postdoc transition is -- arguably -- even more of a difficult one that completing a Ph.D., since it is during that period that a researcher becomes truly independent. So the situation that a postdoc has some of the crucial skills for success and not others, and may or may not succeed in developing them, is pretty typical.


I think that in many places, though I don't know if it's most places, that might be illegal. Normally university hiring needs to come after an open search, though it would depend on how the status of a post-doc is treated. Clerical staff may not be covered, but "faculty" probably is. Some low level "adjunct" instructors might also be exempt.

The rules avoid all sorts of issues, including nepotism and other varieties of favoritism based on things other than job requirements.

On the other hand, one can encourage an individual to apply for an open position and might even have a hand in the final selection. But I know of at least one case in which a description was written to favor a particular individual and some other applicant was at least as good as the "favored" one.

  • Really, postdoc hires must come after an open search? (I'm not saying that there won't be a formal step where the position is openly advertised.)
    – user151413
    Dec 27, 2020 at 1:57

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