What I look for in new recruits is a different question from How to Get Brilliant Students (spoiler: you make them). The irony is that I really wasn’t recruited much at all into the academy. I’ve never been taught how to recruit. Yet, over the years we’ve developed a system for recruitment and talent development that’s worth sharing. By the end of this post you’ll understand the structure of the HYPER lab culture, how we recruit as a community to develop top talent, how we cultivate drive to achieve, and what we look for in new recruits.

How I wasn’t recruited

Anyone who’s read my bio on this site knows that my path to the academy was unconventional at best. Coming from a low middle-class family from a lesser-income region of Idaho didn’t exactly prepare me financially to pay for college tuition. I turned down an opportunity to go to the Ivy League for a full ride scholarship to attend the University of Idaho. The challenge of time management between D1 football (2 years after career ending injury), leading the Engineering Hall, Formula SAE team, and the mechanical engineering (ME) curriculum didn’t help my grades. I graduated with a 3.26 GPa despite having a near perfect academic record within the ME curriculum. Moreover, I had a deep-seated distain for standardized tests. It wasn’t that I wasn’t good at them, I’d walk in cold and easily score above the 90th percentile, I just thought the questions those standardized exams asked, and how they related to successful technology development, were silly.

Towards my senior year I knew I enjoyed thermodynamics and had sought out many books on the topic. In Steve Penoncello’s senior level Applied Thermodynamics class I became known for asking ‘stumper’ questions in class. Steve demonstrated to me, for the first time, how a professor should respond when he said, “I don’t know, but I’m going to come back tomorrow with the answer.” And he did. Towards the end of the class he offered me a desk for study next to my friend Veronica Meyer (now Miller) who was the RA for the Engineering Hall and had already started graduate school in the Center for Applied Thermodynamics Studies (CATS). I had a desk. Whether for recruitment or to just keep the space vultures that were circling from taking the space from him is unknown. Steve knew his friend, the former Dean, Richard T Jacobsen was looking to get back into research and pick up a new graduate student.

Jacobsen was very analytical and GPA based. When he saw my poor GPA he had hesitations and my applications to other graduate schools were not getting any attention. I had done the novice mistake of just putting my name in the hat at a couple of big name schools. But after consultation with Steve and the Associate Dean Jean Teasdale, Jacobsen decided to give me a chance. He was very glad he did. Knowing this was my chance to right many of the academic wrongs on my transcript (or at least have something to get people to look another way) I worked as hard as a person could work getting repetitions fitting the next equations of state for hydrogen. By the end of a year and a half I had fit three equations of state for parahydrogen, normal hydrogen, and orthohydrogen, and come up with a scaling law for inter-consistency. Moreover, I had found the problem I wanted to be my passion and career: engineering the quantum mechanics of cold hydrogen.

I submitted applications to PhD programs at UC-Boulder, Colorado School of Mines, Iowa State University, Purdue, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The first two were for connections to NIST-Boulder. Iowa State was because Steve Penoncello was looking to move there. Purdue had a hydrogen project. MIT had a cryogenic hydrogen project that I had gotten connected to. I was rejected from the Colorado schools. A faculty member at Iowa State flew me out for laser diagnostics research but I wasn’t particularly interested. Purdue gave me a phone call. MIT’s project wasn’t renewed (I never got a rejection letter). I had come to the end of the line again.

This was when I got lucky. My friend Dave Rowe had the desk next to me. The last summer I got a call from Idaho National Laboratory to offer me an internship, I already had one so I just said, “I’ve already got one but the guy at the desk next to me doesn’t,” and handed my friend the phone without giving the guy a chance to argue. Dave got the job! After the internship Dave was looking to continue on with a PhD and had applied mostly at the Big-10 schools to return back home to the upper midwest. Unlike me Dave studied for standardized exams. He was recruited and flown out to just about every school he applied to. When he was at the University of Wisconsin-Madison he had a meeting with John Pfotenhauer, discovered that John had a cryogenic hydrogen research project, and put me on the phone with John as soon as he got back. I didn’t even realize Wisconsin had a cryogenics lab! It was mid April, well past all the application deadlines, but since John was the Chair of Graduate Studies in his department, he had me quickly send in an application. I had a fellowship offer accepted within two weeks, site unseen.

What this series of near-recruitments has taught me is that the entire academic recruitment process is focused on GPA and GRE scores. I learned from former Wisconsin Chancellor John Wiley, who was on the GRE advisory board, that the GRE is, “Completely incapable of predicting talent in science and engineering… It’s an exam on your ability to study for an exam.” When busy faculty are faced with a pile of standardized applications, they have little ability to make a decision any other way. Crossing fields without connections, or outstanding metrics, is exceedingly difficult without a little bit of luck along the way. It is very hard to compete with people who have had months to years of experience learning the vernacular and techniques of a field.

Lessons I learned about recruitment:

  1. If you have to do something, like a GRE, do it well.
  2. If your lab doesn’t have a website for recruitment, you are likely being missed by relevant applicants.
  3. Having a network of friends can make all the difference, and not in the ways you imagined.
  4. Hard questions and hard work make the difference in the end.
  5. You only have so much ability to control the hand you’re dealt, but you do have control over how you play it.

How I used to recruit (the pre-system early years)

With this experience under my belt I embarked as a faculty member back home at WSU. I neglected to mention that I was both Jacobsen’s and Pfotenhauer’s only MS and PhD student, respectively, so I really had zero experience recruiting or working with others aside from the UI football program. Within a month of accepting my offer at WSU though I got a phone call from an interested student, Ian Richardson, who had an interest for what I was doing, good enough grades such that I wasn’t worried about them, and became the first HYPER undergraduate. However, my attempts to call applicants from the graduate pool fell flat. After coming to WSU I was invited to give a seminar to the graduate students. One of them was falling out with his current advisor, was really excited about my work, and had good enough grades and hands on skills to get started. Jake Fisher became the first HYPER PhD graduate student. The next year I taught a class with Ron Bliesner in it. Ron had a driving curiosity for cryogenic electronics, and good enough grades. Ron became the first HYPER MS student.

Over the next several years we recruited students in many ways: One was a recommendation from a former mentor at NIST (Thomas Blackham). Another was the son of a colleague in EECS (Brandt Pedrow). A third was a hard worker from my thermo class (Chad Nixon). A fourth was a key undergraduate contributor to the Genii drone (Eli Shoemake).

Notice that no students came from the general applicant pool. I was looking at the pool, but few students had a reason for applying to WSU or for working with me. Also notice that all of the students above were white males. It wasn’t for a lack of trying to diversify. One international grad student got pregnant on a cruise and backed out from an offer. Another got poached by a leading robotics program with far more resources. Several top undergraduate women trained in the lab received six figure job offers from industry straight away so it would’ve been silly to stick around. And nearly all of the emails I receive from international students inquiring about positions use the same unoriginal format email… It’s hard to see any kind of system for recruitment forming here. But it was there, and pretty standard:

  1. Recruits had an original reason for being here, at WSU, studying cold hydrogen.
  2. Recruits had a minimum GPA (>3.26) such that I didn’t have to worry about it.

That was about it. And it worked! In the first decade we never lost a graduate student. Everyone got a degree when they left. I’ve heard rumors of faculty going through 3-4 graduate students for every one they kept. It just seemed so needlessly wasteful. Moreover, HYPER lab students were winning many national awards: Two Timmerhaus Fellows for top male in US Cryogenics, a Donna Jung award for top female in US Cryogenics, three NASA Space Technology Graduate Research Opportunity (NSTGRO) winners, a Goldwater winner and another finalist, many most outstanding students in the department or college (basically a few every year). This hammers home the point that the most important part of recruitment is how you train the talent you do recruit. However, having a system for recruitment based on exceeding two minimums can only get you so far. We were still not getting many recruits from outside of WSU. And with the lab numbers increasing into the 20’s and 30’s I was beginning to systemize how we recruit for a culture of self-sustaining excellence.

How we recruit now

If you want to have a self-sustaining community of excellence in your lab, it must be a community effort. Nothing diminishes graduate leaders like forcing them to work with someone they have no connection to. Moreover, not involving graduate leaders in the recruitment process deprives them of the experience they need in cultivating their support network, a key predictor of future success. While who gets in and leaves the lab is ultimately still my decision as lab director, this decision is now made in concert with the graduate students leading the teams working on our core grant deliverables, and with the rest of the HYPER management team.

Every semester we conduct interviews with the graduate team leads and the management team. We interview most who inquire about positions. Most who inquiry are recommended to by a friend who is usually a current lab member, are someone in a class I taught, were in a recruitment workshop I ran for the department, or were recommended to us by an Associate Dean or Dean. The interviews are basically an easy discussion to learn about a person’s passions, challenges, and experiences. We then take this discussion into consideration when building each of our lab teams. While the majority of our teams are working directly to deliver on grant deliverables, we also have a ‘Core’ team of Freshman and Sophomores who work directly with the lab Management to improve core lab systems that effect all of the teams in the community. This Core team is particularly important as people tend to come and go all of the time. With a buffer of people trained in the lab systems ready to step up we can easily fill vacated positions. And with 2-4 trainees working on each of the lab teams the odds are at least one of them will be ready to step up to lead a team should a leader graduate.

Although we now have a sustaining recruitment pipeline within WSU, we must work towards maximizing the resiliency of our community through diversity — the more competent professionals we have of diverse backgrounds, the higher the likelihood that someone will have the skillset and experience necessary to address the many unknown challenges of the future. This includes recruiting people trained at other institutions besides WSU. What I’ve found is that students do not realize that they likely have products they purchased on their person that relied on cryogenic hydrogen technologies. Moreover, most want to work on rockets, racecars, fusion, and clean energy but do not realize that cryogenic hydrogen is necessary to all of those fields. To address this issue I made a key goal of my professional leave to give recruitment seminars introducing people to liquid hydrogen research at institutions across the western US. I’ve found that just about every talk I give with students in the room results in at least one interested and qualified applicant. Why?

How do I get someone excited, ready to part ways with their former lives, to pursue a niche topic like cryogenic hydrogen research? Cultivating this drive to change comes from a combination of four steps:

  1. Knowing someone’s deepest motivations and passions. What drives them. What makes them tick. In many ways.
  2. Knowing the needs and opportunities in a field, that with a few original steps, can be solved by someone with their drive, motivations, passions, and experiences.
  3. Through a series of questions, help someone to connect the steps spanning the gap between 1 and 2.
  4. Get out of the way, yet still support, to allow the success to be truly their achievement.

What I look for in new recruits

After all of the interview questions, advancing through the lab, and checks in this system, many students are still left wondering, “But why’d you pick me? What do you look for in new recruits?” The answer is really simple. I recruit people into the lab that I believe have the potential to teach me, and the rest of humanity, something freakishly awesome.

How do we see this potential in people?

  1. They have curiosity and interests that we can cultivate.
  2. They have grit and drive to persevere through the many challenges that stopped others before.
  3. They have an ability to synthesize data and evidence, to adapt to change, to be coachable.
  4. They have a desire to make those around them better as professionals.

Metrics like IQ, EQ, GRE, GPA, SAT… Eagle Scouts, First Robotics, Athletics… all of these things that so many of us are biased to believe in matter, but are ultimately just many superficial indicators of the above. There are more direct ways to extract this information through simple discussions of original stories. Because when these personal attributes align with an immediate need of the lab community, challenges start taking care of themselves. These performing individuals then drive the lab community to become more than the some of it’s individuals. This community of excellent, self-sustaining people, will indeed teach me, and for that matter all of us, many new things. And that, is truly a freakishly awesome place to be.