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Hiring Researchers

Bill Stainton

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Following are the responses to this question:

I’m considering hiring a researcher or two (college students, perhaps?) for an upcoming project. Since this is a first for me, I’d sure appreciate any advice from those who have been down this road before.

-- Dick Schaaf

Several years ago, I hired three researchers to help me put together a major book on service trends. Two of them I found by contacting a local college's internship coordinator. She helped me structure a position description so the students (both working on MBAs) could potentially receive course credit for their work -- an important inducement beyond the $8 an hour I could pay them (thanks to a healthy advance from a publisher). To our mutual surprise, she then applied for the third researcher position, (a) because her work at the college was only part-time, (b) because she saw it as a good learning experience for herself, and (c) because she could use the extra money.

A couple of observations and lessons learned:

First figure out what you need your researchers to do, then hire to that standard. None of the three I worked with was a particularly good writer, but I didn't need them to write up what they found. My priority was to get people who understood how a business works so they could dig for the specific kinds of material I wanted. On the whole, that was a good decision. I've also had two writing interns from another university's journalism school (undergrads), and their better communications skills mostly offset their lack of intensive knowledge about business.

If you have an alternative to paying by the hour, explore it. Buying hours doesn't present much of an incentive for your researchers to be time- or cost-efficient -- and mine (for the book) weren't. One was outstanding. One was okay. And one was pretty pokey. If I ever had the need to do something like this again, I'd definitely explore using a stipend tied to direct results instead of hourly timesheets that mostly document time, not outcomes. That can also be useful in gracefully winding down the project and cutting them loose, which gets increasingly awkward (and expensive) the more you come to like having them around. The writing interns were on board for a semester, and each worked a specific number of hours a week (set up in advance), so the transitions happened in much simpler fashion.

Logistics can be a mess if you're not prepared for the issues that will come up. Luckily for me, I was working from a large townhouse that I'd converted to an office, so I could provide physical working space for my researchers. Having them in my office allowed me to supervise their work, answer questions as they arose, and get immediate glimpses of what they were turning up. It also made for some great camaraderie among the researchers -- their level of teamwork was an unexpected bonus. On a more practical level, it meant that the files, notes, phone records, mailings, etc. all "lived" in my office, not scattered in several places. The packrat in me really appreciated that. Of course, it also meant that I had to wire in a couple of additional phone lines, provide appropriate office and computer supplies, and buy more coffee, but that was just a cost of doing business the way I preferred to do it.

When you're done with something, celebrate it. Even when you're still doing something, but visibly making progress, celebrate it. College students invariably live on tight budgets, and research of this nature in general isn't a big-money prospect. Our periodic lunches (almost always tied to some kind of event or milestone or breakthrough) provided great opportunities to talk shop, refocus efforts, renew enthusiasm and get to know each other without being as inhibited by the "famous (???) author/lowly intern" imbalance.

-- Patti Hathaway

It depends on the kind of "project" you are working on. I've had great success in hiring a local adult reference research librarian to research information for me when I wrote my book as well as for other short-term projects. I gave her questions organized by chapter and she did the research, made copies of the information she found (and where she found it), and sent it back to me. She has also conducted research for me on various industries I was interested in pursuing (including contact information). Even though she is local, we have never actually met -- have done everything via e-mail and the USPS. You can typically hire a reference librarian for $15-20/hr + copy costs and they will save you a ton of time.

-- Scott Stratten

I use the Web site www.Elance.com where you place an RFP for the service, and people bid on providing it for you. Great prices, but more importantly some very skilled researchers.

-- Gene Siciliano

First, get connected with a well-regarded professor of the best school in your area, someone who would be presumed to value their reputation when making a referral. Then ask them to recommend a student to you, or to champion your search with other professors at their school. Your chances of getting a good one go up dramatically vs. simply advertising at the school or elsewhere, and the price probably won't change much.

-- Kay Johnson

We have used researchers for many projects. Several times we have used college students which we found through the university's internship programs. Others have been career women, who are now at home with children but want to work part time on special research. We have found both approaches effective. The important piece is to outline the project, specifics about the research, outcomes, etc. With college students, it is important to note when exam week falls, dates of major papers/projects, or specical weekends. If you keep their schedule in mind you'll have better results.

We want students with high grades or GPAs, scholarship students, and students looking for work experience to add to a resume. We are fortunate to have Wake Forest University here. They are known to have really bright, motivated students who are interested in learning. We have used them for research on a book, calling speakers bureaus for an article for NSA Professional Speaking magazine, information for several consulting projects, research for a proposal, a specific custom presentation for a law firm, etc.

-- Rebecca Smith

Last semester I went through the process of hiring two part-time interns and learned a few lessons:

I found it best to pay an hourly rate (though some interns in very competitive fields are not paid) to get the most commitment and reliability when working with a student who has multiple demands on their time.

Our university offers the student credit for structured internships approved by the department head. Usually these have to be approved in advance before the semester starts, so it may be too late for this semester unless you hurry.

Summer is when most students search out internships, but our university's career services center will post local job openings year round, screen student resumes and mail those that fit your job profile. They also provide interview rooms. Just be sure to ask for the most up-to-date resumes or you'll wade through a lot of students who have graduated or are no longer interested. I found it difficult to reach students by phone, easy through email to set up interviews.

Our best deal in Kentucky is for students who qualify for a work/study program. Approved employers and students receive an hourly rebate of $2.00 per hour, which helps when paying year-end employment taxes.

I also had an opportunity to make a donation ($500 to $1,000) to the marketing department and get up to 6 hours per week research labor, but this was not the best option for me.

When interviewing, be sure to ask for examples of how the student manages their time, especially at the end of the semester, and past successes and failures in juggling work and school. Be sure to trust your gut with the hiring decision, because you are mostly hiring potential. You will need to provide a lot of structure in the beginning and have clearly defined outputs.

-- Barbara Thompson

As a college librarian as well as being a speaker and author, I have had over 30 years of experience with student researchers. My advice is to be sure that whomever you hire understands the importance of considering the quality of the source of information. With the availability of the Internet, many researchers view the information found there as necessarily valid. It is not. Some is very good, much is not. Be sure that your researcher checks the credentials of the author of the material and the reputation of the source before accepting an author's information. One of the best ways to do this is to note if other authors include this author's material within their bibliography. If you see a source repeated, then it is worth taking a closer look Whomever you hire needs to understand this.

It is best to do your own research because the act of doing research is a learning experience in itself as you follow leads that might surprise you. However if time just does not permit, ask to see some research papers that your prospective college student researcher has produced. Ignore the text and go straight to the bibliography. Papers with lengthy bibliographies, few Internet sources, and a long list of prestigious journals should indicate that the person understands correct research sources.

-- Nanette Miner

I hired a researcher for my two businesses in Oct. She is GREAT. Not only does she find the right information/sources but she puts critical thought into her work -- something I find in short supply in the world. She's very good about acting responsible with your money (e.g., "I can pursue this, but I wanted to get your OK first because I didn't want to waste your money") and rather than just dumping information in my lap, she organizes, synthesizes and provides comments like "I think you should give this your attention first."

She's a former full-time librarian, now a part-time librarian and just starting her researching business. Her rate is $20/hour and she has SAVED me money. Masters degree, has done research for college professors. I can't speak highly enough of her abilities. Her name is Rachel Hyland (Slaggers2@aol.com); she lives in CT, but with today's technology, that hardly matters, right? Maybe if you get more than a few leads, a good approach would be to give them all the same assignment and deadline and see whose work you like the best. Good luck!

-- Leslie Krauz Stambaugh

I have done this a number of times with great success. My strategy:

  • Put up a sign in the Ed school (I am lucky to live in Ann Arbor near the U of Michigan) with tear-off phone numbers asking for students who want the opportunity to learn and make $12/hour. Even though my research is always business-oriented, I have had the best luck with students from the Ed school or social science departments, although you might want to try others as well.
  • I pay top dollar for my area for hourly work, because then I feel I can demand quality work and I am very likely to get conscientious service.
  • When I interview I also do two things. I see if they are interested in my research topic (I explain why I find it interesting and what I intend to do with it) and I ask them how they think they would conduct the research -- where do they think they might go first, how will they uncover new sources, etc. (and see if they are likely to find their way in a library and/or the Internet resources available).

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