The Competitive Edge: Sought by Recruiters and Candidates Alike

Like it or not, science is an increasingly competitive arena. And so too are the hiring practices for recruiting and selecting new scientists for most companies. I know this firsthand, because in my 16 years as a human resources executive, I've been responsible for efficiently and effectively screening thousands of applicants. I've seen thousands of resumes, taken even more phone calls, and conducted hundreds of interviews, and I have been accountable for hiring 1000-plus new scientists for several major companies. In this new column, Tooling Up: The Insider's Edge, Next Wave readers will learn the secrets of recruiters and hiring managers--based on the experience of one who has been there.

Young scientists know that the hiring process is competitive. They routinely ask for "secrets" and "tricks" to gain a competitive edge. I am asked, "How do I get my résumé noticed?" "How do I get my phone calls returned?" and "What should I not say in an interview?"

In this column, I will share insider's secrets to help you distinguish yourself from other scientists applying for positions in industry. And in answering the questions that I have been hearing over the years, I intend to provide you with information that will give you a competitive edge.

The Résumé: Essential First Impression

Beyond the routine things you already know (correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation), other elements of a résumé can help get you past the initial screening and into an interview.

Insider's Tip #1. Résumés must be easy to read. Make your résumé visually appealing, so it presents your most important talents with an intentional visual flow. What does that mean? Simply, a résumé should lead the reader's eye from the top through the body of the document. This is why your name is at the top and usually stands out in a larger font than the rest of the résumé. Visual cues, such as font size, help readers find key information. If the résumé is easy to read and highlights only your most important talents and attributes, the recruiter will be more likely to actually remember it.

Insider's Tip #2. Automation makes possible another insider's secret that's little known (until now): the watermark. Watermarks, available in most word processing software packages, populate your résumé with relevant keywords. Why is that important? Today, many companies store résumés in databases. Recruiters, using keyword searches, identify and match candidates with position requirements. By inserting keywords using the watermark feature, you can still have a nice presentable résumé--and the invisible keywords--that will push your résumé toward the top of the search results.

Insider's Tip #3. Length isn't everything: Split your résumé into sections that can be submitted separately. For years I've seen résumés suggesting that applicants are competing to submit the longest résumé rather than demonstrating qualifications for the job. Each résumé should have a standard section (1-2 pages), a publications section, and a presentations section. Which section to submit depends on how and to whom you are submitting it. If your submission is by e-mail or in person, include the sections as separate attachments. If your submission is to a human resource professional via the Internet, submit the résumé section and include a line at the bottom of the résumé, "Publications available upon request." In this case, you are prepared for the next insider's tip: Use the telephone.

The Telephone: Use It Strategically

E-mail isn't everything; smart use of the telephone is also a key to success. So after submitting your résumé via e-mail or the Internet, always follow up with a phone call.

Insider's Tip #4. Use the telephone to follow up and confirm steps taken, to ensure that the e-mail and electronic documents have arrived as intended, and to confirm appointments. Calling shows follow-through--an attribute most companies value. You must think of these calls in two ways. First, they are a way to confirm the status of your résumé and application. More importantly, they are an opportunity to build a contact in the company. When you speak to someone at the company, you have an opportunity to differentiate yourself from all the other applicants. Plan what you are going to say. Be short and to the point. Remember when you call that it is not just about how they can help you, but also about how you can help them.

Insider's Tip #5. Recruiters today are overwhelmed--I often had hundreds of e-mails and telephone messages to review each day. So how do you get recruiters to contact you? You have to offer them something they need--the candidate that the hiring manager wants. Hiring managers do not have the time to talk with all candidates--that is why they have recruiters.

So, how do you get the hiring manager to ask the recruiter to contact you? Draw on faculty and alumni contacts within the company. Ask them to contact the hiring manager on your behalf. (Alumni associations can be helpful in finding alumni working at many companies.) People familiar with the company can be very influential with hiring managers and recruiters--ask them to make an introduction.

Insider's Tip #6. Getting to know administrative assistants will give you a competitive advantage. Remember that speaking with the person who's on the phone is as important as getting to speak with the recruiter or hiring manager. Administrative assistants confirm the status of your candidacy, and they can tell you the best time and way to reach the recruiter or hiring manager. They can also put in a good word for you--provide the recruiter with a positive message about you, because you've been courteous and professional. And this can be enough to get a recruiter to take a closer look at your résumé or to contact you.

The Interview: Let the Show Begin

During interviews recruiters are looking for information not on your résumé. Developing an "interview plan" with critical talking points is essential to marketing yourself.

Insider's Tip #7. Do your homework: Interview professors, current employees, former employees, and interns to learn what the company values in its scientists. Come to the interview prepared to highlight skills, experiences, and accomplishments that illustrate that you have the desired attributes. For example, companies want scientists who learn quickly and have a broad range of knowledge. Too many candidates focus on the classes they took--and not on their intellectual curiosity and flexibility.

Insider's Tip #8. Be a "can do" person; don't tell a prospective employer what you cannot do. During my years of interviewing, I am always surprised when a candidate talks about what he or she has not done or cannot do. An example is a candidate's lack of management experience. Rather than say you don't have management experience, talk about your leadership in the lab or in graduate student or postdoc associations, and draw the connections that will show that you have the skills necessary to manage people.

In Conclusion

You may have heard that companies are all striving to become the "employer of choice." To gain the competitive advantage in dealing with recruiters, candidates must make themselves the "candidate of choice." Do that by creating a résumé that floats to the top, becoming the preferred candidate through those who give the recruiter input (administrative assistants, hiring managers, alumni who work at the company, and so on), and making the recruiter's interview experience a positive atmosphere. Of course, there is no magic secret to landing a job; but now you have ... the Insider's Edge.

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