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How to talk to recruiters as an early-career researcher—and why you should

In three morning sessions at the EuroScience Open Forum held earlier this month in Toulouse, France, early-career researchers had the opportunity to talk one-on-one with recruiters from industry and other employers. Science Careers dropped by and spoke with event organizer Clément Varenne, the administrative manager of L’École des Docteurs, which provides career training and development programs for doctoral candidates at the Federal University of Toulouse Midi-Pyrénées. This interview was translated from French and edited for brevity and clarity.  

Q: What was the purpose of the event?

A: Each participant had a 30-minute chat with a human resources representative from companies in fields including engineering, aeronautics, aerospace, and cosmetics. It’s almost like a mock interview in a neutral environment. There is very little at stake, so it’s a good opportunity for participants to practice interviewing and see what works and what doesn’t work.

Q: What mistakes do you typically see participants make when they talk to recruiters and other nonacademics?

A: Doctorate holders tend to focus too much on presenting their research and not at all on presenting themselves. Your successful thesis defense is enough to show that you are a specialist in your field and have been recognized by your peers. What a recruiter will be looking for in a candidate above all is a keen interest in the job, a profile that brings something different and valuable to the company, and a personality that fits its culture. Several times, I have heard recruiters say, “OK, that’s enough, stop telling me about your research subject. Now let’s talk about you. What are you passionate about?” Sometimes, doctorate holders are a bit bewildered by those questions and not really prepared to answer them. It is always more difficult to speak about yourself than to speak about your research, so you should practice that.

Q: What about transferable skills? Are Ph.D. holders aware of their skills, and do they know how to highlight them for potential employers?

A: Through research training, students develop an enormous amount of transferable skills that they usually aren’t aware of. But as academic jobs have become more and more difficult to get, there has been increasing recognition that we need to help doctoral candidates identify their soft skills and sell them to recruiters. In LÉcole des Docteurs, we help students learn about the different terms used to describe soft skills and evaluate their own competences through role play interviews, quizzes, and questionnaires.

We also organize activities to give students further opportunities to develop their transferable skills. To help with communication, for example, we organize outreach events with the general public and schoolchildren, and in jails and psychiatric hospitals. And to help them improve their collaboration skills, which are very important for industry work, we run hackathon-style workshops where students have 24 hours to put together an innovative business plan.

Q: What advice do you have for Ph.D. candidates who may not have access to these types of programs and opportunities?

A: First, you must learn to translate what you’ve learned during your doctorate to make it relevant outside of academia. We have an academic language that is understandable only to our peer community. When you arrive at a company, you need new language to explain your scientific competencies and transferable skills. There are lots of articles about soft skills that can help you find this new language.

Second, don’t hesitate to create your own opportunities. My doctorate was on the history of piracy in the Mediterranean, a topic that is often fascinating to the general public. So, I organized events to share my research with lay audiences, often in collaboration with public entities like the city of Toulouse. Doing this helped me realize that, although I liked research, I wanted to discover other things and diversify my work. It also helped me identify and further develop various skills, including event organizing and managing projects and teams. When the time came to look for a job, I was able to include these skills on my CV and explain them in a way that made them relevant to the post.

This paid off—I started my current job just 2 days after defending my thesis. This is another thing that I would like to convey to young researchers: the importance of anticipating their next career move. All too often, doctoral candidates wait until they have submitted their thesis to start looking for a job. I would encourage them to start looking a year in advance. You need time to research your options and develop your skills and networks.

Q: Do you have any further advice for doctoral candidates?

A: Academia can be stifling in some ways, and I would encourage students to raise their heads, open their eyes to what else may be available, and experience other activities and sectors. Do not hesitate to reach out to industry and other nonacademic employers. Challenge any preconceptions you may have by going and talking to them. For example, L’École des Docteurs helps students get exposure to industry by arranging 1-day visits and few-month placements. Through these experiences, students often realize that researchers in companies are just as passionate about their jobs as researchers in academia. Many students also discover that industry research is more tangible than basic research and that the pressure to perform is real, but it is no worse than it is in academia today. Gaining insight into industry and talking with company researchers about their jobs also helps doctorate holders better present their skills during job interviews.

Finally, do not be afraid of one-to-one meetings and other face-to-face opportunities to meet recruiters. Young researchers tend to forget that it is often much harder for the recruiter to find the right person than it is stressful for them to take part in the interview. So try to relax a little bit so that you can enjoy the experience and make a good impression while learning for the next time.

This is part of a series of Q&As from this year’s EuroScience Open Forum.

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