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What Are Headhunters and How Do They Work?

A few years ago, Dr. Jim Bylund was studying gene expression in Bacillus subtilis, working as a research associate at the Temple University School of Medicine. Today, he is the director of marketing and sales for a New Jersey-based specialty testing laboratory, Quality Biotech (a firm that caters to biotechnology companies). Jim had been considering a move to industry while still working at Temple, but this surprising career switch was actually the result of a cold call. Jim heard a headhunter's voice on the phone and a month later accepted a position as a technical services scientist. Since then, Jim has been on the receiving end of several promotions and is now managing important client relationships for his employer.

The "Hidden Job Market"

Perhaps like this fellow, you are thinking about a possible move into industry. You are most likely keeping your eye on the ads in Science as well as scouting the Internet for job postings that fit your background. You've even read all that you can about the variety of alternative career choices that might be possibilities. But have you done your homework on the other ways employers locate candidates? If not, you may be unaware that a "hidden" job market exists, where more positions are filled each year than the ones you see advertised!

This huge job market remains untapped by many job seekers. In sheer size, it is three times larger than the pool of open positions that are advertised in newspapers, scientific journals, and electronic media. The major method of tapping into this market is by personal networking through your own contacts and referrals. Many of the "Tooling Up" columns by both Peter Fiske and me will help you learn how to better network yourself into this hidden job market. I hope by now most readers of Next Wave know something about networking. What many probably don't know about, however, is how successful job seekers add the element of recruiters to their job search.

Do you know how the headhunting process works and how it might affect you someday?

A Nationwide Network of Specialists

Executive recruiters, also known as headhunters, have been an important part of the hiring process since the boom period of economic growth that immediately followed World War II. Executive recruitment firms are typically hired by companies to help them staff their organizations, often for top-level management or technical-specialist positions. Until about fifteen years ago, the search industry consisted only of large, national firms with generalist capabilities. But now, the current recruitment scene has a recruiter working in just about every niche of science and engineering.

It can be rather confusing, however, when you start to approach companies that are paid intermediaries in the hiring process. That is because there are several different types of headhunters. There are both retained executive recruiters and contingency companies. The difference is that the retained recruiter typically is paid a portion or all of their fee in advance by the employer, and the contingency recruiter is working on somewhat of a speculative basis until the new employee is in place. Both types of recruiters work on positions in science, with the biotech market representing a very heavily "headhunted" industry.

Typically, the retained search firm is used for positions with salaries of $60,000 and up, while the contingency recruiter works on any type of position. The key to remember is that both these companies work for employers, as opposed to individuals. This means that contacting a recruiter is not like working with the old-fashioned employment agency, where you may be charged a fee of some sort. (In fact, if anyone approaches you with some service for a fee in the employment world, it is most likely a scam that you will be greatly sorry you participated in.)

How to Approach Recruiters

Although headhunters will likely play an important role in your career at some point, they may not be your major resource until you have some work experience under your belt. Often, new graduates or postdocs will expect the headhunting firm to "find them a job." In reality, it doesn't work this way.

As a part of the networking process, you need to find out who is working as a "headhunter" in your specialty area and then add them to your contact list. Think of this as a way to plant a seed or two that may become important to you later on. Most likely, there won't be an immediate open position that is a fit. However, given some time and the fact that your credentials become a part of that recruiter's working database, you may find, as Dr. Bylund did, that a call out of the blue can make for a wonderful change of scenery.

Checklist to Review Before Contacting a Headhunter

1) Do you have a full CV with a list of publications, along with a succinct statement of your research interests? It is a mistake to shorten it to a two-page résumé, because headhunters need all the information they can get about your capabilities.

2) Have you written a one-page cover letter that describes your geographic area of interest as well as the timing and availability of your job search? Does the cover letter clearly state the kind of position you are seeking? Have you mentioned any special circumstances, such as an employed spouse, that will affect your availability?

3) Is there a home phone number and home address on your credentials? Your e-mail address? (Headhunters spend their most important hours after work in contact with prospects at their homes.)

4) If the headhunting firm does not have any current open positions (many of them work only with candidates who already have industrial experience), do you have a couple of good questions ready about career issues that they can help you with? (Recruiters can be an excellent source of third-party information!) Ask for referrals to people they have placed in industry who might help you.

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