Read our COVID-19 research and news.

The Path of a C.V.

Many scientists express frustration that they send as many as two or three hundred C.V.s during the course of a job search. Industry has many opportunities for technical professionals, and it is difficult for some people to understand why they can't land one with the typical "C.V. carpet-bombing approach." I felt it was a good time to follow that paper trail and describe what happens on the receiving end of a résumé or C.V. My goal in giving this fictionalized account will be clear by the end of the column.

Day One

Dr. Fred Flemming takes a copy of his credentials and addresses an envelope according to an ad he saw in Science. "A perfect fit," he tells his wife as he stamps the large manila envelope and prepares it for the following day's pickup.

Day Five

Sam Jones, the administrative assistant in Human Resources for XYZ Technologies, a San Francisco biotech firm, gathers the day's incoming mail. There are 150 résumés that day, including Fred's C.V. It is Sam's job to sort through these materials and forward them to the proper H/R associate--who will later screen the résumés for a fit against current openings at XYZ. As he goes back to his desk to handle this enormous job, he stops at one of the department fax machines and sweeps another 10 or 15 faxed résumés into his pile.

Day Seven

Two days later, the H/R associate who works with scientific hires, Bob Clark, has Fred's résumé and a great number of others in a large stack. Because the company gets about 3000 résumés a month, a good part of this recruiter's day is spent on this screening process. Here's how Bob would describe his daily ritual and resulting role in the hiring process:

"I have an assistant open the stacks of morning mail and pile the résumés into one large group which I look at over a cup of coffee," he says. "The first thing I do is start separating them into three piles. A quick glance at a résumé can usually tell me whether to put it into the 'no way' pile, the 'maybe' pile, or the 'talk to' pile."

How does he decide which pile a particular C.V. lands in?

"The 'no ways' are résumés where there is no possibility of a fit, or where attitude problems, communication difficulties, or spelling errors and typos knock them out of consideration. The 'maybes' get a brief second look because there was something that caught my eye--some of them falling into the round file and a few getting some further interest for an open position or for scanning into our applicant data file. Of course, the résumés that fit the picture on a current opening go into the 'talk to' pile. After a second look at these, however, we can generally cut that back dramatically. The C.V.s that then have some potential of interest go through the interoffice mail to the department heads or managers of the groups where the opening exists, and there a second screening, this one primarily for the technical fit, takes place."

Day Twelve

Dr. Susan Thomas, the head of biological research at XYZ Technologies, reviewed several fat interoffice mail envelopes. The C.V.s from the recent Science ad were enclosed, and there would certainly be a lot of work ahead to get through the large stack. As she pulled them out for individual review, she judged that she would have no more than 2 minutes each before determining their worthiness for consideration. Forty-five minutes later, she had reviewed 34 C.V.s, all of which seemed to fit the general educational background they were looking for. But, with the critical appraisal for which they paid her the big bucks, she had selected only eight of these C.V.s for the first pass.

Day Fifteen

The group leader for Protein Chemistry, Bill Wright, planned some time out for telephone interviews. Luckily, his wife knew how important filling these critical jobs would be, and she was willing to put up with him disappearing into the study for an hour or two each night. Bill had two interviews planned for the evening and one of them was Fred Flemming, who had sent a résumé in response to their ad. The other interview that evening was with a woman who had introduced herself to him just the other day. Galina Yastrevski was referred by one of his old college mentors who had some very nice things to say about her abilities. Bill didn't care at all where the applicants he interviewed for his department came from--all that mattered to him was that he find the right person for the job as expeditiously as possible.

The Rifle Shot vs. The Shotgun: The Rifle Shot Goes Farther

I like happy endings, don't you? So, we'll assume that in our story, Fred Flemming goes on to fame and fortune within XYZ Technologies. He was lucky, though. He took the traditional route to getting that interview and made it through the process. Not every person fares that well who has the "perfect fit" for an advertised job.

It would have been just as easy (and perhaps more realistic) to show Fred's C.V. getting lost in the process. In any situation where your correspondence becomes a part of a paper shuffle, you do indeed risk falling out at any step along the way. Of course, there is great competition in finding jobs--there is in almost every profession. (The number of résumé responses that a nonscience ad in The Wall Street Journal brings in, for example, is enormous.) Just as in any competition, the best approach is to have as many tools at your disposal as you possibly can.

Think of it as a hunt for big game. Some people consider their "hunt" to be the process of sending out as many C.V.s as possible, hoping that some of them stick. I would label this a "shotgun" approach. In our example above, Galina, the woman who was interviewed along with Fred, had evidently taken a "rifle shot" approach. She had been doing a significant amount of networking along with selective mailing of her credentials. Although she had missed the ad in Science, her network contacts took her to the same place without the risk of becoming one piece of paper in a huge stack. And one thing the story above doesn't describe are the four other opportunities she discovered that weren't advertised.

I am not recommending that job seekers stop mailing C.V.s to ads for which they are an obvious fit. It is essential, however, to recognize that competition is out there and to develop a job-search strategy that incorporates more creativity than that age-old process of stamping envelopes.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers