A Week in the Life of a Headhunter, Part 2

This article is a continuation of last month's column. I hope that if you haven't read it, you might go back and start with that one, so that you'll understand more about the people and circumstances discussed here.

The series, detailing a week in my office, is written in a different style from most "Tooling Up" features. It is my hope that this storytelling approach may help you understand some of the wild ups and downs experienced by job seekers in both industry and academia. As in all such dramatizations, the names of people and companies have been changed to protect the innocent.

Wednesday (Continued)

When Bill Fredrickson returned my call, I asked him to describe his interview day before breaking the bad news that the firm had already decided not to take it further. I wanted to see what Bill thought about where this interview fell apart.

"The first part of the day seemed to have gone fine. And I think my seminar went well," Bill said. "They asked me a lot of questions, and it seemed as if my work was of interest to them. We even had some lively dialogue about my reasons for pursuing a particular path of research. It was very collegial. But after my talk, I had individual meetings with some of the key people, and I just didn't feel very comfortable with a couple of those. Especially with Dr. Matthews."

Unfortunately for Bill, he is the kind of person who needs to "get comfortable" with a person before truly opening up. In a series of 30-minute interviews, he barely had time to get acclimated when the company would move him to another cubicle and another interviewer. When he got to Dr. Linda Matthews, he was at the end of a long, difficult afternoon.

Linda Matthews is a first-rate scientist, not Bill's prospective boss, but someone who could be very influential in the hiring process. The job that Bill was applying for entailed technology transfer into Linda's process development group. My guess was that if anyone had put the "nix" on Bill's hire, it would have been Linda. And I don't blame her. Who would want to be responsible for important technology when the person on the other side of the fence can't communicate well about it? Sadly, Linda didn't know what I suspected: that the "communication difficulties" were really "interviewing style difficulties" for Bill Fredrickson.

Bill was totally shocked by the negative result of the interviews, but he seemed upbeat about trying to find a way to resolve them. He told me that he would be sending thank-you letters to his major contacts that day and a special letter to Linda Matthews. Because he knew that he had a problem to diffuse with Linda, he asked for my advice about this letter. Here's some additional information that I e-mailed him about interview follow-up letters.

Thank You's and Interview Follow-Up Letters

People who write thank-you notes tend to get more job offers. Because of this strong correlation, it is highly recommended that you send a note expressing your continuing interest after the interview. Here are some pointers on how to make them more effective:

  • E-mail is rapidly overtaking any other method of sending "thanks." This informal communication method may work for many of the peers who you would meet during interview day. But, in order to stand above your job-market competitors, use regular mail and a nice letter format for the prospective boss and the person who invited you in for the day.

  • A good "thank you" contains a sincere expression of gratitude for the opportunity to interview and a continued interest in the position. It does not get syrupy, and it doesn't sound like you are desperate for a job. It might include reference to something that was discussed in the interview and some further information on the subject. ("John, I found that topic we discussed referenced again in this week's SCIENCE, page 232.")

  • A thank-you letter can also solve a problem. If you feel that something was left unresolved in the meeting, use the letter to point out an area where you have excelled in the past. Remember the formula of Challenge-Approach-Result (CAR). The challenge is a brief description of a similar problem you've faced; the Approach is your critical thinking skills and the action you took to solve it; and the Result is a specific description of your accomplishment.


Dilip Bhuta was a big hit at the client pharmaceutical company. The human resources manager contacted us first thing in the morning to discuss compensation issues:

"Please confirm this guy's current package. We want you to check references, and then we'll work up an offer," she said. It's always nice to talk about offers going out, particularly at the end of a long, frustrating search.

I passed along Dilip's current base salary, his bonus potential, and the level of stock options that his current company had provided for him. She mulled that over for a moment on the phone and then responded with some reservations.

"Frankly, that's higher than I expected. I wouldn't want to extend an offer in the upper range of the job," she replied. "It just wouldn't give this fellow enough headroom for future promotions. We'd have a problem with that here in H/R, because he needs to be in this grade level for at least 2 years. But, I'll pass this information on to the hiring manager and we'll let her decide what she wants to do about it. Do you think that he'd accept something that could be considered a lateral move?"

By the way she phrased this question, she knew what my answer was going to be. Dilip was currently employed by another good company. He wasn't a respondent to an ad and wasn't someone in the job market. There wouldn't be any reason for him to take a lateral position--after all, he wasn't trying to run away from something.

Later that day, Bill Fredrickson faxed over the letter that he intended to send to Dr. Matthews. It was great. He had crafted a well-written one-pager that got right to the point. It first mentioned his continuing interest in the job and then went into a description of a technology-transfer project that he had managed for a former employer. Bill hit several points very hard--especially those that dealt with his communication across multidisciplinary teams. I thought he presented his case well, and he enclosed with it a copy of a letter he had been given by the CEO for doing an outstanding job.


Things were heating up on the Dilip Bhuta negotiation. Before the offer went out, I was responsible for checking references. Like many scientists, Dilip had provided a number of reference letters from his former advisers and mentors, both from academia and from his several years in industry. These letters, however, weren't going to satisfy the employer. They wanted personal contact made with the references and any other reference information that I was able to find from other sources.

I sat down with my database to try and track down these five individuals and was able to get two of them on the line immediately, leaving messages for callbacks from the others. Here are some of the topics for discussion which came up:

Dave's List of Questions for Dilip Bhuta Reference Check

  • How is it that you have known Dilip? In what capacity did he work with you? (Confirm dates of employment.)

  • Would you please describe your impressions of Dilip's major strengths technically?

  • How would you describe his personality style? How well was he able to deal with others of different personality types?

  • What are Dilip's major weaknesses? Please tell me about which areas you might have suggested to him for improvement during his annual review.

  • How did Dilip's work ethic compare with those of his peers? Was he consistently at work on time and there when you needed him? What about issues of integrity?

  • Please share with me the names of others who might have worked closely with Dilip for my continuing reference-check process.

By late Friday afternoon, I had been able to successfully contact four of the references that Dilip had provided, plus two additional contacts that had come up along the way. They were outstanding. Although all references tend to be positive, these were the kind of reference calls that my instincts told me were quite genuine. The H/R manager who I would be speaking with about these calls would feel the same way.

No one likes a reference check that is all positive, all glowing. That's because we know that no one is totally perfect. There is always some room for improvement. When a mentor weights the reference positively, but includes some detail about those weaker areas in a nondamning way, it gives the hiring manager exactly what they need.


An hour in the office to answer e-mail on Saturday put the finishing touches on a very busy week. I was pleased to see that Bill Fredrickson had a telephone call from XYZ Pharmaceuticals. Although it wasn't clear that it would be going further, Linda Matthews had called Bill to make sure he knew that she had passed along his letter to his prospective boss. Bill mentioned that they had spoken for a few minutes and that it seemed that Linda was much more accessible. Well, maybe a good letter can indeed have a positive effect on a bad interview after all!

Dilip Bhuta wrote to say that he is expecting an offer next week. He asked for some advice about offer negotiations.

Stay tuned for an article dealing with offer negotiation in next month's Tooling Up!

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