Take the Initiative


Dear CareerDoctor,In a few of your columns you've suggested making speculative applications, but I've tried this approach---more than 50 times!--and it doesn't work. Is it me who is doing something wrong, or are speculative applications maybe more appropriate for certain types of jobs? I'd like to know how you would go about applying for a job that hasn't been advertised.Kevin

Dear Kevin,

You are correct in saying that I am an advocate of taking the initiative in your career and making speculative applications--whatever job it is you are considering. Despite your rather crushing experience, I stand by my convictions! Unfortunately, your story is not unusual, though, so I should probably start this column by defining more precisely what I mean when I say "speculative applications."

I am concerned that perhaps your 50+ applications were sent to similar companies that you hoped would consider you for similar jobs, and hence you sent off similar, if not identical, CVs to all of them. You might targeted your letters by mentioning the company by name, but you were promoting the same skills and experience, so they weren't actually all that different. Rather, in your enthusiasm and commitment to finding a job, you sent out CVs as a sort of mailshot.

I'm not passing judgement on you, because I see this approach taken frequently, usually with the same result--mass rejection (or worse, mass nothing). But speculative applications need to be individually researched and tailored in the same way as a response to an advert.

A mailshot approach needn't mean instant rejection (sometimes the application arrives on the desk of someone looking for just what you are offering), but CVs and letters written to suit a broad job type are pretty uninspiring to read. Worse, they can be annoying, as key information is embedded in general descriptions or statements. It is common for CVs to receive only a very quick first glance, so you need to make it obvious that you are something special. This is even more important with speculative applications, when readers may not have a particular role in mind for you--you need to make it easy for them to see how you might "fit" into their organisation or bring skills or experience that will be an asset for them.

These general CVs also stand out like sore thumbs when you are an experienced recruiter--even as a careers adviser I can spot a general CV at 50 paces.

So I expect you can imagine what I am about to suggest--every application must be unique. That's the bad news in terms of the time you will need to devote to each employer; the good news is that you should waste less time sending out CVs that have no chance of leading to an interview, so in the end it is a good investment.

If you have decided which function appeals to you (look at my previous column "Help! What Do I Do With My Degree?" if you need a little help with that) and worked out why you are suitable ( "From an Employer's Wish-List to Your CV, Part 1" may prove useful here), your first step is to identify potential employers. For this I am going to refer you to my column "Location, Location, Location ...".

When responding to job adverts, you know there is a timeline--deadline for applications, dates of interviews, visits at assessment centres, offers, and so on. You need to apply the same structure to a speculative search, and a good way of doing this is by setting yourself some targets. (You can see an example of this on the GRAD Web site.) Above all, regularly review the impact your approaches are having. If you have sent off 50 CVs without success, there may have been problems with the first five, which you could have corrected if you had reviewed them. Get someone to look at your CV--a careers adviser, a critical friend, someone in your family--and act on the comments. The ideal situation is to get feedback from the employers who have rejected you, but as I explained to Teresa in the last column, they aren't always forthcoming.

You need to get organised and decide which of these employers you are going to go for--I'd probably pick about five to start with. Look around their Web sites (and key jobs sites, such as those of Science and New Scientist) for existing or past vacancies so that you can build a picture of the kind of person they look for. If you're lucky, some of the ads will be related to the position you have in mind, which will give you a few example job descriptions to help you structure your speculative CV. If you can't find any interesting vacancies, then look for profiles of people--these are common on big company sites--and pull out details about their roles, skills, and any personal qualities that you think are relevant.

Also, if you have a look at the company's annual report or can keep an eye on the business news, you are more likely to know when new needs emerge within that company. If you know that certain skills and qualities are in short supply, then you can present the company with a tailored application at just the right time. A very interesting article on CareerPerfect.com, an American site, describes in more detail how business needs develop into opportunities for people but often never get to be advertised.

Your best potential source of information, though, is insiders, so now work out if you know people who work for any of your target employers. Ideally they will be in the area you are interested in themselves (research, marketing, regulatory affairs--whatever), but if not I'm pretty confident they would be happy to suggest someone in a more relevant role. Next, think about people you know who have a similar job to the one you are after, and ask them for contacts. Supervisors or former classmates are a great place to start. If this proves difficult, I'd seek an indirect contact--perhaps someone suggested by a professional body, careers service, or alumni list. These people usually volunteer to talk about their careers, so you can feel more confident about "cold calling" them--once you've done your homework.

You can find guidance on how to approach people for information interviewing about jobs in other articles in Next Wave and on the UK GRAD Web site. If your exchange has gone well, ask if they can recommend any other sources of information that might help with your job search. What you are really looking for are performance indicators (so you could identify some of the company's needs) or a job specification because these would provide the foundation for a great speculative application. But don't forget to ask your contacts about what would make an applicant stand out--are there any particular skills or personal qualities that the company tends to have problems finding?

I'd also try to speak to someone in Human Resources at your chosen companies because you need to know how they operate, too. If you are lucky, you may have seen a recent job advert containing their details or found them on the company Web site. But beware--if your first port of call is the receptionist, sometimes you won't get any further without a named contact. Assuming you do get through to HR, start by asking for the name of the person to whom you are speaking and confirm that he or she deals with recruitment into the type of posts that interest you. Write down this person's name and e-mail address--I would recommend that you write quickly to thank anyone who has given you some time and been willing to talk about recruitment practices.

Have a brief spiel ready about how interested you are in working for the company and why, and explain that you don't want to miss any opportunities to apply. Mention where you have spotted some of their vacancies and ask if there are any other avenues they use, such as recruitment agencies, other publications, or Web sites. A key question to ask is if they accept speculative applications (if not, then this saves you the pain of another rejection!) and whether they are planning to recruit in the departments you are interested in. If you have a personal contact in the company, make sure you mention that name to the HR person (having checked that your contact is happy for you to do this) as this gives the subtle impression that you come recommended.

Of course, you should have built up good knowledge about the companies and sector you are interested in beforehand so you are less likely to ask anyone questions that highlight your ignorance! You should also always be prepared for your phone call to develop into an informal interview. There would be nothing worse than to call up the recruitment director enquiring about speculative applications and be asked why you weren't interested in the jobs currently being advertised in all the obvious places. (Actually, come to think of it, there is something worse: They might be about to recruit, but by calling them without preparation, you fluff the interview before you've even applied!)

In addition to vital information on recruitment practices, there is another reason for contacting the company directly--you need to start building your relationship with them. If you can talk to someone in recruitment for 10 to 15 minutes and come across as pleasant, professional, and enthusiastic, you may stick in their mind. When your CV reaches them (assuming they are accepting speculative applications or are interested in seeing them), it is more than a piece of paper--it is the representation of a person they have spoken to, which makes rejecting it much more difficult (although, sadly, not impossible!).

If the person you spoke to made it clear that there were no jobs on the horizon, there are other ways to maintain your links with this employer. The Web site doctorjob.com (no relation!) lists some of these, and I'm sure if you look around the profiles on Next Wave, you'll find these strategies cropping up again and again.

Perhaps this is a good time to make clear that speculative applications are not just about trying to find any employer that will take you on--you must have a healthy dose of self-respect and look for companies that deserve to have you! If during this process you find people rude, dismissive, or obstructive, ask yourself if you want to work with them anyway.

Hopefully once you've been through this process a few times, you'll have much deeper insight into the roles that interest you as well as suitable companies, and this will help to make your future applications stand out. As I hinted above, you need to tailor your CV and letter to each prospective employer. You will find guidance on how to do that in my previous columns, "From an Employer's Wish-List to Your CV," Part 1 and Part 2.

The trickiest part of the speculative letter is the first paragraph, where in a standard job application you would refer to the job advertised. If you have managed to speak to someone in HR, you can mention this conversation and open with something like this: "Thank you for taking the time to discuss ChemCorp's recruitment practices with me last week. Following our conversation and a discussion with Dr John Mate in Discovery Chemistry, I am convinced that I have the skills and qualities to make an effective contribution to your company in a research function. I am enclosing a CV that details my background and achievements."

This isn't intended to be a template for your applications, but there are a few points you should try to replicate. I've name-dropped early; I'm upbeat and positive (for example, "convinced," "effective contribution," and "achievements"); and I'm clear on the role I'm interested in without being so specific that I exclude myself from potential possibilities. In a very large company, "research function" may be too vague, so ask your contact how to couch this and use the company's job titles where possible.

Speculative applications should form part of your job-hunting strategy, but they are particularly useful if you are restricted by other factors, such as location or interest in a field that is very small and specialised or in which there is a great deal of competition (the media being an example of this). Sending a good speculative application is much more personal than responding to an advert, so it can be a good strategy if you are a mature student or have an unusual background that you want to describe to individual employers. Speculative approaches are also very valuable when approaching smaller employers who can be flexible with their recruitment and may invite you in to discuss your background in more detail.

Speculative applications are just the tip of the iceberg of creative job hunting--you should also consider asking for work shadowing, short-term project experience, or even voluntary work if you are determined to break into your chosen company. There is more advice elsewhere on Next Wave, and a great example of the amazing results work shadowing can have is on the BBC's Apply Immediately Web site. (Look at the programme broadcast on 4 June 2003.) Although this isn't related to scientific jobs, the strategy is transferable and makes for an inspiring story.

By the way, if during your conversation with employers it emerges that they use a recruitment agency, I'd find out which one and if possible get the name of the consultant they deal with. I picked this trick up from a recruitment consultant who told me to then ring the consultant in question and say "Jane Doe at ChemCorp has recommended that I talk to you about possible positions with them." This may seem economical with the truth, but remember that you are doing the agency a favour by introducing yourself to them!

Finally, don't be overwhelmed by the prospect of having to go through all this rigmarole for each and every potential employer. In this column I've tried to present as many ideas as possible for you to adapt and apply as you see fit, but please do review your approach regularly to eliminate tactics that aren't working and to focus on those that really bring out your strengths.

Good luck in your career.

The CareerDoctor

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

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

Top articles in Careers