Read our COVID-19 research and news.

The Job Seeker's Lexicon

You're encouraged to explain your science in plain language, but somehow that rule doesn't seem to apply to people with positions to fill. Job advertisements, companies, recruiters, and interviewers are all guilty of using jargon. Below are some of the terms you might encounter as you search and interview for jobs. I've given short definitions for each term and, in most cases, links to articles in the Science Careers archive that will give you a more detailed explanation.

But it isn't just a dictionary of job-seeking terms; reading through the list, and especially the linked articles, is likely to make you a more sophisticated and informed job seeker, especially if you're at the beginning of your industry job search.

Job advertisements, companies, recruiters, and interviewers are all guilty of using jargon.

Backfill: The process an employer goes through to fill existing positions vacated by departures or promotions.

Behavioral interviewing: Also called "situational interviewing." This is an interview in which you are asked specific questions about how you might behave in a particular situation. "Please give me an example of a time when you were very upset with a colleague, and how you handled it," is a typical example. See First Encounters With Behavioral Interviewing .

Body language: This is what you communicate, without saying a word, by the way you look or act. Oftentimes, body language leads to first impressions that are stronger and more durable than the impressions you make by what you say. See Tooling Up: Career Success Factors, Part 1--Believability .

Candidate: An applicant brought to the level of serious contention; someone who made it to the final round. This term is also used to describe a person who was prescreened and presented by a headhunter. To an employer, "applicants" --everyone who responds to an ad--are plentiful, but true "candidates"--applicants worthy of serious consideration--are few.

Challenge-Approach-Results (CAR): An exercise performed in advance of a job search, and especially to prepare for networking events or interviews. On a sheet of paper, write down each of your accomplishments and dissect them in three columns: C = Challenge (the problem you faced), A = Approach (how you applied your critical-thinking skills), and R = Results (what occurred as a direct result of your involvement). This will help you speak succinctly and recall important aspects of your past experience during your job interview. See also the STAR interviewing technique. See Tooling Up: Guerrilla Marketing Yourself .

Cold call: Introducing yourself, typically by telephone, to someone you don't know--usually someone with whom you don't have a mutual acquaintance. Once you've used up your existing network--friends and friends of friends--cold calls become the core of a successful job search. See Tooling Up: More than Just a Job-Seeking Skill (scroll down to the section on cold calls).

Cover letter: A short, succinct selling tool that allows you to arouse interest in your application and, in particular, focus attention on relevant aspects of the CV or résumé. Sometimes referred to as a "letter of application." See The Cover Letter: Door Opener Par Excellence and The Commandments of Cover Letter Creation.

CRO: Contract Research Organization, or Clinical Research Organization. These are employers that provide services to companies that outsource clinical trials management (or analytical services, manufacturing services, and so on). See From the Bench to the Pharmacy: The Life of a Clinical Research Scientist in Drug Development .

Curriculum vitae (CV): A detailed summary of your education experience, work history, and research experience, including publications and presentations, that is generally used for academic job searches. See Tips for a Successful CV.

CV shotgun: A generally unsuccessful approach to job hunting in which a job seeker sends large numbers of unsolicited CVs or résumés out to employers, usually combined with a "Dear Sir or Madam" cover letter. The reference is to the weapon, which, rather than aiming precisely, spreads a large number of small pellets over a large area in a random pattern. See The Path of a C.V.

Elevator speech: A short, canned presentation by the job seeker about his or her attributes and areas of strength. The name comes from the hypothetical situation in which you get on an elevator with someone you want to work for and have the length of the elevator ride to give your self-promotional pitch. Although the term is also used to describe short, canned answers to questions such as "Tell me about your work," (e.g., at scientific meetings), in an industry-hiring context, it's about trying to get yourself hired. Most elevator speeches are used in response to the "TMAY" request (defined below). See Tooling Up: Fifty Seconds with a Million-Dollar Impact and The One-Minute Talk.

Fit: How well an applicant meets the requirements of a job and the culture of the company. A hiring manager must be assured that the new job fits you; it's another way of describing your match for the job specs. The "fit" is a very important consideration for the job seeker as well.

FTE: Full-time employee, or full-time equivalent.

Headcount: An important concept in industry. This refers to the number of people working for a company or a particular department within a company. A manager might say, "I'm able to increase my headcount to 14, effective in March."

Headhunter: Slang referring to an independent recruiter who is not associated with one employer. There is no licensure required to be a headhunter, so quality and ethical standards vary. Headhunters are known more formally as "executive recruiters." See A Week in the Life of a Headhunter (Part One) and Tooling Up: On Headhunters.

Hidden job market: At least 60% to 70% of open positions are "hidden"--invisible because they are not advertised. These positions are filled by managers tapping their networks, by recruiters, or by temp agencies.

Hiring manager: The person ultimately responsible--and who gets the credit or the blame--for the hiring decision. Generally, this is the prospective boss of those interviewing for the job.

HR: Human Resources Department--in many companies, a valued and essential ally in the hiring process. In others, bureaucrats who impede progress and look for reasons not to hire potentially good employees. See Your Relationship With Human Resources--How to Score Points With the Company Gatekeepers.

Industry CV: A curriculum vitae that has been modified to emphasize accomplishments most relevant to industry employment; preferred by industry employers over a 1- to 2-page résumé or an academic CV. The industry CV doesn't list every single talk, publication, award, and grant; it is succinct and focused on the company's needs. See CVs That Open Industry Doors.

Informational interview: A short (15- to 30-minute) meeting during which the job seeker interviews informally with someone on the seeker's desired path or in a company of interest. The discussion tends to focus on career advice, not on getting hired--yet making a good impression is still a top priority. Informational interviews are a great way of using and strengthening your professional network. They eventually lead to job offers more often than you might think. See Schmoozing 101 and Informational Interviewing: Getting Information You Can Use.

Internal hire: When the employer selects a person from inside their ranks to fill a position, independent of whether the job is advertised publicly. Often, positions are advertised so companies can compare external applicants with internal candidates.

Job specs: The "must-haves" for the position--although people are often hired who only partially match the requirements. Generally, this is a list of the technical skills, education, and personal attributes most desired by the employer. Candidates selected for interviews usually match 60% to 70% of the job specs.

Job talk: The presentation that interviewees give at a company that shows off communication skills and previous work experience. See: Mastering Your Ph.D.: Giving a Great Presentation and Tooling Up: Job Talk Jitters.

Networking: A lifelong process of making connections, for friendship and for mutual benefit. Inexperienced job seekers often make the mistake of thinking that networking is just about finding a job. Instead, networking is about valuing connections with like-minded people; it is not a cynical or selfish attempt to find people to help you. See A Step-By-Step Protocol for Networking, Part One , Networking: How to Get a Good Connection, and The Seven Laws of Networking, Those Who Give, Get.

Panel interview: An interview in which the applicant faces several interviewers at once. Applicants should find out in advance if they'll be meeting with a panel, as this type of interview can be challenging and requires special preparation. See How to Prepare for and Succeed at Panel Interviews .

Peer + 2: A networking contact who is just a year or two ahead of you on the same path. Advantages of Peer + 2 networking are that these contacts are easy to reach (no gatekeepers), have empathy for your situation, and are often paid a bounty to talk to you ("Referral bonus," below). See Networking, Part 1: Making the Most of Your Contacts .

Recruiter: A general term for anyone whose sole job is identifying potential employees. The recruiter is either a member of a company's HR department or an external contractor, such as a headhunter or temp agency.

Redundant: A person is "made redundant" when employment ends involuntarily in a layoff.

References: In academia, you will be asked to request letters of reference or to supply names and contact information for people who will provide a reference for you. In industry, applicants are almost never asked to provide letters--just names and contact information. These people will be contacted, typically by phone, by the hiring manager, an HR representative, or a third party representing the employer. You should have a good idea of what your references will say about you before you use them. See Optimize Your References .

Referral bonus: Also known as an Employee Referral Bonus, this is a payment to an employee who refers someone to the HR department who is eventually hired.

Résumé: A one- or two-page document--an elaborate calling card--most often used by job seekers in business (sales, marketing) or for senior executive jobs. The focus is on selling accomplishments and matching them to the company's area of need. See How to Write a Winning Rsum and Tooling Up: Rsum Rocket Science 2007.

Screening interview: A first-pass interview intended to determine the applicant's fit. Often done via telephone, this interview usually is short and specific, aimed at clarifying points in the résumé, CV, or cover letter and precisely establishing how your credentials match up with the job specs. The job seeker's goal for the screening interview is to make it through to a face-to-face meeting.

Stakeholders: The people who are affected by the hire, who may or may not have input in the hiring decision. If they do have input, typically it's not as formal as in an academic hiring committee, except, of course, for the key stakeholder (a.k.a., the hiring manager).

STAR: Situation, Task, Action, Result--a way of responding to interview questions. When asked a question about past experience, consider giving all four elements in a STAR format. Your answer will carry much more weight than a simple "yes" or "no." But keep it brief! See Your Relationship With Human Resources, Part 2: Company Gatekeepers Are Key to a Successful Interview.

Strengths/Weaknesses: Represents the single biggest area of questioning during an interview. Any job applicant should put thought into how to answer questions about strengths and weaknesses before an interview. See How to Present Your Weaknesses During Interviews.

Temp (for "Temporary") agency: An employment firm that hires workers and rents them out to employers at a higher rate. Often incorrectly confused with headhunters by job seekers. See Short-Term Science.

Telephone interview: See Screening Interview, above.

TMAY: "Tell me about yourself"--the single most popular "question" in the interview or during a networking encounter. The interviewer is looking for a short, succinct statement about your relevant background and possibly your fit for an open position. Related to the elevator speech, above. See Interviewing Skills: What To Do When They Say 'Tell Me About Yourself'.

Transferable skills: All that you bring to the table for a new employer. Refers only to skills that will benefit your company immediately and notably excludes narrow technical skills not applicable in the new context. Your cover letter should always point to the transferable skills in your CV. See Mid-Career Transition--Making the Switch a Little Easier and A Toolkit of Transferable Skills for Postdocs.

Water-walker: Headhunter's slang for the mythical candidate that companies often look for in the beginning of a search; later, these same employers get realistic and realize they won't find all 10 skills in one hire.

Have you come across other job-search jargon that's left you confused? E-mail it to Perhaps there will be enough for a Part Two!

Images. Top: Elektra Noelani Fisher. Middle: Kelly Krause.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

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

Top articles in Careers