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Tooling Up: How to Swim With Sharks

CREDIT: Kelly Krause, AAAS

Are you frustrated by your job search? If not, you will be soon. Everyone gets frustrated, especially in a difficult job market such as this one. When your frustration reaches the boiling point, you may be tempted to turn to one of the plethora of services that work as intermediaries between job seekers and companies.

Be careful—Those are dangerous waters.

Third-party job-search support companies—with resume writers to help you polish your CV and headhunters promising to introduce you to hiring managers—seem to be everywhere in this gloomy job market. The services they provide vary tremendously, not only in quality but also in their effect on your career once you’ve put yourself in their hands.

In a story that is repeated thousands of times each day, agents of these recruiting firms seek to match resumes with positions they’ve identified, often by browsing jobs boards and company employment Web sites.

In this month’s “Tooling Up,” I’ll review the more common kinds of service providers you can run into and shed light on their business models. Like buyers of any other product or service, those who partake need to remember the old expression “caveat emptor”—buyer beware.

Career counselors

A good career counselor is worth his or her weight in gold. He or she can teach you to network, help you stay focused, and help you identify your position-specific strengths before you head off for an interview. Career counselors at academic institutions are becoming more aware of graduate students and science-savvy, and they're increasingly available to postdocs. At a few institutions, they're excellent. Go find out how good the services are at your institution. Give them a shot; you'll know quickly if they can help you.

Outside campus walls, offerings are meager. Finding a “fee for service” career counselor who understands the scientific job market is next to impossible. Most career counselors are broadly trained and geared to business positions across a swath of industries. Landing in the wrong office—and paying them money—can earn you advice such as “use a two-page resume” when what you need is another kind of document entirely. Avoid fee-for-service career counselors unless you're sure you have found one of those rare people with knowledge of and a track record in science. Firsthand recommendations from people you trust are essential.

Resume writers

There's no shortage of companies that specialize in writing resumes, but they generally crank out formulaic two-pagers; few know how to write a CV. It would take several hours just to interview you thoroughly enough to write a proper CV, and since few companies are willing to invest the time—the business model doesn't allow it—the result is a cookie-cutter format that professional human resources staffers recognize as soon as it touches the desk.

You are the one most qualified person to write up your credentials, and your CV is important. You want to put your best foot forward.

Anyway, you don't need professional help. CVs play a much smaller role in finding a job than many people think. Write a good one—it doesn’t have to be great—and you’ll be fine. Avoid weeks or months of fine-tuning that many scientists put themselves through to create the “perfect” CV— that's a distraction from doing more productive work. Use that time to do the legwork necessary to get your decent CV into the hands of your networking contacts, people who—unlike those resume agencies—can actually help you find a job.

Let’s-make-a-match speculative recruiters

Here come the sharks. Occasionally, a new graduate (or postdoc) in the sciences will place her CV or resume up on a big, general-purpose Web site and the phone immediately starts ringing. Sounds great, right?

CREDIT: Chris DHDR, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

“It felt great the first time I had a call,” one young scientist told me recently. “I had been going through a dry spell in my job search, getting close to graduation, and when that first headhunter called me I was impressed with the process. Basically, all I had to do was allow that company to present me to their clients and I’d be interviewing.”

It didn’t work out that way. “I allowed them to present me, but I lost track of the process. I started getting similar calls from other firms and gave them access to my resume, as well. No one would call me back; I didn’t hear from any of their employers, and it feels like they were just mailing my credentials off to companies running ads,” he said.

That is exactly what they were doing. In a story that is repeated thousands of times each day, agents of these recruiting firms seek to match resumes with positions they’ve identified, often by browsing jobs boards and company employment Web sites. No company hired them, and they won’t earn a fee unless they make a match. Theirs is a game of 'throw something against the wall and hope it sticks'.

The danger of allowing free access to your CV or resume to agents like this is that you can no longer apply to companies in the method of your own choosing. Let’s say you work to make a connection with a person in a company who wants you to send in a CV so that she can circulate it to colleagues. And then she discovers that your CV is already sitting in Human Resources, but it will cost an extra $15,000—the headhunter's fee—to hire you instead of someone with similar credentials. Guess who gets the interview?

Sole-source search firms

A lot of good recruiting firms avoid the speculative, let’s-make-a-match process. Instead, they have a business relationship with an employer, which assigned them an opening to fill. It's an exclusive relationship; the company trusts this one recruiter with locating and providing candidates to fill the position.

Like any other outsourced service, some are paid in advance to perform their work; these are referred to as "retained" search firms. Others earn their money via speculative financial rewards, or contingency fees paid by the employer. But unlike the resume mailers, they’ve earned their stripes. They don’t act or sound like the recruiters who pestered you when you posted your CV online.

You’re not likely to run into a lot of retained search firms when you are coming out of school or leaving a postdoc. The fee for entry-level retained search is $50,000 to $70,000 or more, which means that the salaries involved are substantially above $150,000. These are usually director and C-suite jobs (CEO, CIO, CSO, and so on) or very specialized, high-level positions.

I work as a retained–search recruiter, so the potential for a conflict of interest should be noted. On the other hand, my 25 years of experience positions me to offer advice that can help you develop relationships with the right recruiters. You might not draw the interest of high-level recruiters right away, but some day you probably will.

Working with a recruiter

The better recruiting firms will not e-mail. They may send you an initial contact via LinkedIn, but they’ll want to talk. If a recruiter asks for your CV without even picking up the phone, it's safe to put that e-mail in the trash. You’ll avoid most of the “shark factor” if you keep your CV off large job sites such as

When recruiters call, how can you tell whether they are legitimate? Listen to how they describe the positions they are seeking to fill: Do they know the science? Ask a question or two about the responsibilities of the position or the work environment to see if they know what is going on inside the company. If it sounds like they are reading a script, pass.

When you find someone you’d like to work with or a job that sounds like a good fit, ensure that your business relationship with the recruiter is for this position only. Do not allow a firm to send off your credentials blindly. You must first be aware of the contact they want to make on your behalf and then approve it. Simply tell the recruiter something like, "I'm happy to hear from you about this position. I'll send you my CV tonight—but before you send it out to anyone, I need you to ask me first. Will this arrangement work for you?" Any good recruiter will agree to this.

The key advice here is to maintain control of your job search. That’s your job search, not someone else’s. Never, ever, let someone else take the reins.