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Postdocs, put your best foot forward for industry jobs

It’s been an odd month. After many years spent exclusively recruiting senior staff and executives, one of my clients asked me to fill two entry-level scientist positions requiring postdoctoral experience. Stranger still, we ran job ads for these positions—quite a stretch for a company that for years has avoided advertising like the plague. The experience held some useful lessons—both for us and, I hope, for readers of this column.

[I]f job applicants don’t learn the job-search lessons of others before them, their efforts may be wasted.

The job market has indeed improved. Everyone I know in the recruiting business is busy with client companies who are positive about future job growth. Despite this, if job applicants don’t learn the job-search lessons of others before them, their efforts may be wasted. If they examine what works and what doesn’t work, however, they may walk away with some great ideas about how to land at the top of that stack of CVs, whether they are out there networking or responding to ads.

The recruitment effort

Our first step was to develop a list of internal candidates from our own database. Because the company works primarily in the director-and-up category, we also asked our senior people to suggest great postdocs.

The results were disappointing. Instead of passing along the names of their top people, most professors referred us to their hard-to-place postdocs: those with poor publication track records or those who had been looking for a job for far too long. It was a good reminder that principal investigators are not much help to the stellar postdoc wishing to leave academia. They want to keep things humming in their labs!

We identified some prospects through LinkedIn—but because so many postdocs are not on LinkedIn, or have a marginal profile with missing information, it had limited value. It was frustrating to have to make LinkedIn connections just to get an email address and phone number. (Pro tip: Put your contact information into the text of your LinkedIn profile. You’ll certainly hear about more job opportunities.)

Kicking it into high gear with an advertising campaign

Two weeks in and still lacking a good short list, we decided to advertise for the positions. With the help of a consultant, we ran ads in a half-dozen local biotechnology markets. Of course, those ads were also available online by consolidators like Indeed.

Within a day, the responses started to pour in. And this is where things really got difficult: They were far worse than I expected. Here are some statistics based on a few “must-haves” (elements of the open position that are absolute—in other words, not “nice-to-haves”):

  • 5 years of experience post-Ph.D.: More than 40% of the respondents had either too little or too much experience. It’s not a problem to have 3 or 4 years or 7 or 8 years of experience. But when you have more than 20 years of experience, don’t apply for an entry-level job. Or, if the ad clearly describes postdoctoral experience, don’t apply if you are graduating in 2016 with your Ph.D.
  • Significant experience in blah-blah technique: If an ad says that a particular method is job-critical and you don’t have it, would you send a CV? Evidently the answer is yes: More than 60% of our ad respondents did not have this technique listed on their CV. In some cases, those applicants may have had this experience but did not take the extra few minutes required to update their CV to reflect it.
  • Must be a “productive and independent scientist”: With that request, wouldn’t you include a list of publications? Where do people get the impression that just because this is industry, they need a one-page résumé? More than 25% of the respondents provided too little information about themselves. Most science employers want a CV, not a résumé. Of course, it’s absolutely essential to enclose your publications list with the CV, as it is the gauge upon which employers judge your productivity. Although you don’t want to bury the employer under eight to 10 pages with every abstract or poster you ever put up, you will want to provide the detail required in the ad. Just be succinct; don't worry about the number of pages.

What I learned from the job ad responses

From first-hand experience, here are my suggestions for managing your ad responses. As always, use job ads to supplement your networking—not the other way around.

  • Don’t provide a résumé. Provide a scientific CV for an industry science job, with the possible addition of the “Qualified By” or “Summary of Qualifications” section at the top. Make sure that summary applies to the job!
  • When responding to an ad, deliver a CV that has been customized to fit that employer’s specified needs.
  • Never, ever, use a “form letter” as your cover letter. It is too valuable an opportunity to highlight why you fit the role.
  • Address your cover letter to a specific person if you can find the appropriate name. (It takes 10 seconds to find my name on our website, but it was not present on even one cover letter out of dozens and dozens of responses.)
  • Don’t look desperate by repeatedly applying or sending multiple inquiries about your status. Move on to the next opportunity and don’t obsess.
  • Learn to spot the must-haves and separate them from the nice-to-haves. You’ll need those must-haves, but just one or two nice-to-haves might get you an interview.
  • Use a custom name for your document. “J Fleming CV ABC Company Aug 2015” is much better than “2015 CV.”(Our company computer is littered with “lost” CVs with names like this).
  • Make sure your immigration status and work availability are clear in your application.

Of course, my best recommendation is to stay positive. You’ve heard the horror stories about the number of scientists in the job market. Some of that is true, but the actual number of people who do it right are so few that it has created a very low bar to rise above. Becoming noticeable in the process is easy. Good luck!