Everything you needed to know about recruitment agencies but were afraid to ask…

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Well, perhaps not everything, but when I met with two recruitment consultants last week, I certainly gave them a good grilling on your behalf!  Graeme Pallas from CK Science and Chris Young from SRG (both specialising in STEM recruitment) were kind enough to chat to me about their experiences with PhDs and postdocs. I got so much info, I’ve had to break it into two posts, so brace yourselves…

How agencies work: You can either register with an agency directly by sending them a CV, or apply to a vacancy that you’ve seen on their website (they also advertise on totaljobs, LinkedIn and Monster). A consultant will give you a call to discuss your skills and experience, and add you to their database (nationally, CK has about 30-40,000 active candidates). When new vacancies come in, the consultant searches the database for keywords (make sure you get yours right), and will ring you to suggest that you apply with a more tailored CV. The consultant is the person who ‘long-lists ‘ candidates for the employer, and the employer then selects people to interview.

The best time to approach an agent is about 1-2 months before you’re ready to start work. The shorter notice period you give, the more likely you are to be put forwards. There are booms and slumps in the number of vacancies throughout the year, with slumps generally corresponding to long school holidays (summer, Christmas and Easter). School starts next week, so expect a bit of an upturn!

International candidates might struggle, as it’s usually only large companies who go through the complex and costly process of becoming an approved sponsor for visas.

Unrealistic salary expectations are an issue, and you are likely to have to take a pay-cut (they pitched average salaries for people coming out of academia at £18-25,000). This was definitely a vicious cycle situation: the advice was to be prepared to take a step backwards to get experience, but at the same time, industry managers don’t want to hire someone who is more qualified/experienced than themselves, even on temp jobs, because temp jobs often lead to permanent posts (Aesica commonly hires people on six-month contracts and then makes them permanent). Ask the consultant’s advice – they know the employers.

It is much more difficult for postdocs than fresh PhDs. Some industry recruiters don’t value academic experience – one of the consultants mentioned an employer he knows who won’t take anyone with more than 2 postdocs, as they’re too ‘entrenched’ in academia.  One employer recently told me that he’s never sure about hiring postdocs because “they always seem to be waiting for some professor to tell them what to do”..

This reluctance to hire long-term postdocs struck me as a tremendous waste of talent. If only 23% of PhD graduates get permanent roles in academia, then what happens to the remaining 77%, who usually only start thinking about alternatives a few postdocs in? Graeme and Chris both sympathised with my frustration, however, the agencies are paid by the companies and the consultants know what hiring managers want, so can’t (and don’t) put forwards candidates who don’t match expectations.

It’s really important, therefore, to take leadership opportunities where you can, and to think about how your experience translates to industry, and to take any opportunities to work outside the university. Network with industry scientists whenever possible to find out more about the working culture and what you need to do to adapt.

At what level should you pitch yourself? It’s best to discuss it with the consultant. You should try to be as honest with them as you can about what you have to offer and what you want, and you can expect some honesty (sometimes unwelcome honesty) in return. The consultant may be giving you bad news that you don’t want to hear. Their advice was to stay positive and ask what you can do to maximise your chances. Given that the consultants are the long-listers, it pays to keep in their good books.

Personality goes a long way (especially for postdocs). You want the consultant to go the extra mile for you, which means that you need them to like you enough to fight for you. What makes them like you? Both Chris and Graeme said that it was all about the enthusiasm. If someone comes in to see them who is energetic, passionate about what they do, and has a positive outlook, it makes a big impression. Both of them cited instances where they successfully persuaded an employer to take on candidates who, on the face of it, didn’t meet the criteria for a role. This will be crucial for postdocs – energy and enthusiasm can help to overcome the misconception that you are a cerebral academic with no teamworking skills.

What has your experience of using recruitment agencies been like? Any advice or tips?


One thought on “Everything you needed to know about recruitment agencies but were afraid to ask…

    […] Continuing my chat with Chris Young from SRG and Graeme Pallas from CK Science, I got some practical advice from them on CVs, the job market, and how to endear yourself to a recruitment consultant. […]


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