Third-Party Recruiters and Ph.D. Candidates

Natalie Lundsteen offers advice for doctoral students and postdocs looking for nonacademic jobs and considering working with headhunters.

September 14, 2015

Ph.D.s and postdocs who are job seeking outside of academe need all the help they can get, and it is nice to imagine a recruiter (or headhunter) working diligently to find that perfect job for you while you focus on other things -- like research, writing, fieldwork and teaching. However, the reality is that effort is required on the part of a job seeker to connect with recruiters, and most recruiters are very specialized in the types of people they seek and the level of position they are filling.

Graduate students and postdocs are not typical candidates for recruiters, but that doesn’t mean recruiters should be ruled out entirely. Third-party recruiters (also known as headhunters, search firms, executive search or just plain recruiters) can be an additional career-searching resource for those elusive Ph.D.-relevant jobs. Think of recruiters as an added bonus to complement all the traditional ways you are looking for opportunities, not magic bullets for the job search. Knowing the different types of recruiters, how they operate and why they might be interested in you as a candidate will make it easier to leverage the power of recruiters and recruitment firms.

Recruitment firms and the recruiters who work there come in three varieties: retained, contingency or contract. Recruiters working on a retained basis charge retainers (up-front fees) to their clients and then conduct searches on behalf of that client. They tend to be very involved and knowledgeable about the positions they are recruiting for (and these also will usually be high-level positions), perhaps with an exclusive relationship with the client organization. Contingency recruiters don’t get paid until they present a client with a top candidate who is hired. There is intense competition among contingency recruiters -- they are competing with other recruiters, and also with internal HR staff or other in-house personnel who are trying to fill the role -- sometimes even working with the same candidates.

Contract recruiters are outside firms or individuals who are hired by a client to source, screen and communicate with candidates. As a novice job seeker applying to an organization, you may not even be aware that the individual conducting your initial phone screening or scheduling your interviews isn’t a full employee of the company. Contract recruiters may know an industry well, but may not have full and complete knowledge of individual companies or organizations.

So make sure you understand the differences among types of recruiters. Ask any recruiter you interact with to explain what type of search they are doing and what kind of recruiter they are, especially in regard to how the recruiter is making his or her money on your candidacy. Recruiters usually make 20 to 30 percent (or more) of the salary of the candidates they place, which comes into play when recruiters choose whether or not to spend time with less-experienced candidates like recent Ph.D.s and postdocs. And no matter the type of recruiter, please do not ever forget they are working for money -- and probably won’t have your best interests as a top priority.

Do any of these types of recruiters even want to work with you? Maybe. First of all, recruiters are almost always specialized -- whether it is within an industry or for a certain type of candidate (i.e., M.D.s/Ph.D.s) or geographic area. Secondly, while recruiters make their best money placing senior staff and experienced hires, they do occasionally have positions that are suitable for individuals with limited work experience (who might possess subject matter expertise). Unsolicited interest from recruiters is more likely for STEM Ph.D.s than those in humanities or social sciences, but not impossible for those in other fields to be recruited.

Since recruiters make more money on senior-level search, and most of their work is for those higher-level positions, when they do work with postdocs/Ph.D.s, it’s going to be a very quick sourcing to hire. As one Boston-based biopharma recruiter told me recently: "I can easily source 10 postdoc candidates fast when I have an entry-level scientist job. It’s a quick commission for me, and the postdocs tend to be very pleasant and eager."

Recruiters can easily locate postdocs and Ph.D.s through cultivated relationships with faculty members, as well as alumni networks, professional societies and online interest groups. They may also ask university career offices for referrals. Like the majority of job opportunities, who you know matters. Finally, remember that recruiters spend about six seconds reviewing your CV, and for recruiters time literally is money. So it behooves Ph.D. job seekers to put together professional application materials -- and that includes online representation.

A comprehensive and polished online presence can help recruiters find you. If your LinkedIn headline says "Postdoctoral Researcher," it’s not going to catch the attention of a recruiter looking for immunologists or cancer biologists, and if your online profile summary section doesn’t detail specifics on what you have to offer, that recruiter is not going to take the time to meander through your profile looking to make the connections between you and the open position. The CV and résumé you send to a recruiter should be equally specific and detailed. Like all your other job-searching efforts, do your homework and tailor application materials for recruiters.

Hopefully recruiters will find you via LinkedIn, professional societies or peer/colleague referrals. But don’t sit around waiting for this to happen (and when it does happen, don’t get overly excited, because you definitely are not the only candidate being contacted.) You will want to do your own research and reach out to recruiters who focus on the industry area you are interested in. You will also want to find an individual you trust at a firm, so that you can establish communication with one person (remember your frustration at sending résumés to HR departments through online job portals?). Then there’s the waiting game. The odds are that even if you find a suitable recruiting firm and a great recruiter who gets you, the timing of Ph.D.-relevant job openings is sporadic and unpredictable. Be sure to tell the recruiters what they need to know about you: are you location specific (i.e., looking to a certain geographic region) or field-specific (i.e., focused on a definite industry or use of your research expertise)? Recruiters will work in a niche area, so seek as close a match as you can find between what you are looking for and what the recruiter is expert in.

Keep track of the recruiters you contact -- and don’t send your CV to every single recruiter you can find, because your overzealousness may backfire (remember, recruiters are in competition with each other!) Do update your materials (CV/résumé) with the recruiter or firm, and make it your responsibility to stay in touch with your recruiter via follow-up phone calls or emails. When there is a position for which you are a perfect fit, your recruiter will work night and day to get you into that job. There will also be times when a recruiter simply stops responding to you -- this is part of the process, so don’t take it personally, and just like other types of networking, send a thank-you and move on.

Working with recruiters is fairly straightforward, but it definitely requires effort on the part of the applicant -- and an understanding of how it all works. Many of the Ph.D.s I’ve advised over the years expect there to be a single database overflowing with names and email addresses of recruiters just waiting for awesome grad students to log in and get speedily placed in high-paying industry jobs. Not so -- at least not until you’ve been in the workforce about ten years. But once you find a few promising recruitment firms, you will be on the right track. There actually are databases of recruiters -- but they are listings of firms and their specializations, so as researchers you will find it easy to determine which firms might have postings in your desired industry. Recruiters have strong presence on social media, particularly LinkedIn and Twitter, so you can join interest groups, connect with/follow individuals who work as recruiters and keep an eye out for posts and tweets about open positions.

Some resources for finding a Ph.D.-suitable recruiter:

The Riley Guide

Oya’s Directory of Recruiters

Even the Google-and-pray method can work. For example, search for: "media search firm" or "immunology search firm."

For life sciences-focused candidates:

Kelly Scientific

Lab Support

Yoh Scientific

Lab Pros



For STEM-focused candidates:

K Force (science, health care, accounting, finance)

PhDSearchandSelection (UK-based, IT/finance)


Natalie Lundsteen is director of graduate career development at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.


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