Differences in supply and demand make hiring experienced scientists a very different ballgame than hiring entry-level folks. Understanding these differences is critical to optimizing your hiring process and getting the best talent possible.

Back when I headed up recruiting at Polyera (now Flexterra), finding the right Ph.D. scientist was always a challenge. The reason it was a challenge, however, was very different depending upon the level of experience required for the position.

For entry-level folks, we were overwhelmed by the number of applications we'd receive. While many of these folks had not even read the job description to see if they were close to a match, many of these applicants seemed at first glance to be reasonable candidates; the problem was that there were so many that seemed so similar on the surface, the challenge was simply in weeding through them all to try to find the best candidate.

For experienced hires however, we often had the exact opposite problem: a lack of qualified candidates that would meet our specific needs. It required substantial effort on our part - and often that of external recruiters we hired - to even find someone that met our criteria, and then of course they were usually already happily employed in a job, so we had to begin the process of selling to even get them to the table.

Young vs Experienced Chemist

Thus while recruiting the best talent is always a time-consuming and difficult task, it was clear for us that what made it this way was very different depending upon the type of hire we were trying to make:

  • For entry-level positions, the challenge is to filter and disqualify the least qualified candidates.
  • For senior positions, the challenge is to find and sell the most qualified candidate.

Once we understood this distinction it dramatically affected the way we conducted our hiring process.

In this post we'll focus on entry-level / early-stage positions; for more on how we improved our recruiting of experienced hires, read this post.

Filter & Disqualify

When you post a job opening for an entry-level PhD or research assistant (provided you advertise any place obvious like the ACS Careers Site), you should not lack for candidates. What you may lack, however, is the time to go through all of the resumes and applications you receive, and try to figure out who is good and who isn't.

Before we started using SciBase to improve our recruiting, we needed to come up with a way to quickly cull down the number of resumes we looked at while making sure we didn't lose too many qualified folks.

The process we developed had three key steps:

#1. Ensure they read the job description

Include some specific, non-obvious instructions in the body of the job post description about how to apply, to make sure the applicants have read the job post carefully and aren't just spamming every job they can find. For example, when we were still asking people to apply via e-mail, we'd list a number of skills we were looking for and ask the applicant to include those in the subject line:

This not only weeded out people who didn't read the post (or couldn't follow directions), but also allowed us to quickly understand which key, relevant skillsets the candidate had without even needing to open the e-mail (let alone their resume or cover letter).

#2. Filter for Interest

Many applicants have resumes and cover letters already written, and many simply use the same ones over and over (though hopefully changing the name of the company as appropriate!). This is of course fine, but to help filter out the people who are not interested enough in the job to put in any effort, in the job posting we would typically ask one or two simple, easy-to-answer questions, such as "What interests you about Polyera", or "What differentiates you from other folks who are likely to apply?"

This serves three purposes. First, it requires the candidates to demonstrate at least a modicum of interest in the position by their willingness to take the time to write something. Second, it can help you get a quick gauge of their language and writing skills; oftentimes a cover letter or resume has been edited very carefully, but an "off-the-cuff" response like this should give you a better understanding of their writing abilities. Finally, the actual content of their answer can sometimes give you some valuable insight.

It's important to note that these questions shouldn't be difficult to answer: applying for job after job when you have no idea if you'll even get a response - let alone a job - is often a thankless task; the goal is to provide the minimum inconvenience to the applicant while still providing you with valuable information.

#3. Filter for Fit

If you're written a good job description, you should have gotten pretty clear yourself on what the 'ideal' candidate would look like. While in many cases with experienced hires you have to heavily weight the appropriate set of technical, industrial, or managerial experience, because of the relative abundance of entry-level and early-stage candidates, you can often - though not always - consider additional factors, such as finding some local or who has more of a personality fit.

A reasonably good way we found to do this was by using Google Forms to create a simple survey, and having applicants take that. If you've never used Google Forms before, it's a simple tool for creating surveys and forms that can dump all of the data into a Google Sheet for simple analysis, and it's included with every Gmail / Google Apps account. After you have a sufficent number of applicants, you can then filter the rows in your Google Sheet to meet your idea criteria (or even use Google Form's quiz features to try and 'score' the applications).

While there's some thinking that goes into designing a well-written application form, it's easy to get started and having even the most rudimentary form of this time can save you a ton of time.

Only the Qualified Survive

If a candidate has successfully passed through these three screens, they've already demonstrated that they are truly interested in the position, dilligent enough to read directions and conscientious enough to follow them, and have met whatever high-level criteria you've set. While additional assessment of any candidate will be necessary (such as interviewing for culture fit, ability as a scientist, and checking references), these three steps should help you spend your time where it is most valuable.