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Dear CareerDoctor,I'd like some advice on recruitment agencies as you regularly refer to them in your column.I've just finished my PhD in chemistry and I'm doing a short postdoc (6 months finishing off a project for my supervisor). After that I really want to work in industry. I've sent my CV to a couple of agencies, but have heard back from only one and they were pretty negative about my chances. I didn't seem to fit into the boxes on their form and that was the end of it. Are agencies interested in someone like me? If so, where am I going wrong?I've also heard a few stories from other scientists who have been sent for interviews for jobs they wouldn't consider, turned them down, and were then shunned by the agency! How can I make sure I don't put myself in a situation like that?Luke

Dear Luke,

I have mentioned agencies previously--as part of a wider job search strategy, so I hope you are also looking for advertised jobs in all the usual places ( Science, Nature, New Scientist, and Chemistry in Britain are the obvious starting places for you). You should also make sure anyone who has links in the industry sectors you are interested in knows you are soon to be available for work. Agencies can be useful, provided you don't rely on them solely, and there are definitely ways to get the best from them, which I'll share with you.

To get an insider's view, I had a chat with a former colleague with a science PhD who has recently started as a recruitment consultant and it was (shall we say) illuminating! As you correctly picked up from your dealings with them, for many, though not all, agencies the candidate's interests are not their top priority. If you are going to get the best from them, it is worth understanding a little more about how they work and what their main motivations are. Here are her general suggestions.

To start with, you need to be confident that the agency you are talking to actually has clients who you are interested in working for. A sure way to check is to scroll the appointment pages of the publications I've mentioned above. If an agency is regularly advertising actual vacancies (rather than vague job titles and pleas for CVs) in major, expensive journals it should indicate that they have a strong and relevant client base. Always ask the consultant for a list of their clients and recent positions that they have filled.

You're only half-way there when you know the agency has clients in your field, as you also need to make sure that the consultant you are talking to can actually put you in touch with them. Always ask how their caseloads are organised--some are by geographical area, others by employment sector or level of position. Internal competition can be ruthless between consultants (remember this is a sales environment) so don't assume your details will be passed on to the most appropriate person within the organisation.

Also bear in mind that the role of a consultant is sales based and can be rather cut-throat. I would try to avoid divulging details of any applications you have in the pipeline (particularly those you have heard about using your own network). Their next step could be to call up the company and deliberately send in other strong candidates (if one gets the job, the consultant gets the commission!).

All this is painting a rather grim picture of agencies, which isn't the full picture--many people find wonderful jobs through them and are very impressed with the service they get. So, how do you find an agency that will give you what you want?

The most reliable route is to get personal recommendations. Ask in the Careers Service at your institution for any feedback they have had from former students or find out if anyone in your department has experience of local agencies. You will also find that some professional bodies have developed relationships with agencies and complement the vacancy matching done by the agency for their members. The Royal Society of Chemistry does this through its Job Seeker Service and passes details of registered members to three agencies dealing with positions at all levels and areas of the chemical industry (and related sectors).

Alternatively, you might want to look at a range of agencies before selecting one, so it may be helpful to use the directory on the Web site of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, the body which represents the private recruitment industry and promotes good practice. Their Web site also gives advice for job seekers and details of the Association of Search and Selection Consultants which focuses on filling executive positions.

Importantly, as with any other aspect of your job search, you must retain control when dealing with agencies, so insist on knowing where your CV is being sent. This should avoid the problem of having your details sent to unsuitable employers, as mentioned in your letter. The agency your colleague was dealing with would have been put in a difficult position with the employer (admittedly it was their fault for not clarifying with the candidate!) which probably explains why they were passed over for future opportunities.

The other problem with losing track of the jobs you are being suggested for is that you may have applied for the same position through another route. Consultants frequently scour vacancy pages looking for positions which they will then attempt to fill (hence the phrase "no agencies" in some adverts). If two copies of your CV arrive on the desk of the recruiter, one sent by an agency and the other by another route, it creates an impression of a poorly organised job search strategy and many recruiters will not take your application further. Another issue is the problem of resolving whether the agency will receive a fee under these circumstances, so the recruiter will probably want to avoid this sticky situation!

I'd also strongly recommend that you develop a relationship with a consultant. If possible, meet with them face to face as this gives them a chance to see that you are professional and marketable, so you become a "safer" commodity to present to employers. Bear in mind that most consultants spend office hours pursuing clients and so tend to talk to candidates in the evening or late afternoon. Always follow up your CV with a phone call at least--don't wait to be called as it might not happen! If they don't have any suitable vacancies when you first make contact, keep in touch with them and remind them of your presence with regular phone calls. Always let them know if you develop new skills or have anything else new to offer. Agencies will tend to give jobs to people who keep reminding them they are there!

When discussing the occupational areas that you are considering with the consultant, ask them for advice on the health of the different job markets. This will prepare you for the employers' response you may get, and if you can be flexible you will increase your chances. Good consultants are experts on the labour market and you can use this information to identify growth areas for speculative applications too.

Finally I want to emphasise that despite some of the negative impressions that this column might give, agencies do play an important role in recruitment, so be reassured you can use them successfully in your job search.

Good luck in your career,

The CareerDoctor