Recently I started combing through my oldest articles at Science Careers (see the Tooling Up Index ) to identify where old advice might need to be rewritten due to changes in the job marketplace. Sure enough, I found a few oldies-but-goodies that needed revamping.
This month, I’ll address the "Path of a CV." The original column  on this topic appeared in 1998. Since then, there have been a lot of changes in the way application materials are submitted and processed. 1998 was the age of snail mail and the fax machine!
Even then, scientists expressed frustration about the lackluster science job market. A common job-seeking approach was to send out 200 or more photocopied, undifferentiated resumes and industry CVs during the course of a job search; it's what recruiters call "CV carpet-bombing." Today’s equivalent is filling out countless applications on company websites.
In that 1998 article, I followed the trail of one of those bulk-mailed resumes and CVs. In this month’s column I’ll do the same thing—with the same invented characters—but in an updated fashion. Some things have changed dramatically. Others have not.
Fred Flemming spends an hour or so every evening combing through company websites and online job boards. Most evenings he finds at least one position that fits his background and experience. He follows the instructions on ads and websites, sending his CV to the email address listed or—more often—visiting the referenced company website and filling in the required information. On this night, after reading an ad in Science, he exclaims—his roommate is reading on a nearby sofa—"It's a perfect fit!" He then clicks the "Next" button on the online application form.
Sam Jones, the administrative assistant in the human resources (HR) office for XYZ Technologies, a California-based biotech firm, reviews the day’s incoming applications. He notices that 150 people visited the company's job-application website on the previous day, and many of them, including Flemming, submitted applications.
Jones' job is to ensure that those applications are forwarded to the appropriate HR associate, who will then screen them for a fit against current openings. This task is handled mainly by software, but there’s a human element as well, and it's Jones. He looks over the incoming documents to ensure that they are sent to the right recruiters. He also checks his email and pulls in another half-dozen CVs.
Several days later, Sherri Clark, the HR associate who works with scientific hires has pulled aside Flemming's application package and a number of others—a large number—in a file that she plans to review. Right now, she's working to fill 23 science-related openings. The company receives more than a thousand applications a month, so a good part of this recruiter's day is spent on screening. Here's how Clark describes her daily ritual and role:
"I have an assistant go through the incoming applications to ensure that I get the whole group for each position, and then I review them over a cup of coffee," she says. "The first thing I do is separate them into three categories. A quick glance at a CV can usually tell me whether to put the application into the 'no way' pile, the 'maybe' pile, or the much smaller 'recommended' pile."
She continues. "The 'no ways' have no possibility of a fit, or I see apparent attitude problems or communication difficulties. Often, spelling errors and typos knock them out of consideration," she says. "The 'maybes' get a second look because there was something that caught my eye. Some of these applicants will be referred to the hiring manager, while others will be taken out of the running. The applications that clearly fit a current opening go into the 'recommended' group," she continues, "but that group will get a second look and be cut back further, since our managers don’t want to see anything marginal. The applications with real potential then go through our intranet to the department heads, or they will go to managers of the groups where the opening exists. That's where a second screening takes place; this one is primarily for the technical fit."Flemming’s application passed Clark's scrutiny and went on to scientific management at XYZ Technologies. Flemming is, indeed, a prospect.
Susan Thomas, the head of biological research at XYZ Technologies, opens her recruiting files and notices that they are fuller than usual. The response was so large that she shares the load with Bill Wright, the group leader for protein chemistry, who reports to her.
As Thomas opens her files, she calculates that she will have no more than a minute to spend on each application. After reviewing the last one, she looks at her watch and notices that 45 minutes have passed. She has reviewed more than 50 CVs. All of them fit the educational requirements for the position, but by applying a critical eye—something she is well known for within the company—she selects eight candidates that make it through the first pass and another five or six backup candidates; they can go back to these if none of the first-pass candidates work out.
The top eight are from labs she recognizes, and the applicants' skills are a precise match with the criteria she and Wright put together. She shares her thoughts with Wright, who will be doing the phone interviews.
Wright retires to his study for an hour or two every evening. Over a period of a week or so, Wright will interview everyone who made the first cut, plus a couple more candidates that he has found on his own. Those who do well in the phone interview will be invited to interview in person.
Tonight, two phone interviews are planned. The first is with Flemming, who, as was already mentioned, submitted an application through the company's website in response to the ad in Science. The second interview is with Galina Yastrevski, who introduced herself to Wright a couple of days ago. Yastrevski was referred by one of Wright's college mentors, who called Wright the previous day for an informal chat; he had some very nice things to say about Yastrevski's abilities.
Like most hiring managers, Wright doesn’t care where an application came from or how it got on his desk. What he cares about is finding someone he has confidence in—someone he's sure can do the job well—and to find that person quickly. Yastrevski sounded very sharp when he spoke to her, and she comes well recommended. Wright is eager to talk to her and learn more about her.
I've given this story an optimistic twist by allowing Flemming to make it through to the phone-interview stage. Flemming is indeed a very good match, but that matters less than you might think. The story would be more realistic if Flemming's CV got filtered out by mistake—by a computer or an HR employee who couldn't find some of the required verbiage. When your opportunity gets shuffled into a massive stack of paper, there are many ways it can disappear.
But let's say Flemming defies the odds and makes it through. If he does great on the phone interview and then impresses in person, there's a good possibility that he will get an offer. But at this stage in the game, Yastrevski has a clear advantage over Flemming. She's not just a pile of paper; she's a person with a face and a voice—and a strong recommendation.
Think of the job search as like, well, hunting. Some people file as many applications as possible and hope that some of them hit the mark. Let’s call that a "shotgun" approach. Yastrevski, in contrast, used a rifle with a scope. She did a lot of networking and emailed her credentials to a few select people. She hit her target. She didn't see the ad in Science, but her networking contacts got her to the same place, and she arrived with an advantage. And here's something I haven't even mentioned: Because she took this approach, Yastrevski discovered (and applied for) four unadvertised positions that Flemming still doesn't know about.
I'm not suggesting that job seekers should stop applying for jobs via company websites. If you're a good fit for the job, go ahead. Even if you've got an inside lead, you may still need to file an application via the website.
But as you set or adjust your job-search strategy, be smart. Recognize the nature of the contest, and set your strategy accordingly. If you view the job search as a numbers game or a process of stamping lots of envelopes—or, in today’s terms, filling in applications on websites—you'll be putting yourself at a significant disadvantage. Some things never change.