A life science recruiter's blog on placing R&D professionals.

Blog/Career Advice for Life Science Professionals

Ellen Clark, President of Clark Executive Search, in Xconomy Article

A month or so ago, Luke Timmerman ( @ldtimmerman ) , National Biotech Editor for Xconomy, interviewed me ( Ellen Clark) about my reaction to a NY Times piece which talked about the hoops candidates have to go through to get hired and the time it takes. I had a post mostly completed at the time, but then work, life, and vacation got in the way and I failed to finish. In the meantime Luke Timmerman has left Xconomy to pursue his dream of writing a book. I wish him much success.

Luke was especially interested in the fact that, according to a study, biotech and pharma positions take the longest to fill of any industry (29 days). I hadn’t seen the article, so I was glad he pointed it out and that he asked for my opinion. You can read my comments in his article titled, “ Hiring in Biotech is Tricky. But algorithms Won’t Save the Day

So why do searches take longer in biotech and pharma?

1. Reliance on keywords– Generally these companies are looking for highly skilled labor and this requires a hiring staff that is trained to sort the superior candidates from the chaff. So right here is one bottleneck. Can you expect a HR employee with a bachelor’s degree that most likely wasn’t in a science, to understand the complexities of a PHD or MD CV? Many in HR have to rely on software that picks up certain keywords for scientific skills and training. But there is so much more to a CV than keywords.

What do I, an executive recruiter with 20 years experience focused on PhD and MD placements within biotech and pharma, look for? What labs did the scientist train in? What was his/her PhD thesis? How many publications and how many are first author? Are they in well-recognized journals? The list goes on and on. So as Luke mentioned, a company could get thousands of CVs for a position and it is quite difficult to weed through these. Hence many good CVs are missed all together, which lengthens  the whole hiring practice.

Of course, I must mention there are many pharma and biotech human resource departments that are well trained and sharp at recognizing top talent. But there are some who rely too much on software and keywords to match a candidate to a particular opening. I constantly hear from candidates that they fit an online description perfectly and yet never heard back from a company after submitting a CV.

2. Difficulty Setting Interview Schedules– Another reason the searches take longer for biotech and pharma companies is that these technical candidates often have to interview extensively with various experts in the company to be sure the person has the right stuff. So people from biology, chemistry, process development, genetics, clinical and a whole host of other departments have to check the candidate out. Just setting up an interview takes time given that both the company interviewers and the candidate have very busy schedules. The people at the more senior level I recruit for are often speakers at scientific conferences; they travel a great deal for their companies and run labs with many people reporting to them. It is not so easy to get a full day or even two off to interview. So it might take a month or more just before the first onsite interview.

To make matters even more difficult, these scientists often have to give a 45-minute seminar. So they need time to prepare and also the company has to be able to schedule this when they know enough people will be able to attend and observe the potential hire. The hiring process is further lengthened because often the candidates have to return for a second onsite interview, again due to the importance and level of the position. Scheduling can become a nightmare.

3.Relocation Issues– Very often a biotech or pharma is looking for a specific skill that might be lacking in their company. Often to find a good match the candidate has to be brought in from another part of the country or even the world. Anytime relocation comes into the picture you have added time to the whole hiring process.

Another complication is that these very technical candidates with PHDs or MDS often are married to like-minded individuals with high degrees and careers. The spouses have labs and important scientific work that they can’t just pick up and leave. I have often seen my scientific couples “take turns” in terms of career moves. This makes any kind of relocation trickier than with most searches.

4. Candidates must be perfect– Luke Timmerman also brought up the trend of having a candidate match every bullet point on a job description. My thoughts on this point are that pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies went through a rough spell a few years ago. Due to patents expiring and lack of funding there were large layoffs or hiring freezes. Only essential positions were added or refilled and the hiring manager had to be sure not to make a mistake with a bad hire- or face the firing squad himself. More and more was required from a candidate. They had to be “perfect”. Often hiring managers wanted one person to do a two-person job. We recruiters kept seeing the skills and experience levels go up for a position at a certain level, but the companies didn’t want to pay more or give a higher title.

Luke’s article sparked a nerve and I received quite a few emails from people who agreed with Luke’s and my comments. Here are a few responses from real scientists:

1. One, who I have known for years, wrote, “I’ve seen so many ads in my niche that want process development, analytical method development (at least five different fancy techniques), phase III experience, CMC, manufacturing, knowledge of GMP, etc, etc, and all within 3 -5 years experience, for an associate scientist level (!) Sometimes I think the hiring manager wants to “go with his gut”, which means hiring someone like himself (for a senior position) or someone non-threatening (for a subordinate position).  By setting an unattainable list of attributes, he can reject any candidate without having to justify why.” I agree with this assessment. Some hiring mangers can feel threatened and without being even aware of this, set unrealistic hurdles for the candidates.”

2. Another person wrote to me: “ I am sure you hit a nerve.  But I agreed with the sentiment.  Job-hunting is like dating.  You keep searching for the perfect person, but we all know that doesn’t exist.  My entrepreneurial nature would rather find a gig which I do not fit and I have to prove myself, rather than check all the boxes and coast until I get bored.”

3. And a third wrote this: “I couldn’t agree with you more. I’ve seen this from both the hiring manager side and also from the candidate side over the past few years, the hiring process has almost ground to a halt for many companies as they search for their ideal candidate and will accept nothing else. It seems that candidates are considered completely inflexible and unable to grow into a position or do anything beyond what is shown on their resume.

When I was a chemist we’d often joke that managers only wanted to hire Ph.Ds with 25 years of experience in their particular area, who were 22 years old and would work for $30,000 a year. Not only were they looking for the perfect candidate they were also paralyzed by anyone who wasn’t.

In recent years I’ve also seen hiring managers completely convinced that due to the poor economy it was completely a buyers market and they could raise their expectations and lower the compensation for positions so they would get a real bargain candidate. All it did was elongate the hiring process and result in the position not being filled due to ‘a lack of qualified candidates’.

I’m not sure where industry got to the point of over-analyzing hiring. I’ve been through the hiring process as a lab chemist and also as an MBA with big 5 consulting companies. I’ve done the quirky case study interviews and ‘how many dump trucks would it take to haul away Mt Fuji” interviews. As a chemist I did the  ‘40 minute seminar and answer questions’ type interviews. I think the short seminar and talk with future coworkers is about the best approach.

It seems that companies (HR departments perhaps) are focusing on metrics around yield (most hires with fewest interviews) or length of employment as their definition for a successful hire. I often wonder if there’s any consideration for the opportunity cost of letting a position sit empty while long periods of time are spent on finding the ‘perfect’ candidate. Probably not but if I were an economist I might study that or study the difference in retention of ‘perfect’ candidates versus candidates that were deemed to be not perfect but acceptable.”

I thank these scientists for their input and if anyone else has anything to add to the discussion, please give your comments below.

Related Posts:

A Life Science Recruiter Gives Tips on a Tailored CV

What Biotech Recruiters Look For in a Good CV

Resume/ CV Writing Tips

Submit a CV Online or with a Biotech Recruiter?