16 July 2009
By Web Admin
By Shiona Llewellyn.
Are you planning to start your post-PhD career in a consultancy? There are jobs about, but the bar (always high..) will be even higher at the moment.
Over the past ten years, I have worked with a diversity of small and medium-sized consultancies to help them to recruit talented individuals from a range of PhD backgrounds. Every project – inevitably – will produce a number of people who are disappointed (even angry!) at being rejected at different stages of the selection process, especially at the early stages. Within this article, I hope to take you ‘behind the scenes’ into my initial decision-making process, which should help you to improve your chances of positively influencing people who are likely to be responsible for making decisions which could affect your future.
As an example, I will focus upon my experience of recruiting Analysts for a medium-sized Strategy Consulting Firm, with clients throughout the international Pharmaceutical and Biotech worlds. Each year, they aim to bring in about 4 new Analysts, from a range of analytical backgrounds…life scientists may be at an advantage, but we have also recruited individuals from backgrounds in Economics, Geography, Maths…even Philosophy. We are looking for highly able and ambitious people, who will have the capability to develop into client-facing consultants within 3-5 years.
These opportunities are publicised through university careers services, and always attract 100+ applications. We ask for applicants to be able to demonstrate a range of attributes and skills, including;
A strong academic track record
Proven analytical and problem-solving skills
An entrepreneurial approach
Excellent written and oral communication skills
The ability to work both independently and collaboratively
IT literacy (especially Excel)
An interest in the healthcare industry
Full permission to work in the UK
…and to be a ‘self-starter’ who will thrive in a client-focused, team environment.
Our (undisclosed) sub-agenda, is to look for people who already seem to pack a lot into their lives, and can multi-task, sometimes mixing the mundane with high-level activities. This is true of many smaller consultancies.
The selection process – publicised from the start – is:
Application by CV and covering letter, sent by email.(Usually 100+)
First-round ‘qualitative’ telephone interview for ‘longlisted’ candidates.(30-40)
More technical telephone interview with an existing consultant (20)
Psychometric profiling, including numerical and verbal reasoning.(18)
Assessment centre, where shortlisted candidates are given the opportunity to demonstrate the range of required competencies through participation in a Variety of group and individual exercises and a business analysis test. (12-16)
As a ‘retained consultant’ my job is to help the consultants to identify a suitable number of individuals to join the firm as Analysts. My credibility (and future commissions!) depends upon my ability to put forward a reasonable number of potential candidates that all seem to match the required criteria. I have to ensure that I do not waste the time of busy consultants – and so, I have to be able to justify any recommendations that I make, based on evidence...and, at the first stage, the only evidence I have to work on, is contained within the application documents.
As you will have noted, the biggest hurdle is the first one and there are a range of common mistakes, which make life relatively simple for me. Once the applications arrive (and I would always suggest that you aim for yours to arrive in the first half of the specified period.. or, if you are obviously a great candidate, right at the end) my first task is to reduce the numbers that I have to deal with. I know that I only want to telephone interview a maximum of 40…and I am generous!
I look at every CV, letter, and (importantly..) the accompanying email communication, and I grade each one against an informal set of criteria, grounded in the list of publicised attributes. For example, in addition to the academic history, I look for evidence of likely commercial awareness, or ability to be client-focused (shop, bar and restaurant work is good for this..as well as grander forms of work experience). I always work on the basis of being able to justify the reasonableness of my decisions. I award ‘grades’ from A+ to C, with A+ people appearing to meet all the criteria, and lesser grades appearing to have gaps which need to be explored….if I don’t have enough good applications.
At the end of this process, I see how the numbers are working out…if I have enough A+/A’s, I will not look again at the other applications (although, I know from experience that there may be some hidden diamonds amongst them). If I have – say – 27 top graded applications, I will then re-read all the B+’s and often contact the individuals by email to ask them questions (usually about work experience, or exam grades) before I decide who to add to my longlist.
Crucially, the people who reach the longlist in this way would usually have achieved the higher grading from the start, if they had presented the relevant information on their CV or in their covering letter….and some of our best recruits have only been interviewed because I bothered to contact them, and ask for missing information. Many recruiters will not do this.
So, what impresses me? And why do I choose to reject individuals at this stage?
When any recruiter – including myself - is looking to employ a new person, they want to select someone whose appointment will reflect their sound judgement, and understanding of the organisational culture. They want to feel reassured that the chosen individual will:
Be able to DO the job (after a realistic learning period.)
Really WANT to do the job.. we always try to select people who will feel that they have ‘won a prize’…
Will FIT into the existing team, and the (possibly changing..) culture of the organisation.
So, when I’m looking at the initial (personal marketing) communications, I am making judgements against our (publicised) list of requirements, but I am also influenced by ‘small’ things that – because of my knowledge of the work that Analysts and Consultants do in the firm – I know will not help them.
Some of the key – and all-too-common factors that will go against a candidate for this role include:
A ‘standard’ cover letter (quite often with the name of another firm within the text).
A letter which does not sound genuinely enthusiastic about the firm, and the healthcare industry….some candidates seem to just want to join any consultancy.
Wanting to be a consultant without seeming to understand that it is important to be a good Analyst first…
Spelling mistakes/poor grammar…including the spelling of my name.
On the CV…
The biggest mistake that PhD applicants make when applying for these roles, is sending in a pure ‘research/academic’ document, listing all publications, but failing to highlight evidence to support important information about work experience (even if it was some time ago) and describing experience during the PhD that had helped the candidate to develop relevant required skills…for example, participating in business games, representing other PGR’s, presenting at conferences/workshops..one of the best ways to check your own CV is to read it against the job ad….are you clearly demonstrating that you have commercial awareness? Or that you are skilled in working both collaboratively (one of the problems that employers identify in employing PGR’s) as well as independently? CV’s do not have to be too formal….they are marketing documents to encourage selectors to want to explore the information further…
Length and layout are also very important – no more than two pages (and we have recruited several – as, Analysts, remember – who have managed to encapsulate all the key information onto one page..).
Missing information…people often think that early academic results are no longer important (not true…but they don’t all have to be A’s….so long as you can explain what you learned/did differently as a result of disappointing grades)..or that an address is no longer important in these days of electronic communication.
On the supporting email communication..
It amazes me how many people with good (so good, I query if they have written them themselves..) CV’s and letters let themselves down with poorly written/spelt/sloppy messages to me – sometimes the note is all in lower case ‘i am very interestest in this job’ is one recent example. At this point, I am the CLIENT, recruiting for a client-focused organisation….I may not give such a candidate the benefit of the doubt if there are better organised candidates in the field, who realise that we are looking for good written communication…email is critical for client communications, and it will be tested again at the assessment centre.
Informal 30-40 minute telephone interviews are arranged at a mutually convenient time for the candidate, and I ask them to ‘bring their CV to life’ in relation to the job that they have applied for, and to ask any questions that I may be able to answer…
This style of interviewing has proved to be remarkably predictive – and cost-effective. Dark horses often emerge at this stage as front-runners, and over-confident individuals are easily exposed…do not be fooled by the very relaxed approach…the intention is to find out whether you have really thought about why you should be able to do the initial job/have the potential to become a consultant, and why you feel that you may be able to make a real contribution to the work of our firm….I’m not just checking out your CV. I’m weighing all that you say (and the way that you say it) against what we are looking for. Obviously, the more research and thinking that you have done before the conversation, the more it is likely to show. Good questions are always a plus too..
Candidates who emerge best from this stage have a 1 in 5 chance of being offered a position…..it is well worth putting serious effort into the apparently less demanding early stages of any selection process.
Very good luck!
By Shiona Llewellyn.
Vitae would like to thank the author for contributing this article. Vitae would like to remind readers that the information and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Vitae or CRAC: The career development organisation.
This article has been published as part of Vitae's Researcher careers and recession online activity in July 2009. To view other articles on this theme please visit www.vitae.ac.uk/careersandrecession