Read Between the Lines of a Job Ad


Most companies in the recruiting industry are doing well in 2016. It appears that the job market is picking up a bit of steam across the world of commerce and industry. While there will always be a fair amount of stress and uncertainty when someone is suddenly thrown into the job market, just about anyone in any niche of pharma or biotech will see more job ads today than a year ago. {There are always exceptions . . . this year, perhaps it’s the once-hot biofuels industry.]

As I’ve often mentioned in this column, my advice is not to rely on job ads exclusively, because the odds are much better with more personal approaches. But savvy job seekers must include checking job boards and listings in their daily regimen of tasks—and, perhaps most importantly, recognize what certain language really means in order to optimize their job search results. In this month’s column, I’ll dissect some typical language used in job ads, and provide a few examples of how to read between the lines in order to improve your success rate.


“A minimum 8-10 years of relevant experience is required.”

Read as, “We’ve got a certain minimal level of expertise that we are looking for because the problems we are addressing in this job are substantial.”

Why would an employer put a minimum experience level like this into their job qualifications? It’s because they aren’t interested in helping someone gain new experience in this field. Instead, they want some other company to have taken the time to train this person. They see an immediate set of problems in front of them, and they believe that only X years of experience somewhere else will give their new employee the background he or she needs to succeed.

Is it a completely inflexible piece of the job requirements that a person have these years of “relevant” experience? Absolutely not. Anyone with a few years of experience past their education and the ability to write a convincing cover letter can make a good case to be considered for this job. That’s why my advice is to apply anyway, because what this ad says is that the company is looking for a problem-solver. What are the qualifications of a person who could be considered to have those skills? Problem solving does not require a minimum number of years. It requires a set of technical tools, and an open mind that allows one to think outside the box. If you’ve got the tools, and you can write well, explain this in your cover letter.

Write your cover letter using examples of problems you’ve solved. Consider the job requirements and what you know about the environment there. The manager has issues she wants to overcome with this hire, so choose a relevant accomplishment or two and come across as someone interested in helping her do just that. Companies hire problem solvers, whether they have 4 years of industry experience or a decade.


“Seeking a Discipline A Ph.D. Scientist with experience in Disciplines B, C, and D, as well as hands-on experience with Techniques X and Y, and a thorough knowledge of Technique Z.”

Read as, “We’re tossing in everything but the kitchen sink because we’re in no big rush and we might as well reach for the moon because we haven’t really figured out the job yet.”

This happens frequently: A company that hasn’t completely thought through what they are looking for throws together an impossible-to-fill profile to test the market. This is all the more common these days because companies can experiment with ads on various online boards for so little cost.

These laundry lists of skills result in what I call “pinpoint hiring.” Back when I got into the recruiting business, seeing an ad that said, “Ph.D. cell biologist needed for growing biotech company” (or Microbiologist, Biochemist, etc.) would be fairly common. But in the years that have passed, employers have added skill after skill to their requirements so that the opening now exists on the head of a pin. (Increasingly, there are no more broad areas of need in the sciences, there are only pinpoints reflecting hiring trends.)

So how do you fight pinpoint hiring? It’s tough. The recruitment process may start with the need to find someone to contribute, today, with an exact set of skills, but at the center of that job description lies one core area of expertise. Find out what that is by examining the ad or by talking to someone you know at that company. Then, focus your energies on providing a CV and cover letter that fit this theme. Most of the time, the company ends up hiring someone who has that core expertise in spades.

My unscientific survey over the years has found that no employer with this kind of ad gets more than 60%-70% of all these requirements they are looking for, so don’t let your lack of a few of these listed skills hold you back.


“ABC Recruiting Company has a position to fill for a $70 billion market cap client in the pharmaceutical sector. Please forward your CV to us at . . .”

Read as, “We’re using a blind ad in hopes that referencing a company without name will allow our Internet trolling effort to pick up leads for our candidates database.”

This is a common ploy used by some recruiting firms to expand their universe. Think about it—why would an employer not want to use their name in ads? While I suppose some ultra-secret plans for research might require confidentiality, those odds are low. Most of the time, an employer wants people to know that their firm is hiring—it is good PR!

When companies assign an opening to a single recruiter, those recruiters are almost like consultants, and they generally use their client names when they advertise. Sometimes, however, employers assign an opening to multiple recruiters on a “contingency” basis. Contingency recruiters want to get your CV off to the employer ahead of the pack. Keeping the company name under wraps also prevents the candidate from sending their CV directly to the employer, which would eliminate them from the process completely.

Contingency recruiters can have good assignments, so you can’t bypass recruiters, regardless of their business model. But if you are considering dropping your CV into the black hole of a “blind” ad, consider using a one-page biosketch that will not be considered a resume or CV by an employer; this will force the headhunting firm to call you if they are interested. Include a few enticing paragraphs much like you’d use to describe yourself as a speaker in a conference. The caller will request a full CV, at which time you can ask for more detail about potential jobs. Then, if you decide to go ahead and submit a CV to that recruiter, clarify that you would like to retain control over the document by knowing where it has gone. Quality firms will be receptive to your request to get a call before it goes out to any employer in the future.


“Requirements include a Ph.D. with 5+ years experience in cell biology or biochemistry, or a M.S. degree with equivalent experience.”

Read as, “We’ve got a Ph.D. opening here and that’s the way we’d like to fill it, but we’re required by Human Resources to show respect to those few M.S.-level employees who have reached the Scientist ranks at our company.”

I’m sorry to be sarcastic, but every time a client company sends me a Ph.D. assignment that says “A Masters is OK, too,” I find out later—after hours of interviewing a few M.S.-level candidates—that this isn’t the case. Despite what those ads say, for an R&D leadership position, the Masters degree holder has to work their way up in the company, a process that differs in every employer but one that takes years and numerous hurdles. (Note that this is not the case in manufacturing operations, quality control and assurance, and other technical positions where MS degree holders can go right to the top.)

Now, with what may first appear like a slight change of wording, this ad can mean a great deal more opportunity for the Masters graduate. For example, consider “M.S. or Ph.D. required, with emphasis on cell biology and biochemistry.” By rearranging the order of the preferred degrees, the employer shows that their intent to consider M.S. candidates is indeed serious. In fact, the “or” statement says to me that the M.S.-level applicant is exactly what’s at the core of this need and that Ph.D.-holders applying for this job could easily be seen as overqualified.

So what does the future hold for job ads?

One reason that job ads have been plentiful in the past is that they are cheap and easy. But they have also shown a declining value to employers as more and more emphasis has been placed on social media for candidate recruitment. Company HR staff now have teams of people onboard to identify and recruit candidates directly inside the social media that we use every day, in almost every aspect of our lives, and recruit them more directly from within those applications.

Still, the business of finding a job requires attention to be paid to every single element in the process, and job ads will remain one of these for some time to come. So learn to read ads carefully, to understand the issues that they refer back to, however subtly. And then, show those advertisers that you are a key player in their core theme, and most importantly, that you’ve been a problem solver since you first stepped into the lab all those years ago.