3 Unique Challenges of Recruiting Social Scientists


Executive search has been around for a very long time, pretty much as long as executives themselves. The sustained relevance of the executive search industry attests to the importance of services provided by head-hunters.

Before we continue, perhaps we should define exactly what headhunters do. What tasks do recruiters perform that organizations cannot perform in-house? How is a recruiter more effective than a well-placed “wanted” ad?

For starters, an executive search firm will invest hundreds of manpower hours to identify and pro-actively approach on-target candidates.Our clients are part of a niche industry. They’re generally looking for a person with a very particular skill-set and range of experience. Naturally, this presents a unique challenge for us.

The Exciting World of Social Sciences

At Insight Executive Search, we specialize in recruiting senior researchers, academics and project managers for the nation’s top private and nonprofit research organizations. It is no easy task. While most industry outsiders know next-to-nothing when it comes to the difference between a survey methodologist vs. a survey director, or an epidemiologist vs. a patient-centered outcomes expert, Insight Executive Search and the people who work here are all about the nitty-gritty details.The range of expertise among our candidates and clients is just one of the complication we face on a regular basis.

By briefly describing the unique challenges of our work, I hope to give you a better overall grasp of what we do and how we do it.

Timing is Everything

In recruiting for any industry, a zen-like synergy between several moving parts must occur in order to achieve success:

The right person, in the right time and the right place.

Over the years, we’ve encountered particular challenges in finding the right candidates at the right time. It’s the kind of stuff that makes you grit your teeth and, buckle-down and work twice as hard.

When companies hire executive recruiters – the purpose is not to find supporting staff. Our clients demand the highest quality candidates in return for their investment and this is an entirely reasonable expectation. The challenge becomes finding a blue-chip scientist at the appropriate time in their career and when they’re able and willing to make a move. Timing is everything.

If you catch them too early, they don’t have enough senior experience. Too late, and you’re trying to drag the candidate along with the 10-ton weight of tenure benefits shackled to his/her ankle.

Senior researchers are especially unlikely to leave their position if they’ve spent years cultivating a steady stream of research funding and are either unable or unwilling to try to bring that funding with them.

In order to avoid this see-saw of potential rejections, as recruiters we to cast our net as wide as possible in a narrow talent pool in order to strategically place ourselves in the right place at the right time.

The Business of Research

Stop any person on the street and ask him where to find top-tier researchers and what will they say? 9/10 times, he or she will tell you: “Why, to the university laboratories!” And, usually they would be correct.

However, in the world of private research, even someone with the most laudable academic credentials wouldn’t necessarily be suitable for the role of a Principal Investigator in a private firm.

Here’s why…

Researchers in private firms will normally be asked to generate ‘business’ by writing grant proposals and finding clients for the particular brand of research they want to do. Sometimes researchers in universities also have this responsibility but it’s rarer. Also, the funding process in the private sector operates differently than in a university setting.

Conclusion: We can peg academics for certain positions but must be very selective to choose someone with the right business development experience when recruiting for the private sector.

Increasing Individuation

If recruiting senior researchers was like fishing, then the pool would be filled with tens of thousands of varieties of fish. As scientific research becomes increasingly broad, recruiting becomes harder. Job descriptions will generally contain a long list of criteria for the candidate that’s rarely easy to meet exactly.

Let’s say, for example, a company is looking for an education researcher. Fortunately, (and this really is a great thing) there are thousands of education researchers, each one with their own particular areas of interest. You have early child development researchers, curriculum analysts, and scientists who assess teaching methods– and these examples are just the tip of the iceberg.

See what I mean about specialization?

In response a recruiter can do one of several things. We can look deeper into promising candidates’ bios to find areas of experience that dovetail with an organization’s criteria. We can modify and narrow our search methodology. And we can simply keep sifting until we find the gold.

Embracing the Challenge

The challenges listed above are real. They also liven up the office as we continue to see the research industry and the great people who populate it expand and evolve right before us.

The flipside of all of this is that technology, particularly the Internet, levels the playing field somewhat and allows us to access data in increasingly convenient and comprehensive ways. Nevertheless, only years of experience in working in these fields can really give you that insider track and help you drill down to the perfect candidate, in the perfect time and place. Within the intricate maze of social sciences research candidates, we’re definitely happy to have that experience under our belts.