3 Unique Challenges of Recruiting Social Scientists


Executive search has been around for as long as there have been executives. The sustained relevance of the executive search industry attests to the importance of services provided by head-hunters.

That being said, what exactly do 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, a retained executive search firm invests hundreds of manpower hours to identify and proactively approach on-target candidates. Our clients are part of a niche industry – looking for a person with a very particular skillset and range of experience. Naturally, this presents a unique challenge for us.

The Exciting World of the Social Sciences

At Insight Executive Search, we specialize in recruiting research executives and senior research and evaluation leaders for the nation’s top private and nonprofit research organizations. It’s 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, the professional staff at Insight Executive Search are all about the nitty-gritty details. 

By briefly describing the unique challenges of our work, we hope to provide a better 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 to achieve success:

The right person, at the right time, at the right place.

Finding the right candidate at the right time is challenging. It’s the kind of stuff that makes you grit your teeth, buckle-down and work twice as hard.

When companies hire executive recruiters, the purpose is not to find mediocre support staff. Our clients demand the highest quality candidates in return for their investment.

The challenge becomes finding a credible blue-chip researcher at the appropriate time in their career; when they’re able and willing to make a move. Timing is everything.

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

In addition, senior researchers are less likely to leave their position if they’ve spent years cultivating a steady stream of research funding and are either unable or unwilling to bring that funding with them to a new organization.

To avoid these potential pitfalls in a relatively narrow talent pool, our recruiters cast their nets wide – networking with as many candidates as possible 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? Nine times out of 10, you’ll hear: “Well, to the university research centers and laboratories!” And, usually they would be correct.

However, in the world of private sector research, even someone with the most laudable academic credentials wouldn’t necessarily be suitable for the role of Vice President of Research or Principal Research Scientist in a private firm.

Here’s why…

Researchers in private firms will normally be asked to write proposals to generate funding from government, foundations and/or corporate sponsors. Those in academic settings also write proposals, however the emphasis is usually less. 

In addition, the pace in the private sector is different than within a university setting.  Our clients will often say that the transition for university researchers to the private sector is difficult. 

Conclusion: Although we can peg academics for certain positions, we can’t rely on recruiting from academia. As recruiters we must think outside the box – recruiting candidates from private sector research organizations, foundations, associations, think tanks, government and academia.    

Increasing Individuation

If recruiting senior researchers was like fishing, then the pool would be filled with tens of thousands of varieties of fish. As social science research becomes increasingly broad, recruiting becomes harder. Job descriptions will generally contain a precise list of criteria that is challenging to find in one candidate.

For example, let’s say a company is looking for an education researcher. There are thousands of education researchers, each with their own particular areas of interest: early childhood, STEM, education technology, teacher training, post-secondary – just to name a few.

See what we mean about specialization.

In response, adept recruiters modify and narrow their search methodology and strategy.  They network extensively with other researchers to get referrals of research experts in the same field – as they say, birds of a feather flock together. They must be methodological and systematic – rolling up their sleeves and making call after call.  Many times, hundreds of calls.

Posting the job won’t do it. 

Researchers are usually not actively looking for a new position and are valued by their current employer. This is not to say they will not ultimately change jobs. However, in the field of social science recruitment, our success hinges on developing rapport with candidates, building trust and engaging in numerous conversations with each potential candidate.  We need to introduce them to a world which is familiar on the one hand, but enticingly challenging and exciting on the other. 

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 hands-on, practical years of experience working in these fields can really provide that “insider track” to narrow down the perfect candidate at the perfect time and place.

Within the intricate maze of social science research recruitment, we’re committed to utilizing that experience to quickly and consistently place before our clientele viable candidates – wherever they may be hiding.