Friday, 3 January 2014

applying online

I guess everybody who started working in science 20—25 years ago would agree that applying for a job now is not what it used to be.

No, I don’t blame the internet. Just the opposite: it was thanks to internet that I got all my jobs (away from my blessed fatherland, that is). But I do blame the cancerous growth of HR departments and proliferation of incompetent HR managers.

I would stop short of calling for universal abolition of HR departments. (On a second thought, I don’t see why I should. Yeah, let’s just get rid of them. No human being deserves to be called a ‘resource’.) Nor will I reject outright the notion that somewhere there may exist intelligent, competent, compassionate, human HR managers. I never met one though.

My point, however, is that as recent as in 1990s, the HR people knew their place and did not stand between me and my prospective boss. These days I am getting a rejection letter and have no clue on whom to unleash my wrath. Head of the department? The assessment committee? The human resources? The whole damn place? I know: I... shall... unlike their Facebook page. That will show them.


In the late 1980s / early 1990s, email was still something of a novelty in Russia. The government (KGB, etc.) did not take it seriously (which, by the way, kept it working as usual even during the August Putsch). But I was using it almost daily. The main reason? Applying for jobs. I simply could not afford to send so many postal applications abroad. So I restricted myself to those enlightened employers who provided their emails.

I have to say that then my boss was rather skeptical about me finding a job this way. His way was to rely on an old boy network, and it worked remarkably well. Even in Soviet times, his lab was supplying postdocs to his many friends’ labs in the West (chiefly in the USA and Germany). Still, I think he was glad when, eventually, I got my first postdoc without his help.

How to find jobs? I was studying the employment sections of Science and Nature, but these journals were arriving to Moscow with many weeks’ delay. That was bringing the deadlines uncomfortably close. So I concentrated on unsolicited applications.

Back then, just as it is today, it was not the most efficient way of soliciting a job. But at least I was applying where I wanted to, and often there was some sort of response. Once I sent an email to the National Institutes of Health and got a very polite letter back saying that your CV looks interesting, but unfortunately, at this moment there are no openings, unless you are a woman, a Native American, or a Vietnam War veteran. On another occasion, I applied to a German computational biology group. The group leader sent me, as I felt, a slightly haughty response stating that there could be openings but he requires of all applicants the thorough knowledge of this, that and the third thing, so: (1) do you think you are up to scratch, and (2) ain’t you scared of our (read: mine) awesomeness? I was a bit puzzled since he quite obviously did not spend any effort reading my CV, but I did politely respond that (1) yes and (2) no.

The silence followed.

Then, six or so months later, when I already forgot about all this, an email arrived. No hello, no goodbye. Just this:

Are you still interested?
As it were, I was. And I definitely would not let the German guru out-shorten me.
I never heard from him again.


Nowadays any self-respecting British university has a web-based system which won’t even allow you to submit an open application. When you go there, it’s like the old déjà vu all over again. My theory is the interface was created by an undergraduate who was kicked out of the uni but nobody wanted to rewrite the code, so they had to make the best of the worst. And they did succeed, because the purpose of the whole thing is to not let you apply.

To start with, you have to create an account. Everybody knows that this is a deterrent strong enough to turn 90% of time wasters away. But, if you really insist, there are many more surprises (aka features) for you. For example, the lack of your country/mother tongue in drop-down menu (so you have to resort to “other”) which is compensated by the bewildering array of titles to chose from (Brigadier, Honourable, Reverend, Mr&Mrs); the tendency to log you out in the middle of you filling the form without saving it; the bizarre requirement to give the telephones and emails of all your supervisors, including retired and dead ones; inability to enter a foreign telephone; inability to deal with ḟøřêíģñ characters; inability to deal with foreign anything... And then there is the equal opportunity form to be filled. Man I hate it. What is my colour or sexual orientation have to do with the advertised position? Want the equal opportunity — mind your own business, OK?

If you are lucky, you go through the all five or six or seven pages, and then you may see the option to attach any extra info you like, such as the cover letter, list of publications, and, yes, your CV (which is what you really wanted to do) as pdf files. Bugger.

If you are doubly lucky, you click on “Submit”, and it’s done (provided that your web browser does not crash at this very moment).

If you are triply lucky, you can expect an automatically-generated rejection letter in some reasonable time (two-three months).

And if you are really, really lucky, you can be invited for an interview, but I can’t quantify that because I never got a positive response with web-based applications.

Think the British system is bad? Try Swedish or Spanish one.

Many commercial companies also have the web-based application systems which, on average, work better. Sometimes I even get a humanoid response. It does not mean it is positive.

Hi Doctor,

Thank you for your recent application for the position with our company.

I’m pleased to say the hiring team are quite interested in your background however I wanted to make you aware of our salary banding for this role. We have a range of £¥₮—₮£€ K on offer and based on you salary expectation I was keen to address this early before potentially wasting someone’s time.

Please let me know if you are still keen to pursue the post with the above salary banding in mind.

Many thanks,

That’s the danger with companies: they often ask you to name your price. A wild stab in the dark... and now they tell they are interested but prepared to pay less than a half of that.

Oh well. I have plenty of time. Who knows, if they invite me for an interview, I may be able to bargain.

I will respond the following morning.

Dear Recman,

Many thanks for your email and for raising the question of salary.

I won’t make it a secret that the pay band you mention is lower than I hoped for; on the other hand, my own expectations were rather arbitrarily based on my previous employment salary. I fully realise that it is difficult to match.

With that in mind, I am still interested in this position in a hope that it will provide opportunities for professional growth.

With kind regards,

Then — a miracle! — another company calls.

Dear Doctor,

Thanks for the application for the above mentioned role.

It seems that unfortunately the application form we normally have attached to applications hasn’t come through with your application, probably due to a fault in the system.

Please could you therefore confirm details of your current salary and salary expectations and also whether you have the right to work in the UK and if so, what Visa or work permit you hold and any expiry dates etc.

This will allow me to check if the position is at the right level for you and also clarify if we can proceed further, as we are currently not a sponsorship company.

Best regards,

Ms Hr
Yay, I’ve managed to fool the system and got to a real person! Let’s see...
Dear Ms Hr,

Many thanks for your email. I do not know what went wrong. Just in case, I attach my CV in pdf format.

I am a British citizen, so I do have the right to work in the UK.

Currently I am not employed. At the time of my last employment, I was paid €$£.¥¢; per hour. I fully realise that it is difficult to match, especially after a career break. However, I do expect a salary which will allow me and my family to lead a reasonably comfortable life in Poshbridge.

Best regards,
Dr. Doctor
Next morning:
Dear Doctor,

Thanks for your response.

Can you be a bit more specific about your salary expectations and provide me with an annual salary that you are looking for?


My, they are really obsessed with money. After some procrastination, I put forward my modest demand.

Dear Hr

Yes. I am looking for a salary in region of €$,000—£¥,000 per annum.

Best regards,

Stunned silence.

The enquiry of the year came from Across The Pond.

Dear Doctor,

Thank you for applying to us. To help us better assess your candidacy, would you please send us a short explanation on how your last two years as a Zumba fitness instructor might affect your employability.

Thank you.

Best regards,
Another Hr

That’s a good one. It shows that they did bother to read my CV.

Employ-ability. Hmmm.

I will respond a bit later.

Dear Another,

Many thanks for your email.

Indeed, working as a Zumba instructor may seem irrelevant to the advertised position and, most probably, to any scientific/R&D position. However, I believe that new work experiences are generally beneficial, even more so if they are healthy and pleasurable. Taking up an occupation so different from what I used to do for twenty years was a bit of challenge. At the very least, it provided me with a different perspective on life and realisation that one should not be afraid of career change.

How it affects my employability remains to be seen. I never worked in commercial sector. I know from personal experience that academic employers prefer the applicant to have a linear career track and tend to view any career break with suspicion. I find this approach hard to justify. I hope that my next employer will be open-minded enough to see diverse career as an advantage, rather than disadvantage.

Does this answer your question in any way?

With best regards,


Happy New Year everybody, thanks for popping by!

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