Who Should I Trust to Help with My Job Search?

Q. I have a Ph.D. and need to locate and begin to work with the best East Coast Retained Search Professionals for Higher Education Administration, for finding development/fundraising and/or faculty positions. Suggestions? Many “headhunter” firms are willing for me to pay to improve my already impressive resume and vita, but few will help me or my materials get in front of the right hiring people. Thanks in advance for any assistance you can provide.

A. You have lots of education and are looking for a position in education, but you have a few things to learn about how retained search firms and other kinds of staffing firms work. Confusion about what talent management organizations do and who they work for is common. This confusion causes a great deal of candidate frustration, disappointment and misplaced.


The key to avoiding this frustration is realizing that these firms are not interchangeable, and offer different expertise in support of their clients and candidates.

Retained search firms are hired by companies or institutions to conduct a search for the “right” candidate for a position. They do not limit their work by geographic location and industry specialists doing searches nationwide or globally can be housed anywhere. Retained search firms’ work involves generating a list of candidates and screening them out based on potential for success, skill set, capability and fit with the hiring organization. Ultimately they present a slate of three to five candidates to the hiring organization and the final candidate is selected of those choices.

Retained search firms are paid by the hiring organization and do not work for candidates. To get the attention of a retained search firm, start with research. Search firms, and consultants within those firms, have specialties. A personal introduction to the right person is always beneficial and a cold resume mailed in will be entered into their firm wide database, which they search regularly. You should contact every appropriate search firm in the country which fills roles in your area of interest. Retained search firms will not help you get your materials in front of hiring people unless they think you are the right candidate – they want to help their customer. They do not work for you, and if they decide to meet with you, remember that you are one of many in the screening process. You will need to continue to sell yourself to them and to the hiring organization.


Contingency search firms are also hired by the hiring organization to secure the right candidate for the position available. They may be given an exclusive opportunity to fill the position, or an exclusive for a period of time. Multiple contingency firms may be working to fill the same job and these situations are settled by recognizing the first introduction made to the hiring organization. These firms are more focused by geography and specialty within location. They also house significant databases of candidates with comments about appropriateness for a variety of roles, levels and cultures. Contingency recruiters are skilled at LinkedIn searches and if you have the right mix of talent, they will often find you. To meet a contingency recruiter, try to get referred by a person who has hired them, a person they have placed, or someone else they know. They also do NOT work for you, and you should not expect them to meet with you, respond to a cold resume mailed in, or a cold call or email. If they have a customer with a position for someone with your skills, they will contact you. They are paid by the company when the candidate starts the new job.

Outplacement firms are also corporate sponsored and provide services to an organization downsizing or laying off one person or many. Outplacement firms offer services to laid-off individuals in order to support them in developing an effective job search strategy, professionally written materials and strong interview skills. They provide an understanding of search firms and how to work with them, support in utilizing online research tools and LinkedIn, and by bringing jobs and networking events directly to the candidates they work with. Outplacement firms help to cultivate the skills needed to be the best candidate possible and may make referrals to search firms and hiring organizations where appropriate.


Retained search firms and contingency firms do not charge fees to candidates, as they are hired by the hiring organization to find them the person with an appropriate skill set. It follows then that they do not work for you and will choose to meet with you if your candidacy supports a need they have. They are not paid to provide services to you.

You can hire a career consultant or career counselor to support you in your career management or job search activities. What should be clear from your conversation or with any written agreement you enter into is that they will not find you a job. As you noted, they may offer to improve your resume or support your efforts to develop other job search skills. They may charge you by the hour or a set project fee. The ACP International website offers a list of professionals who can support you. You can also find services available at no or low cost through your college or university career services office, or even the state Career Centers.

There are other firms who may be called career firms or career marketing agencies which, for a fee, will offer to improve your resume and cover letter, produce mass mailings or emailing’s to retained and contingency search firms, or contact their network via an email blast on your behalf. Realize what you are paying for. You are not buying a job, or paying for placement, but you can hire these firms to work for you. Review the success rate of each effort they promise to make. Keep your expectations in check, and be clear on your responsibilities and theirs.

As for your higher education search, one of the most valuable local resources you can utilize at no charge is the Higher Education Recruiting Consortium website, which lists jobs by region and is an invaluable resource to job seekers.

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