The recruitment process is substantially based on candidate behaviour. The theory is that the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour. So rather than telling the prospective employer that they’ll be great for the job, the truly stand-out candidate shows their behaviour.

The best application I ever received came from a candidate applying for a research chemist position. This candidate called me to discuss the position, opening with “Mr Sammut, I’m very interested in the advertised position. Do you have a few minutes to talk with me about it?” – showing me that he had an awareness of the pressures on my time. We had a ten minute chat, during which he showed me that he had good communications, both to listen and to express himself. So far so good.

The truly exceptional part came next. Three days later, he called me back: “I was really interested in the information we discussed. I made some notes, and then I went to the library to do some more research, and now I’d like to ask some more technical questions about the work.” That candidate had the job before he ever walked through the door for an interview. He demonstrated by his behaviour that he had the traits needed for success in the role – he wanted THIS job enough to put in the proper effort to secure it; he could communicate; and, most importantly, research was in his blood.

At a recent UTS careers event, I met a keen young scientist who asked me “what kind of topics would you speak about to an employer over the phone?” That’s a bloody good question.
(Note that for the purposes of this post, I’m assuming that you are calling the employer to follow up after applying, rather than having them call you for a phone interview).

Firstly, DO YOUR RESEARCH. You should never submit a resume & cover letter in the first place without thoroughly researching the job ad or position description, the contact identified in the job ad, the company – everything that your network and the internet can tell you that will give you an advantage over the thronging crowd of other applicants. If you haven’t done a minimum of 4 hours research just to prepare the application, you haven’t done enough.

And remember, five good applications will succeed where a thousand rubbish applications will fail. More effort on one application means less effort overall.

Next, prepare yourself for the call. Find somewhere quiet. Get rid of all distractions. Have your notes in front of you, and the means to take more notes during the conversation. Then make the call standing up – as silly as it sounds, it makes you sound more dynamic and energetic.

Ask whether the person has time to talk. If not, ask if there might be another time which is more convenient.

The conversation should be guided by your research and the responses you are getting, but here are some conversation prompts:
• A great way to start is to say: “I read the job ad, and I’ve done some research, now I’d like to ask some more detail about the role.”
• “What is a typical working day in this role?”
• “How big is the team interacting with this role?”
• “Is this a new role, or replacing an existing person?” Assuming the latter, then rather than asking “why did they leave?” I prefer something like “What traits made the last person successful in the role?”. If they were great, you know what the employer will be looking for again. If not, then you know why they left, and you’ve already established yourself as being likely to be better.
• “How does the company measure the value created by this role?”
• “What traits will your ideal candidate show?”
• “How would you describe the corporate culture?”
• “What can I tell you about myself (that you can’t see in my resume)?”

Remember to take your time to actually listen and engage with the responses, and let the conversation develop organically. But remember to respect the interviewer’s time. Most importantly, show your enthusiasm. If you like what you’re hearing, SAY SO!
And then when the conversation is done, make your notes. Send a note of thanks for their time. And do your further research – follow up on what you’ve learned, so that you can extend your advantage.

Here are a couple of relevant links you might find useful:…

I publish a (semi) regular column on the DCS Technical website and facebook page, and various social media. The RACI Young Chemists group has also created a YouTube channel for career advice videos.

Get involved. Your network is your greatest opportunity to advance your career.