I was inspired to write this post by one of my clients, who I’ll refer to as Amy throughout this post. Amy is a graduate student on the cusp of finishing her Ph.D. in analytical chemistry. She contacted me to help her target industry roles that leverage her organic and bioinorganic synthesis and analytical characterization background.
Within 2 months of completing her STEM resume project, Amy received an invitation from a recruiter for a preliminary phone screen for a Principal Scientist position in Cedar Rapids, IA, with an unnamed pharmaceutical manufacturer.
This post recounts how we strategized and prepared her for the upcoming meeting.
What’s a recruiter phone screen?
A phone screen is a short call, lasting anywhere from 15-30 minutes, where a recruiter or talent acquisition/HR specialist will assess your potential fit for the job by asking straightforward questions related to:
Is this different from a phone interview?
Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that phone screenings are the first step after applying to see how well your qualifications match the opportunity. The questions are more straightforward, like the ones mentioned above.
A phone interview is typically longer, 30-60 minutes, and conducted by the hiring decision-maker rather than a frontline recruiter or HR specialist. You will need to prepare to address more in-depth questions about your experience and behavioral-style questions that assess your overall fit within the team and company culture.
No, in the sense that every conversation you have throughout the hiring process, no matter how casual, should be treated professionally and authentically to make a strong first impression and set the tone for the rest of the hiring cycle.
How do you prepare for a phone screening?
Here’s a breakdown of the strategies and steps I used to help Amy prepare for her recruiter phone screen.
1) Research the company, if applicable.
If applicable, because, in many cases, the recruiter may not reveal their client’s (the company) name. In Amy’s case, the recruiter provided her with a copy of the job posting, which referred to the company as a pharmaceutical manufacturer.
If the recruiter shares the client’s name, go to the company website and do some basic research, including:
Don’t spend more than 15 minutes on this step. You don’t need to know every detail about the company, but you need to have an idea of their business and why you want to work there.
If you don’t know the company name, skip this step and proceed to step 2.
2) Review the job posting thoroughly.
The meeting will focus on how well your qualifications and skills match the role.
Since Amy had a copy of the job posting, we studied the qualifications section. We noted key technical or job-specific training, transferable skills, and educational requirements aligned with her background.
3) Prepare relevant career stories.
We linked the above examples to the job responsibilities and prepared a few stories, using the Challenge – Action – Result, or CAR framework, that reflected how she used these skills to make an impact.
Since Amy and I had already worked on a resume project, she could easily refer to this updated, targeted resume to pick out specific accomplishments reflecting her diverse chemistry and instrumentation experience. These stories will help the interviewer better understand your background and fit for the position.
Don’t memorize your stories word-for-word. You want the conversation to flow naturally and can use the CAR framework above to help you organize your talking points.
For more details on how to recount your key achievements, contributions, and impact, you may find part 5 in my STEM Resume Breakdown series, How to Write the Experience Section, helpful.
4) Set the tone of the conversation.
This step is critical. Most interviews start with some small talk before transitioning into the conversation.
One of the primary ways interviewers make this transition is by asking an open-ended question, such as, “Tell me about yourself.” You may also hear a variation of this question, like:
The way you respond is the most important part of the interview. Why? Because it sets that first impression with the interviewers and sets the tone for the rest of the discussion and any subsequent interviews that occur later on.
In my interview coaching sessions, I work with my clients to craft a flexible response that you can adapt to different scenarios using the following 3-step formula:
A strong answer will address your key selling points (i.e., years of experience, specialized training, technical skills, personality traits, etc.), how you meet the requirements, and why you’re interested in the role in under 2 minutes.
Another approach you can take is sharing an interesting story about how you came into a particular field and relating it to the job and company so that your interviewer understands why you are there in the first place.
5) Prepare for the rest of the interview.
We already covered the importance of nailing common interview openers (i.e., Tell me about yourself) to set the tone for the conversation.
You have no way of knowing exactly what questions you’ll get asked. In the case of a phone screening, the person interviewing you will be a recruiter or frontline HR specialist with little to no background in your field.
This part can be difficult if the recruiter doesn’t reveal the company name.
The good news is, when it comes to interviewing, there are 3 main questions you need to answer:
Tell me about yourself (background).
Why are you looking for a new job?
What attracted you to this position?
Tell me about your current role.
What makes you a good fit for this role?
How would you describe your work style?
6) Know your salary requirements.
This topic can be awkward, but you’ll want to know your ideal salary anytime you start a job search. Recruiters want to ensure your requirements match their budget.
Doing some research in advance will give you a reference point. I advise starting with sites like payscale.com or salary.com, where you can do a general search for a position title and location since the cost of living varies nationwide. Here’s how this works.
Amy and I did a general search on salary.com, using the search terms Principal Scientist and Cedar Rapids, IA, in the job and location fields, respectively.
The average salary for a Principal Scientist in Cedar Rapids is $129,807, with the typical range falling between $116,101 and $145,888. These ranges can vary depending on factors like education, certifications, experience, etc.
You must also consider your living expenses, such as rent/mortgage, car payments, insurance, utilities, grocery bills, retirement, and other miscellaneous expenses, and DOUBLE it.
So, how do you respond to the salary question?
When a recruiter asks about salary, always give a range. Doing so gives you flexibility and leaves room to adjust the range as necessary as you learn more about the job and the employer’s expectations.
Sometimes, the job posting will directly list the salary information. Frankly, all job postings should include salary because it tells you upfront if applying is worth it or a waste of your time. Unfortunately, those postings are few and far between, with only 12% of postings from US online job sites including this information.
When Amy and I started working together, she shared that she was targeting industry opportunities with a salary of $80,000 to $150,000. This range is wide. Fortunately, the job posting included a salary range of $100,000 to $120,000, which met her desired requirements.
When giving a range, pad it by adding a minimum of 10-15% ABOVE your current or target salary.
This way, later in the hiring process, if a company makes an offer and negotiates below the range (and they almost always do), you still walk away happy.
In Amy’s case, we took the bottom of the range, $100,000, and added 10% of that amount, or $10,000, to the bottom of that range. She could give a range of $110,000 to $150,000 using the following language:
Based on my qualifications, experience, and what I know about the role, I’m targeting a base salary between $110,000 and $150,000.
Notice I specify base salary. Salary is just one component of a total compensation package. Future posts will go into more detail on navigating the salary negotiation phases of the hiring cycle.
7) Follow up with a thank-you email.
Anytime you have an interview, plan to send a short thank-you email after the meeting.
This approach demonstrates personal initiative, reminds the interviewer of your value, and provides an opportunity to address any concerns.
A strong thank-you email should do 3 things:
For more details, check out this post on how to write a post-interview thank-you email. Finally, don’t be afraid to follow up with your interviewer. It’s normal and expected. This post provides helpful strategies, including follow-up scripts you can use to show your continued interest in the job while balancing assertiveness with persistence.
Final Thoughts on Recruiter Phone Screenings
Scientech Resumes is dedicated to helping science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) professionals find fulfilling work through targeted, branded, and keyword-optimized resumes, LinkedIn profiles, and other career marketing documents. Schedule a FREE 20-minute discovery session to get real-time feedback on your current resume and job search strategy, or connect with me on LinkedIn. Let’s get you where you want to go with greater results!