Virtual recruiting: Keep your institution on brand to get the right people on board

June 17, 2021

By Isabel Wasgindt

In the business world, it’s often said that a company is only as good as its employees — a truth that also applies to academic institutions. Maintaining high-quality research and improving institutional reputation depends largely on having motivated, high-performing researchers on board.

Academics have traditionally relied on their extensive networks and word-of-mouth to identify potential new research staff. Leveraging these connections certainly has its advantages. It’s usually easier to understand a candidate’s motivations and assess cultural fit if you’ve met them in person at a conference or if they come strongly recommended by a colleague.

But relying too heavily on these channels can put both the candidate-seeker and the university as a whole at a disadvantage. I’ve seen this firsthand over the last year while working with academic recruiters with ResearchGate’s Scientific Recruitment Solutions. As the COVID-19 pandemic brought conferences around the world to a standstill, the “standard” recruitment process has been turned on its head, which can make it more difficult to identify candidates.

Even before the pandemic, an academic recruiter’s job wasn’t exactly easy. Many university positions require a very specific research background, often coupled with teaching and curriculum design experience. Finding the perfect match for a job can be like finding a needle in the proverbial haystack, but there’s plenty you can do to attract qualified candidates.

Nearly 50% of researchers reported spending more time looking for new job opportunities over the last year. Find out more in our COVID-19 report: Science hasn’t slowed, it’s just moved online.

Know your employer brand

Sixty-six percent of researchers report spending as much or more time keeping up to date with other scientific institutions since the pandemic started, meaning there is greater opportunity to engage potential candidates. But what do these potential employees know about your institution? And how will they benefit from working with you? Your employer brand is your value proposition to potential employees — and working on your brand can go a long way toward improving your candidate pool.

The value of branded social media and digital campaigns to attract students is already proven. In addition to rankings and research strengths, an institution’s brand (including its expressed values and positions on social issues) is increasingly likely to influence student choices. But even universities with strong student-focused branding often fail to communicate their appeal to potential employees.

Solidifying your employer brand is key to boosting your reputation to find more candidates — but every institution is different, and there’s no “one-size-fits-all” solution. A good strategy for one university may involve better PR outreach with a few recent publications, while another institution may have more success in highlighting its excellent family leave policy and faculty diversity.

How have institutions improved their employer branding on ResearchGate? Find out more in this case study from Eindhoven University of Technology.

Hone in on your target group

Employer branding is essentially storytelling. Showcasing the successes of your faculty with an engaging narrative can show how your institution sets its researchers up for success.

To convey your brand effectively, you’ll also need to ensure that your messages are resonating with the right people. This of course means being able to clearly identify a target audience — but when I ask recruiters to tell me who they’re looking for, this seemingly basic question often turns out to be a stumbling block.

Does your university want to increase the diversity of its staff? Or hire more people with a specific academic background to build up a new department? Then you’ll likely need to go beyond making a few social media posts or job ads. To bring in the talent you want, you’ll need to highlight topics important to your target audience. What are the exciting research projects currently making waves in individual disciplines? How is the university supporting these projects on campus and through communications? Bringing these stories into the spotlight can give prospective candidates the information they need to understand what your institution stands for. A more targeted outreach strategy can help you find high-quality candidates in a shorter amount of time.

Find more tips on employer branding from ResearchGate Scientific Recruitment Solutions.

Meet candidates where they are

In the absence of conferences, events, and physical workplaces, researchers at all experience levels are making more use of digital networking tools. This trend was clear at ResearchGate Scientific Recruitment Solutions, with a 15% year-on-year increase in job posting views and a 30% increase in job applications submitted via our platform in 2020.

With many candidates open to new work, half the battle is already won. Now you just need to get on their radar. This might mean participating in online panels and events, creating a new recruitment-focused social media account for your organization, conducting more targeted candidate searches, or finding other new ways to connect in the digital space.

And these measures shouldn’t be considered temporary fixes to simply hold your institution over until conferences have regained their pre-pandemic clip. Improving your digital outreach and employer branding can grant you access to a much wider and more diverse pool of highly qualified candidates, and should therefore be developed in unison with any in-person recruiting strategies.

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