How to Think Differently

Customized Recruitment Attracts Top Talent

December 8, 2021

In the News

The Nature article, Customized recruitment attracts top talent, by Benjamin Plackett, featured commentary from Isaacson, Miller Partner, and Science, Technology, and Society Practice Co-Leader John Muckle, on how young universities like the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) can attract top talent. Find excerpts from the article below.


Flanked by the Red Sea and the Arabian desert, the campus of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), dotted with palm trees, sits about 100 kilometers north of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. It’s hard to imagine a more picturesque spot for scientists to conduct their research.

A US$10-billion starting endowment was another lure for potential staff when the university opened its doors in 2009. Yet, international observers were skeptical. The New York Times called KAUST a “gamble” and questioned whether an institution in which, contrary to the country’s custom, men and unveiled women mingle, could survive. Would researchers abandon posts at established universities in countries with a higher-education tradition, to work at an unknown start-up in an ultra-conservative kingdom?

Around the world, young universities — 50 years or under, in Nature Index’s terms — grapple with their own version of the same question: how to attract researchers? They share a need to be proactive, says Paul McCarthy, co-founder of the League of Scholars, a consultancy firm in Sydney, Australia that uses data analytics to help universities with research strategy and recruitment. “Our clients come to us and say they want to recruit a star,” he says. “The elite institutions don’t have to try because people will always apply to them.”

John Muckle, a partner at the recruitment consultancy firm Isaacson, Miller based in Boston, Massachusetts, specializes in finding scientists and high-level administrators for clients such as KAUST. He says it’s a lot easier when there’s something unique about a university. “You have to sell the idea of a research environment that isn’t possible anywhere else,” he says. One way to do this is to give up on trying to be everything to everybody. Universities such as Cambridge and Princeton, that offer programs in almost every discipline, already have a centuries-long head start in the market, says Muckle. “Instead, young universities should think about the cutting-edge areas that they might pursue,” he says. “Institutions with the ability to make these strategic choices have a nice sales pitch in terms of articulating their values and showing that they’re not trying to duplicate something that’s already great somewhere else.”

Read the full article here.

Concrete stairs with a railing.