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Career Advice

CV or resumé

A beginner's guide to non-academic applications


Phyllis had been on the job market for 18 months without so much as an interview. She had thought the applied nature of her PhD in qualitative market research methodologies would have be easy to parlay into a professional career, but now she was wondering if she was employable at all! Demoralized, she finally sought advice at her university’s Career Centre. When she brought out her résumé for the adviser to critique, the first problem became immediately apparent: she had been applying to nonacademic positions with an academic CV which did little to demonstrate to corporate employers how she could help them achieve their goals. Fortunately, this problem could be relatively easily corrected!

The ‘résumé’is a summary of your experiences and qualifications most relevant to a particular position. While it is both legally unadvisable and career-limiting to misrepresent yourself on a résumé, omitting extraneous details such as unrelated training or skills is common practice, especially when these could stretch your résumé beyond the usual two-page limit.

The main purpose of the résumé is to demonstrate a good fit between the applicant and the position and are much more prevalent than CVs in today’s workplace. However, there is very little consensus amongst human resource managers and professional resume writers as to what constitutes a ‘proper’ résumé. Expectations and preferences concerning format, font, headings and language can vary widely between fields, companies and individual readers.

As the primary rite of passage into the world of academe and some professions, where traditions run deep and change comes slowly, the CV is much less fickle than its common cousin, the résumé. Intended to establish the expertise of the applicant by virtue of their experience in a specific field of study, the CV expands over time – the more pages, the more expertise and accomplishment to consider. While CVs of new academics usually average 4-6 pages, the CV of a more senior professor can exceed 20 pages depending on their rate of publication.

The content of a CV tends to be less descriptive than that of a résumé, mainly because the applicant and reader both share the same understanding as to what is involved in activities such as teaching and publishing. Under the headings such as ‘Education’, ‘Research’, and ‘Teaching’, applicants typically list the required information with little explanatory detail.

Outside academe, where people frequently move from one occupation or sector to another, it is often necessary to explain the relevancy of previous accomplishments and responsibilities to prospective employers who may be unsure of the transferability of past experiences to their context. Given limitations on time and attention, this is no small feat.

This is where ABDs and PhDs applying to non-academic positions tend to run into trouble. Assuming they have done their homework and identified organizations and positions where they feel they can make a valuable contribution, they are often at a loss
as to how to describe their abilities and knowledge in anything other than academic terms. Naively, such applicants often resort to submitting CVs to these positions, reasoning that this is where their expertise is most readily established. For most employers, the weight of your credentials isn’t the issue, but rather how precisely your skills and experience align with their particular needs.

Try to think of it from the employer’s perspective. Our society has a sort of schizophrenic relationship with higher education. On the one hand, we generally accept advanced knowledge as beneficial to the common good, so we support increased tax spending to universities. On the other hand, managers and supervisors tend to believe someone who has just spent 5-10 years in a university doesn’t really know how to do anything outside the lecture hall – or worse, will be arrogant or socially inept. Receiving a formal CV from a well-intentioned applicant merely confirms employers’ darkest suspicions – that this person has no understanding of how the ‘real’ world operates.

Employers need to be convinced that all those years of study will benefit them in some relevant, concrete way. They need to see evidence of a candidate’s value in language they can understand and a format that is familiar. In other words, they need and expect applicants to submit a résumé that effectively translates what they’ve done into what they could do. In short, tell them what they would be most interested to know about you, not the full litany of all they could be told.

In a way, constructing a résumé is a great litmus test for determining how prepared you are for a job search in the first place. If you have absolutely no idea what the employers you are addressing will think is impressive or desirable about your past, chances are you simply don’t know enough about the field or position for which you are applying to be very convincing in showing how you could of benefit. The good news is what your application is missing something you can do better than most in today’s workforce– primary research.

Taking the time to conduct and effective study of an organization will radically improve the quality of your résumé and subsequently, the length of your job search. These questions will help you determine whether you know enough about a position to not only determine why you are able to fill the role successfully, but also whether you want to!

– What are the organization’s priorities, challenges and strengths?
– How will success be measured in this role?
– What is the impact of this position on the organization?
– Is this a new position – if not – why is it now vacant?

Chances are none of these questions will be addressed in a job posting, which is one of the reasons why so many people applying to positions where their only knowledge comes from the posting itself, are very rarely successful in landing a job offer. Discussing these issues with prospective employers directly, even before jobs become available, can make a world of difference in how well you can target your résumé to a particular position.
Contrary to popular perceptions, PhDs have enormous contributions to make in many different sectors of the workplace. By learning how to appropriately explain your abilities to employers, you can open up opportunities in any career path you wish to pursue. These steps for successfully translating your academic experiences to a resume will help get you started.

Steps for Translating from CV to Résumé

1. Deconstruct the job posting or description

Job postings are notorious for being poorly written, particularly in terms of relating requirements to the tasks you’ll spend most of your time doing. Read between the lines and write a list of what you think would be important to excel in this position using all of what is explicitly stated and filling in any gaps you notice. For instance, those strong organizational skills you developed while sitting on your program’s curriculum committee may be one of your strongest experiential links to an administrative position.

2. Identify your assets

What do you have that they need? Write a list of relevant experience, skills, etc. derived from the various sections of your CV – add any that didn’t make it there. Keep in mind that with a little tweaking, much of what led to your academic success is transferable to the professional world. Perhaps you could reframe your teaching experience in terms of public speaking skills or conducting a research project as project management skills. Compare with your list from the posting and note the items that are the same – these will be the elements you will want to highlight.

3. Focus on the reader’s perspective

Most people outside academe have no idea what happens in a graduate seminar or goes into writing a lit review. Be explicit when you describe these activities and focus on answering ‘so what’? Why does the fact you’ve been to a third world country collecting data for your dissertation, or published an article on a specific issue, suggest you’d be more effective in the position that you are applying for than someone who hasn’t? Remember – the stereotype of the graduate student is that you are ‘out of touch’ – make sure you don’t reinforce that by using academic jargon or highlighting accomplishments that are irrelevant to the position.

4. Get a second opinion

Your university career centre will have resources to help you target your résumé effectively. Most career centres also provide one-on-one résumé critiques either for free or at a nominal cost. The advisers providing critiques are well versed on strategies for writing strong résumés and are up to date on what employers are expecting – this can be tremendously helpful for both improving your résumé and increasing your confidence.

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  1. Marzieh / April 28, 2011 at 03:39

    sincere gratitude to Carolyn Steele for such a good advice.

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