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Careers Café

Avoiding résumé pitfalls


A colleague and I were recently discussing the challenges postdocs face when writing résumés.

One difficulty, we thought, lies in the difference between how CVs and résumés establish an applicant’s credibility. Much of the CV demonstrates what you know, whereas résumés focus on proving what you can do.

In terms of structure, this means that some information that is standard on CVs may appear further down your résumé — or not at all.

Your CV needs to devote significant space to establishing your relevance in ongoing academic discussions and your credibility within your scholarly community. It will provide a comprehensive history of your publications, conference papers and awards. It will name others within your community, such as your supervisors and co-authors. And it will do this at great length so as not to omit important information.

Your résumé is unlikely to do anything at length. Employers expect it to be concise. Because of this expectation, it’s risky to leave the reader to interpret how information on the résumé relates to your desired job. Scholars know what the information on your CV means because they do the same activities you do. Employers outside academia won’t automatically understand that your collection of awards means that you can write persuasively to funding organizations, or that you learned in conference presentations to address objections and answer critical questions — unless you come right out and say it.

Translating your CV into a résumé gets easier if you don’t try to translate at all. Put aside the CV, and list what’s needed to get the job done. Then describe how your relevant experiences — academic or otherwise — show you can do the job ahead.

Scholars have to present evidence to back up hypotheses all the time. Those same skills extend to supporting, in a résumé, the hypothesis that they can do a particular job — quite possibly one that they’ve never previously held. At this point, however, you may run into the second difficulty my colleague and I discussed. Academia expects such a high level of expertise that many scholars applying outside the tower omit or downplay their most relevant experiences if those experiences weren’t time — and labour-intensive.

So, applicants for policy-writing positions might leave out the valuable (and unpaid) work they did in contributing to the revision of graduate studies policies at their university. Heck, they were just part of a committee. If you see yourself reflected in this example, imagine a combination of your favourite professor and Yoda advising you to use the Force in your résumé. Replace that second page reference to your time as a “Graduate Student Representative” with a first page bullet that openly states that you identified potential implications of policies impacting [insert number here!] people and adjusted the policies to [do whatever they did after you got your hands on them].

The hiring manager will most likely scan your résumé top to bottom and left to right, so put your most relevant experiences as close to the top of the page and as far left as possible. If your education is less clearly relevant than your volunteer and paid experience, go ahead and put your “Relevant Experience” section on the first page, and leave “Education” for page two.

Finally, for every bullet on your résumé, ask yourself what you want the hiring manager to understand about you based on that bullet. Answer yourself out loud. If your verbal answer differs from what’s on the page, reword what’s on the page.

Liz Koblyk
Liz Koblyk is the associate director of the Wilson Leadership Scholar Award at McMaster University.
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