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From PhD to Life

Resume writing tips for academics


I was recently chatting with a friend here in Toronto who’s ABD and looking for full-time employment. He told me that when he “buried his degree” on his resume — placed education last instead of closer to the top — that he’d received much better responses from potential employers. Previously, his applications hadn’t resulted in anything; now, he’d been on two interviews in the past month.

This is an anecdote, but talking with him got me thinking about my own relationship with my resume. So did a Twitter chat I hosted last week on the topic of non-academic resumes.

My friend’s decision to “bury” his PhD candidature makes sense to me, not because he should hide what he’s been up to over the past few years, but because his impending doctorate is not of prime importance in the eyes of the vast majority of would-be employers. When I was in the early stages of my career transition after my PhD, I had a hard time moving education from its prime location on my resume. I was focused on what I believed was most important about me. Understandably after nearly 10 years in graduate school, my identity was wrapped up in the three new letters after my name.

With the passage of time, I’ve come to see myself as much greater than the sum of my educational parts. Yes, I have a PhD, but that’s not what makes me who I am, nor does it define my place in the world. Having done a dissertation and all the many other varied tasks I carried out in conjunction with my time in academia makes me an experienced researcher, writer, educator, whatever. I can draw on that “job experience” — that’s what it is, after all — when crafting a resume. But I can’t stop at that. To convince a potential employer to give me a chance after spending six seconds glancing at my resume, I’d have to present a compelling argument for why I am the ideal candidate for their job. I have to address myself to their needs, not my own. The sentiment implied by the phrase “buried my degree” is telling: death, loss, grief. Removing education from above the fold of my resume doesn’t have to mean this; instead, it would be about embracing a new identity, one that includes (below the fold, on the second page) but isn’t dependent upon educational achievements.

Check out my profile for an example of what this means in practice. My self-description begins:

I’m a professional listener and question asker. I’m always on the search for what lies beneath and how that can point the way forward.

My core values include community, curiosity, honesty, and generosity. Independence, bravery, strategic risk-taking, and creativity are important to me, too. I’m dedicated to building and promoting positive, supportive communities, and empowering individuals by focusing on their strengths.

I only bring up my PhD in the fourth paragraph. What do you think?

Here are six few resume writing tips for PhDs, presented with thanks to the tweeters who participated in the chat last Wednesday:

1. Emphasize skills over (academic) content knowledge.

2. Translate your experiences into language meaningful to your audience.

3. Use specific action words to convey what you’ve done.

4. Don’t underestimate what you’ve accomplished and tackled, in and outside academia.

5. Focus on the solution you will provide to the problem your potential employer is seeking to solve.

6. Keep it short; only include information that’s helpful: necessary and relevant to position.

Jennifer Polk
Jennifer Polk is a career coach and entrepreneur. She earned her PhD in history from the University of Toronto in 2012. For more information and resources, check out her website:
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  1. Catherine / April 29, 2014 at 13:06

    I too have ‘buried’ my academic credentials at the bottom of my resume. I have also moved all my contract teaching ‘one up courses’ further down, and have dragged up the five year old (plus) office experience to the top – all in an effort to simply get an interview. I’ve rewritten my resume so many times, for so many different job postings, I no longer know who I am! Apparently I am over educated and under qualified.

  2. Dr.Doinglittle / April 30, 2014 at 11:49

    This is sensible advice. An employer wants to hire a person qualified to do the job, not someone who self identifies with a degree. Especially when you have a PhD. Putting it at the top of your resume suggests to me that you are still an academic at heart, and would leave the job as soon as the first university job came along. Resumes that read as CVs are always a dead giveaway.

  3. Grant Harper / March 10, 2015 at 17:54

    This is a really good suggestion for resume writing. I have been struggling to find a good job and to even get the chance to get an interview. It would be really great to be able to update my resume so that it looks really fantastic. Then I am sure it would really help me get more job offers, which would be ideal!

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