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Career Advice

Crafting your career story

No matter the position you are applying for, your resume needs to summarize your work experiences in a clear, well-organized way.

BY CATHERINE MAYBREY | SEP 17 2021

A good resume is like a movie trailer. It gives you some sneak peaks, points to highs and lows, the main actors, the plot and most importantly, it leaves you wanting more. A good resume lets you organize, or reorganize, the pieces of your professional past in such a way that you can tell the reader a compelling career story that makes them want to invite you for an interview. For graduate students and postdocs, the need to craft a career story can clash with feelings of impostor syndrome. Rest assured, you do have valuable skills and experiences, and translating them for your resume will help you to gain a more objective perspective of your employability and career options.

Challenge your bias

Graduate students and postdoctoral fellows consistently undersell their professional experiences, especially on their resumes. The position of teaching assistant, one of the most common experiences for grad students and postdoc fellows, is often boiled down to a single, terse entry like “taught undergraduate classes.” Scintillating that is not! If reflection and brainstorming is not yielding a ton of fascinating content, try starting with O*Net. This U.S. database breaks down jobs or professions into tasks, skills, knowledge, technology, work activities and more. There is far more content for each job than you would ever include on a resume, but it should help you to move past your writer’s block and start to identify skills, activities and experiences that you want to highlight, in your own words, and will give you ideas about how you might translate your academic experiences for a wider audience.

Write with the reader in mind

In our academic fields we often write in jargon or use acronyms that only others in our discipline would know. That isn’t good communication. With the resume, we want to ensure that the reader understands what we’re telling them and why. We use a framework abbreviated as CAR (context, action, result) for writing bullet points. You start by giving the reader the minimal amount of context that they need to be able to follow along with what you’re telling them. Then you will have multiple bullet points detailing your actions, and perhaps one or two bullet points focusing in on your accomplishments. Publications, conferences, grants and awards, for example, all count as accomplishments. It also counts if you’ve made contributions to ongoing research or larger projects without clear outcomes. You just need to tell the reader how you have made a difference.

Whatever examples you select, remember to reflect what the employer is looking for in their new hire, and to use the same language and phrasing as the job posting. Need help clarifying the employer’s interests? Copy and paste the job posting into a word cloud generator for a visual cue.

Organize your resume for readability

Reverse chronological order is the best format for your resume. Thinking back to our movie trailer analogy, you want the reader to be intrigued, not confused or annoyed. Reverse chronological order helps the reader understand your career story in a logical order and allows them to see how and where you have developed your skills.

You’ll also want to use section headings wisely. Generally, you will have sections that include Work Experience/Professional Experience, Education/Education and Training, but those are just the start of how you might organize your resume. Consider some of these sections:

  • Research: Applying for research positions? Use this section to highlight the different research projects in your portfolio past and present. Remember to focus on the elements that are relevant to the reader (research topic, methodology, etc.) and use CAR to frame your content.
  • Projects: Applying for positions in consulting or project management? Use this section to focus on the management, leadership and collaboration aspects of the projects in your portfolio.
  • Teaching/Pedagogy: Applying to education-related or teaching roles? You might want to pull out your experiences from the classroom, instructional design projects or other related roles.
  • Summary/Highlights of Qualifications: Write this section last and put it first on your resume after your contact information. The summary or highlights section allows you to tie together elements from different sections, to show change over time and to briefly tell the reader your career story. This is an essential section, especially if you are trying to rebrand yourself from academic to something that doesn’t feel like a logical next step.

You only have two pages for your resume, so if you’re trying to tell different career stories for multidirectional job searching, then you’ll want to have different versions. No matter how many resumes you have, they should all tell some variation of the same career story that makes the reader want to learn more. Good luck and happy writing!

Catherine Maybrey is the owner of CM Coaching Services, and the coordinator of postdoctoral affairs and research training at McMaster University.

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