The Post-Ac’s Guide to the Resume

by TPII Post-ac Coach Darcy Hannibal

Dr. Darcy Hannibal

Dr. Darcy Hannibal


Many job applicants make common and nearly universal mistakes in their resumes, but some are more specific to people with PhDs. I also made many of these same mistakes until I became a supervisor and realized just how tiresome it is to sift through a stack of resumes that bury what you need to know in way too much detail and overdone formatting. Even though it is part of a supervisor’s job to review resumes, it is one small job duty among many others that are more critical and more demanding. Supervisors aren’t going to spend extra time on your resume if yours takes more effort to read than most of the rest. If you want the job, make your future supervisor’s job easier—give them a resume that shows in simple and clear language what you can do for them.

Pass the <10 Second Scan Test

Professional recruiters only spend a mean of 6 seconds scanning each resume. The first goal with your resume is to pass the scan test that decides whether to put you in a “no” or “consider” pile. That first round of elimination will be done by a computer or an actual human (possibly HR staff, the actual hiring supervisor, or one of your potential future co-workers delegated the task of culling applications). The more applicants there are, the more crude and error prone that first round of elimination. If your value as a potential employee is buried in a bunch of irrelevant text, you increase your chances of elimination because your job materials won’t be read closely enough to uncover it.  If you use the same terminology from the job ad to describe your skills, experience, and accomplishments you have a better chance of passing that first cursory scan. If you make it into the consider pile, your application will get more attention later to determine interview selections.

Large employers have online application submission systems. The best way to deal with these is to go around them and deal directly with the hiring supervisor (more on this in my next few blog posts). Some hiring supervisors are required by policy to hire from the pool of applicants that submitted to the online system. If this is the case, then you should both contact the supervisor directly to find out more about the job and submit to the online system.

Organizations that routinely receive hundreds of applications for some positions may have a uniform policy to use “applicant tracking system” (ATS) software to sort through applicants. This can be as minimal as a source to view and download applications or as substantial as parsing your information into a database and summarizing it into a report with a score for how well your resume matches the job description (for more on this read: 5 Insider Secrets for Beating Applicant Tracking Systems and How to Get the Applicant Tracking System to Pick Your Resume). If your resume is formatted in an unusual way, it may cause reads errors for the ATS and your application will likely just get rejected. Don’t give it a reason to cull your application!

Formatting Basics

No special paper, fonts, tables, or graphics (including watermarks). Attempts to grab attention don’t make anyone look special or stand out (in a good way), ever, only desperate to be special. These sort of tactics are typically employed by those with few or no relevant skills and experience—this is not the group you want to be associated with. You don’t need to grab attention—you are going to apply to jobs and write cover letters and resumes that deserve attention because they have substance.

1 to 2 pages long with breaks between short paragraphs. If the applicant pool is relatively small, the hiring supervisor will likely review about 10-15 applicants. If each applicant has a 1 page resume and a 1 page cover letter, that is 20-30 pages of text to read through and assess. Each page of your application is precious real estate. Shorter is better as long as you’ve covered all elements. Never submit your full and lengthy master resume, thoroughly describing all of your work experience, for any job application. You will edit down a specific version of each job application highlighting your duties, skills, and accomplishments that are most relevant to the job description, with little to no additional information.

Standard 1 inch margins and standard 12pt font. Use a simple, standard and readable font type (such as Calibri, Arial, Georgia, Garamond, or even plain old Times New Roman). What matters is that it is easy to read and not annoying (like Gothic or Script type fonts, seriously).

The Necessary Elements

Name and contact information. List simply and on separate lines: your name, email, phone number and LinkedIn profile address. No fancy bullets or graphics (even simple lines) to separate them. This will mess with the ATS and is visually distracting. Keep it simple!

Work experience. For each item list employer or organization, your title, and dates. Or your title, then employer, then dates. Just don’t put dates first—it will throw-off an ATS that parses resumes. 1-2 sentences that describe the position, followed by bullet points describing your most relevant skills and accomplishments in terms used in the job description.

Don’t try to make your resume more interesting by using similar, but slightly different words. The people reviewing your resume have the words from the job description in mind when scanning your resume, so use those.

Phrase your skills as fact, not opinion. Anyone can say “Excels at data analyses,” however, “Performed multilevel GLM analyses in Stata and SAS for multiple projects” tells the prospective supervisor something specific about your experience.

Work experience doesn’t have to be in chronological order—you can list these in order of relevance for the job you are applying to. Have little to no detail for jobs that are less relevant.

Include your dissertation research! This is where you honed your most important professional skill—managing all aspects of a major project. Your title will be something like “Doctoral Candidate,” “Research Fellow,”  or “Visiting Scholar,” depending on whether you were funded, at a field site or research center, etc. Include any experiences that built the skills you have for the jobs you want and put a title on it. The key is nothing with “student” in it.

Education. Yes, this goes after work experience and not before it. It probably seems most important to you if you’ve recently been steeped in earning it, but your work experience matters more. Also, only use the header “Education” so the ATS can recognize it. List the most recent degree first, with: degree type, department or program, locations, and date received. Nothing more. No details on your coursework, thesis, dissertation, etc.

The Optional Elements

Skills. If you include a section that lists skill separately, do not put it at the top and only use it to summarize skills that are evident in your work experience. This should go at the bottom. Too often applicants use this as a way to stuff in a bunch of keywords that appear in the job description, but not in their work experience, in an effort to get an interview. For this reason, a skills section at the top is a red flag that the applicant may not be qualified—again, not the group you want to be associated with.

Professional associations, certifications, and other credentials. If these are relevant to the job you are applying to, then include them after education. Otherwise, omit them.

The Elements to Exclude

References. No one should call your references until after interviews are completed and they’ve at least narrowed it down to a few equally good candidates. Unfortunately, not all employers follow the rules on references. If you are doing a stealth job search and don’t want your references to know you are on the job market, it is critical you avoid giving them out early. If you have to (some online submissions require it) leave out anyone who you are not ready for them to contact. If you get an interview, you can provide an updated reference list at the appropriate time.

Career goal statement. This is unnecessary and does nothing to showcase your skills and accomplishments. Your immediate goal is obvious—a new job, preferably this one. Don’t waste your precious resume real estate on this.

Applicant summary/profile statement. Again, this does nothing to showcase your skills and accomplishments and wastes precious resume real estate. However, you should absolutely have this on your LinkedIn profile and that is why you will include a link to it at the top of your resume.

About Karen

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.


The Post-Ac’s Guide to the Resume — 8 Comments

  1. For freshly minted PhDs, what’s better: not having any work experience section, or listing their PhD position under “Work” instead of education? Bot versions seem non-ideal.
    Is this a gray area or clear cut?

    • Hello John,
      You will do both. It’s best to have any experience that showcases the skills and talents you have described under “work experience.” For work you did as a PhD student, give it a title, like “Doctor Candidate.” IF you also taught courses, list that separately under “Teaching Assistant” or “Sole Instructor.” Then under education, list your degree.
      I hope that helps!

    • On top of what Darcy said, you may also consider labeling your “work history” as “relevant experience.” This approach allows you to include long-term projects or volunteer experience in a position-relevant way. I work in an office that often recommends it for upper-level undergraduates who have relevant experience by dint of year-long capstone research, semester-long group projects, and technical expertise as the result of their coursework.

      Full disclosure: I do not know how such a heading title might affect ATS.

      • Hi Brittany,
        Excellent point, but it can trip up the ATS. It is probably better just to leave it under the same heading of “work experience”, but list the job title as some version of “volunteer intern,” “capstone student researcher,” or “project contributor.” It also shows that the student views their coursework as a serious professional experience.

    • John,
      The biggest problem most students (including new PhDs) have is that they focus on themselves. There are two major problems with this approach. The first problem is that your resume won’t make it past applicant tracking systems (I appreciate the author’s mention of this). Of 1234 resumes, most HR personnel will only see 20-50 of them. The second problem is that HR managers don’t understand how your shiny new PhD is going to help the organization any more than someone with 5-10 years of experience and a bachelor’s degree will. And while the author of this article mentions you can highlight your use of multi-level modeling GLM using STATA on your resume, I can teach an undergrad with limited background in statistics that in about three hours – I have, in less time. Most employers go in with the idea that they can teach the skills necessary for the job.

      Employers care about how your experiences translate to outcomes. So, if you can link your use of blah in blah using blah to $$$, employers will care. If not, join the ranks of the X,XXX,XXX of people who know how to use [insert software program here] to do blah that the company probably doesn’t even use anyway or find umpteen other people who can do the same dern thing.

      If an organization is going to hire you, it is “worried” about what you’re going to do for it, not how many degrees you can hang on your office wall. In summary, focus on what you bring to the company, not your skill in underwater basket-weaving.

  2. Pingback: The Post-Ac’s Guide to the Cover Letter | The Professor Is In

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