Resume Writing: Creating a Cohesive Story, Part I – Postac Post

Today’s post is by our marvelous and insightful postac coach, Dr. Maggie Gover. You can schedule a consult with her. Learn more about that here.

Dr. Maggie Gover’s career is dedicated to helping students successfully complete their graduate degrees and then transition into successful professional lives.  As such, she has quite a bit of experience helping students identify industries in which they may be successful and describing their graduate careers in ways that might be attractive to those industries.  While she is most knowledgeable in alternative academic jobs, she has helped students transition into private industry, government, and non-profit jobs as well.  Maggie’s service to students began when she was an undergraduate at the University of Southern California where she served as an intern in the Office of Admissions.  While she was completing her Master’s degree at the University of Oxford she served as a Junior Dean at St. Hilda’s College.  When she was a PhD candidate at UC Riverside she was the Coordinator for Academic Preparation and Outreach and then the Graduate Student Mentorship Program Coordinator, and later the Director of Graduate Student Professional and Academic Development. While she is now primarily an administrator, she is still researching and publishing in theories of new media and 19th C visual sciences.Maggie’s Consulting Philosophy: I am a strong supporter of graduate education and think that society benefits from having those incredibly creative and analytic minds in diverse industries.  I want to help students find careers that are satisfying to them and in which they will excel.  Remember that no career search is easy!  It will take hard work, knowledge, dedication, and perseverance.  However, the great joy of working with graduate students is that they have dedication and perseverance in spades!  You bring that to the table, and I can help with the knowledge.


Right now, you can probably look back on your life and outline every decision, every event, every experience that has brought you to this point. If someone were to ask you what led you to where you are, you could probably tell a very good story where these events line up neatly in a linear continuum. The narrative of your experience would be cohesive. 

This is exactly what a resume should do.

However, I often have clients who worry that their resume is too “all over the place.” They worry that they have widely varying experiences and that therefore their resume does not reflect a cohesive narrative. This is very common in those transitioning careers. I think that those leaving academia have a particularly difficult time with creating a narrative in the resume because we have been trained to create a curriculum vitae, a literal list of the life, which includes every possible academic experience. The relevant parts of the CV are so ingrained in us after so many years in academia that the curation of the document is largely invisible to us. Putting together a resume that tells a cohesive story is a new skill for many of us, but it is important to remember that it is no less a learned skill than writing a CV. If you learned one, you can easily learn the other. 

So, how do you get all of your unruly professional experiences to behave themselves and act like a cohesive narrative in a short resume? The trick is to project. Pretend that you have the job for which you are applying and look back at the experiences that have gotten you to that point. Then describe only, or mostly, the parts of the work that are relevant to the trajectory of your career that led you to this particular position. 

So, for example, you might be applying for a project manager position. You may have many different experiences in your past, but you will select those that helped you develop or demonstrate the skills that you will need in the position of project manager. Then, most of your description about those experiences will speak explicitly about those skills. 

Whenever you are leaving off some of your work or professional experiences, use a heading for that section that signals that. The go-to section headings are often “Relevant Experience” or “Selected Experience.” I like to give a better clue to the employer about why I selected the experiences for the section. So, I might use something more descriptive, such as “Program Development Experience” or “Client Management Experience.”

For the most part, in each of the relevant experience sections of your resume, you will only list the positions that are directly relevant to the career trajectory you are describing. There are two exceptions. First, you will want your resume to have a current (or most recent) position listed first, even if it is not directly related to the position to which you are applying. I think it is really important to find the ways that your current/most recent position relates to the posting and describe it as best you can in those terms. It is ok if that position is the shortest description on the page. The idea is just to show that you are, or very recently were, working. Second, if the job you held implies work that is not directly relevant to the position, sum that up in the shortest description possible. For example, if you were the lead teaching assistant and you are applying for a supervisor of teachers, you might highlight more of the supervisory duties of that position but you will want to include one sentence or bullet point that says something like, “taught three discussion sections of…”

Much of the experience you relate on your resume will be found in the “service” sections of your CV. Service to the profession or university often offers the skill development that positions outside of academia will seek. For example, committee work often involves policy analysis, collaboration, or fundraising that might not be present in your research or teaching life. Similarly, conference and symposia organizing might require supervision, budgetary oversight, and logistical planning. 

My clients are often hesitant to put those “service” experiences into their resume because they are not the jobs for which they were paid. However, I think that all of those service positions are integral in the professional experience of being an academic at any level. So, don’t be afraid to highlight those unpaid service positions that show where you developed the skills the potential employer is seeking. 

You are probably guessing that the way you will describe your different positions will vary for each different kind of position to which you are applying. You probably cannot start with one resume for all types of positions, but you also don’t need to start from scratch every time you write a resume. Stay tuned for my advice about creating a base resume by defining your job search. 

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