For years I've maintained—and it's still true—that it's a mistake to get hung up on perfecting your resume or CV. It’s a fact of life that networking at a conference or attending an informational interview isn’t within the comfort zone of many scientists. So when they enter the industrial job market, they find it easy to obsess over fine details of their marketing documents: formatting, deciding what tense to use, and other such details.
I know it sounds old-fashioned in an age when you can connect in so many ways with the outside world via your keyboard—e-mail, chat, Skype, social media—but I still believe that most of the time you spend perched before a glowing monitor, alone in a darkened room, is wasted. Get out of that dark room and go shake some hands.
Your goal should be to produce a document that demonstrates knowledge, experience, and good judgment.
The resume vs. the industry CV
It's important to interject, at the outset, that when I write "resume" what I really mean—because we're dealing with scientists and science jobs in industry—is what I call an industry CV. I used the term "resume" in the title because it's familiar to private-sector job seekers, and because many companies confuse the issue by writing “Send Resume” in their ads even when they are not looking for a one- or two-page short-form document. (There are times when a one- or two-page resume is appropriate even for scientists, such as when they're seeking nonscientific positions—in sales, marketing, business development, or even technical support or medical communications.)
Want more of the best advice on seeking a science-related job in industry? You'll find much more from Tooling Up columnist Dave Jensen on his index page.
As I've written before, the industry CV is a sort of a resume/CV hybrid. It’s much more compact than an academic CV (which tends to list everything you've ever done related to your science and career) but more thorough than a resume (which is extremely short and designed to catch people's attention). Opinions vary—there are no fixed rules about these things—but I believe this document should be three to four pages long and should list the most important facts about your scientific education and experience and the highlights of your career (including, for example, three to six representative scientific publications).
Very good beats perfect
Your industry CV should avoid putting off the people who are reviewing it. Your goal with this document is to get past the initial review and pique the interest of a hiring manager. So be sure to proofread it carefully and banish all misspelled words, subject-verb disagreements, and other obvious flaws.
But you’ll never have the perfect document! A very good industry CV is better than a perfect one because it gets you out networking and seeking job leads within a few days. Striving for perfection? CV preparation isn't the best outlet for your OCD.
Still, you probably want to do better than just OK. Your goal should be to produce a document that demonstrates knowledge, experience, and good judgment. Just like the choices you make about what to wear to your interview, the choices you make in putting together your industry CV (or resume) communicate a lot about what kind of person you are.
Building a wise resume
I'm advocating what one poster on the Science Careers Forum called a "wise resume." As a hiring manager studies your resume, you want thoughts like this to go through her (or his) mind: "Here is someone who knows his way around. He knows what we need and he's prepared to give it to us."
It doesn't take much time to prepare a wise CV—assuming you have the wisdom. The problem is that wisdom takes a lifetime to achieve; that, anyway, is the cliché. Fortunately, you can compensate for the lack of experience—partly—with good judgment and attention to detail.
In case it isn't obvious: A wise CV displays insight into a particular position and the needs of the employer, and every position (and every employer) is unique. So, every industry CV you send out should also be unique.
I can't teach you a recruiting lifetime's worth of resume wisdom, but I can give you an idea of what your objective should be once you've decided to go beyond—hopefully not too far beyond—"good enough." Here's what a wise industry CV is all about:
• A wise industry CV shows insight into what a particular employer is looking for. Old-school resume advice tells you to start with an “Objective” statement. Wrong! Wise documents use a succinct “Qualified By” or “Summary” statement that focuses on your fit for the position instead of rambling on about your career goals. This is the section you customize the most for each targeted position.
• Your good judgment should be visible. Should you lead with education or your employment history? Most Science Careers readers, who are near the beginning of their scientific careers, will lead with education—but not always. If you're a microbiologist applying for a cell-culture position, for example, and your primary training is in another field, you'll want to lead with experience. Make the right decision.
• A wise CV anticipates the needs of the reader. For example, never make a hiring manager scramble for your phone number or e-mail address. They should be highly visible and in a plain, readable font at the top of your document. Put all your contact info there, including your home address, home and business phone numbers (unless you don't want to be contacted at work), and cell phone number.
• Focus on aspects of your work experience or education that are most valuable for the open position. If you understand the opportunity—what you'll be doing and what the company needs from you—then you can accurately highlight the aspects of your training and experience that are most relevant to the employer's needs.
• Understand the concept of resume “real estate.” The first page—and especially the first half of the first page—is expensive, prime territory. Keep this in mind when deciding what to put where.
• Focus on the "soft skills" that are critical for the position, as well as your technical fit. Again, this requires insight into what it would take to be successful in the job. Don't know? Ask questions. Perhaps you have a contact at the company, or mentors, advisers, and networking contacts you can query. You can even try posting your question on our Science Careers Forum. Once you've got a fix on the “soft skills” required for the job, highlight that relevant experience on your industry CV.
Make it easy for the hiring manager
In every aspect of the job search, the key is to demonstrate that you're a good fit for those job leads you turn up. (I'm assuming that you are a good fit; if you're not, you’re wasting your time by faking it.)
People early in their careers probably will need to do some research, because they don't have a lifetime of experience to draw on. Once you've understood what the job requires—beyond what's obvious from the job description—shape your industry CV accordingly. If you do this well, the hiring manager will find what she needs while also noticing that you've done an artful job of making her job easier. That's one mark of an outstanding employee.