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A Resume Makeover

A few weeks back my friend Bob approached me for help with his resume. ("Bob" is a real person, even though the name and details have been changed.) He is in his last few months of grad school and is frantically trying to figure out what his next step will be -- in addition to finishing and defending his thesis. He's a little strung out these days!

Bob had a less than perfect grad school experience, and for various reasons is interested in pursuing a nonresearch career path. He spent a good bit of time thinking about the things in grad school that he liked the most. He finally decided that it was the teaching, and not the research, that turned him on most. Bob loves interacting with students -- and he had a great experience as a teaching assistant. He also had some positive experiences interacting with high school students. Bob also liked the field work part of his Ph.D. thesis: the field trips to remote places and the back-country experience.

But he was at a loss to find a career that combined all these things. Then, three weeks ago, he told me his luck changed. Posted in the department office was the following job ad:

NGCD-654#1 Assistant Curator, National Museum of Natural History, Mobile, Alabama

Salary Range: $28,500-$35,000 commensurate with experience.

Job Description: Manage a 3400-piece collection of fossil materials. Collect, identify, and accession new specimens, research provenance of materials. Manage collections with RocksCIS database and associated software. With others, write instructional materials and design diagrams for display. Must be able to lift 30 lbs and conduct fieldwork. Additional responsibilities include initiating and assisting in research, assisting in updating computer systems, leading public tours, and training docents and volunteers. A MS in Geology with an emphasis on paleontology is required.

Applications must be received by September 1, 1998

As Bob read the job ad his heart beat faster and faster. The job description seemed perfect. It had just the right combination of research, teaching, and working with the public. But as he read the ad a second time, he realized that there were some gaps between his experience and the job requirements. For one thing, Bob was getting his Ph.D., but the job clearly stated that an MS was required. And, while Bob had done a good bit of course work in paleontology, his thesis was more focused on biogeochemistry, which wasn't exactly a perfect match.

Bob then did something smart that few young scientific job seekers seem to do: He called the museum that had placed the ad. After a few calls he managed to track down the senior curator who was filling the position. Bob explained his great interest in the job and asked whether a Ph.D. candidate would be considered.

"All the better!" responded the jovial voice on the other end of the line, "we may even be able to offer a higher salary to a Ph.D. such as yourself."

Bob sat down to complete his application. He started with the curriculum vitae he had prepared earlier, but as he read though the document he realized that it was entirely oriented toward academia and research. As he read the job ad again and again, he realized that there were parts of his grad school experience relevant to the job that were not included in his CV. It turns out that as part of his thesis research, he had to build and maintain a relatively large collection of research specimens that he, his adviser, and the three other grad students in the group had all used. He also wanted to add more details about his teaching experience.

After he beat on the document for a week, we met.

"Here it is!" Bob announced triumphantly when we met to look over his application.

Bob's Resume, Before

Click on the thumbnail of each page to see the full view.

"It's kinda long," he added, as I looked through the document. Long indeed! It was four pages. Way too long for a resume, and even too detailed for a CV. When he saw the frown on my face he explained that he just couldn't see where to cut -- it all seemed important.

Bob's CV did contain a lot of relevant stuff. In addition to laying out his thesis work in gory detail, Bob tried to organize his experience in terms of "field experience" and "collections management experience" in order to better match the requirements of the job. This was a good first start, but the document had to be drastically shortened.

Steps to Improving Your Resume

Step 1: Read the Job Ad!

  • Bob and I went through the job ad carefully. We made a list of the various skills that were required in the order in which they were listed:
  • manage a museum collection
  • identify materials
  • write instructional materials
  • design graphics
  • conduct field work
  • carry out research
  • operate computers
  • interact with the public

I then made Bob remove everything from his CV that did not directly demonstrate his ability to do this list of skills.

Bob's Resume, Marked Up

Click on the thumbnail of each page to see the full view.

A lot of the detail Bob provided in his CV was simply not relevant to the job he was applying to. His descriptions of his lab work, for example, were irrelevant for a job in a museum.

Step 2: Read the Job Ad Again!!!

Next we read the job description again. I asked Bob to list what he thought were the three most important skills needed for the job, based on his reading of the job ad and his discussion with the curator. He wrote:

  • manage a museum collection with computers
  • write instructional materials
  • interact with the public

Step 3: Organize Your Experience in a Clear Structure That Matches the Priority Skills of the Job

We went back to the marked-up CV. Bob had tried to accent his collections management experience and field experience in both his description of his thesis research AND in a separate section called Collections Management. We decided to fold all that stuff into one section that would describe his research and field experience. We also decided to simplify his CV into a resume by creating the following sections:

  • Education
  • Research and Field Experience
  • Teaching Experience
  • Computer Skills
  • Awards and Honors

Step 4. List Publications Separately (if they are required at all) and Make It Easy for Them to Reach Your References

Bob listed his publications and references separately. For this job it is probably an advantage for Bob to show that he has published a few things. More importantly, by listing all the contact information for each reference, Bob has made it easy for someone to contact his references. Bob also contacted his references ahead of time to make sure they were available and willing, which everyone should do ALWAYS!

Step 5: Use Action-Rich Past-Tense Verbs to Describe Your Individual Accomplishments

Bob and I looked at the descriptions he wrote in his CV. In a number of places, Bob described his job duties, rather than describing his accomplishments. One example:

"As TA, I was responsible for ..."

Describing only job duties and not accomplishments is not the way to demonstrate your individual contribution and effectiveness. After all, if you just list your job duties, who's to know whether you actually accomplished them? Some discussion of duties is appropriate but most of one's experience should be put in terms of actual accomplishments.

Bob sat down with my past list of "action-rich past-tense verbs" and recast his grad school experience in terms of these words and specific past accomplishments. Bob also went back and made sure that there were quantitative demonstrations of his efforts: How many rocks in the collection? How many students in the class? These quantified accomplishments make a much stronger impression.

We had finally managed to compact Bob's CV into a single-page resume, and it didn't look too bad. There was only one thing missing ...

Step 6: Include a Well-Crafted Objective Statement

"Why the heck do I need an objective statement?" Bob asked incredulously? "I'm applying for the job -- don't you think they'd know my intentions from that?"

I explained that a strong and specific Objective Statement heading up a resume was not just a widely held practice but that it also made sense.

"Consider things from the employer's perspective," I responded. "Your background is a good match for the job, but you have a Ph.D. and a research orientation in your training. Without clearly stating your intentions and summarizing your qualifications in an objective statement the employer may fail to see the match. They only give an average resume 10 to 20 seconds of consideration. That's not much time for them to decide. So, making a statement up-front about your interest and qualifications can really help cut to the chase."

After much agonizing, Bob came up with the following:

Full-time position in a museum coordinating collections management, geological research, and public education utilizing my outstanding organizational and communication skills, field experience, and enthusiasm for science education.

This objective statement provided both a concise statement of Bob's employment goals and a brief description of his strength in the areas most important for the job.

Finally, Bob's resume was complete.

Bob's Resume, After

Click on the thumbnail of each page to see the full view.

Step 7: Make Your Resume as Clean and Easy to Read as Possible and Check for Typos!

Many people start on their resume by worrying about fonts and spacing. Unless you get the wording down perfectly first, you will only be creating more work for yourself.

Bob and I still debated a few points -- like whether or not he should include his undergraduate thesis title (he thought it would help bolster his case for being knowledgeable in paleontology). But overall, Bob's resume looked professional and well-directed to the job advertised.

He sent it in this week -- and he expects to hear back in a month or so. I will let you all know how things turn out.

Peter Fiske

Peter Fiske is a Ph.D. scientist and co-founder of RAPT Industries, a technology company in Fremont, California. He is the author of Put Your Science to Work and co-author, with Dr. Geoff Davis, of a blog (at on science policy, economics, and educational initiatives that affect science employment. Fiske lives with his wife and two daughters in Oakland, California, and is a frequent lecturer on the subject of career development for scientists.

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