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CVs for Postdocs Leaving Academia


Dear CareerDoctor,

I've been postdocing for about 3 years now and have decided to go for something "completely different"--environmental consultancy. My area of research is environmentally relevant, but I can't pretend it is anything other than very academic.This leads to my query: How do I present my academic experience and background in a way which won't turn employers off? I've found lots of example CVs on the Web, but none that shows how to promote postdocing to the "outside world". Do you know of any?I'm also afraid that no matter how I present myself, I'll be labelled as a "boffin"--even my own family refer to me as this (much to my irritation!) so what perceptions (misconceptions) am I likely to face?

Yours, in hope


Dear Sam

As a former postdoc myself, I can still remember the fear of never shaking off the academic label and the frustration of finding umpteen example CVs talking about skills and experiences that seemed alien to me. After a mind-boggling hunt which seemed to take me to every career-related site on the planet, I came to the conclusion that there wasn't anything that would demonstrate how transferable postdoctoral experience can be to new fields, so I eventually wrote my CV from scratch!

I am going to start this column by referring you to a nonacademic CV I have recently published on my own Web site for careers advice and professional development. I composed this CV to suit a business development role, a kind of general management function overseeing different projects, probably within a small to medium-sized scientific or technical company. I'm not presenting this fictitious CV as a template you should follow, simply as an example of how using words and phrases specific to the sector you want to break into can draw out the relevance of research activities.

OK, so now that you've had a look, I am going to go through the different steps with you so that you can write your own CV.

The first thing you've really got to do is identify all the expertise and skills you have developed up till now, especially those which are generic or transferable to your area of interest. It sounds obvious but it may be trickier than you think! To inspire me I visited a couple of the postdoc career development sites that have sprung up in the last few years. The Research Career Builder includes a description of the research cycle which illustrates that academic research isn't navel gazing done in ivory tower isolation! Hosted on the University of leeds site is the Contract Researchers Guide to Employability Skills, which highlighted many of the skills involved in postdocing.

As I've hinted above, finding the right language is going to be your biggest challenge. To help me develop the appropriate nonacademic vocabulary and style, I looked at the Career Development Planner and a management skills assessment tool on the marvellously named Business Balls Web site. But had I been applying for a real job, I'd have based my CV on the employers' requirements as I've recommended in a previous column.

Always bear in mind that your CV is not simply a list of your achievements and qualifications. As you've realised, it also needs to convey more subtle messages and address any misconceptions commercial employers have about academics. Being called a "boffin" is the tip of the iceberg. Despite the fact that academia is commercially sensitive, competitive, accountable, and customer-focused, even your own Mum probably thinks you spend all day looking out of windows pondering the mysteries of life. I've found a list of stereotypes of humanities PhDs and advice on how to combat them, which are largely applicable to scientific postdocs as well. Although a few years old now, the report on Employers' Attitudes & Recruitment Practices also contains advice for postdocs willing to apply their expertise in new areas. Make sure, however, that you research your own sector carefully as the advice from different employers is often contradictory.

My next step was to look at examples of CVs for tips on the layout. Unlike you (assuming you aren't some sort of stalker--don't put that in your list of interests if you are!), I have a drawer full of CVs I've managed to persuade people to part with, cut out of career magazines, or found on the Web. Looking through these examples really brought home how quickly CVs date. Word processing programmes get more sophisticated all the time, which means you can achieve a very professional result. Invest some time in playing around with formats, fonts, and design, as visual impact is essential to stand out from other CVs.

Looking at these CVs also gave me a list of things to avoid--career objective statements, photographs, research abstracts, lists of incredibly specialised publications, and the title "work experience" which invariably reminds me of bar work or paper rounds. My reservations towards objective statements or personal profiles are personal, but I seem to read variations of "highly motivated individual seeking to apply a broad range of skills in a challenging environment" or something equally trite in about 75% of the CVs I critique. Having said that, if you can think of a really striking statement that creates an impression of something special, I concede that they can be compelling.

Now have a look again at the CV I wrote and see if you would be convinced if you were a prospective employer. I've emphasised project management, ability to communicate complex ideas, problem solving, and strategic thinking as relevant to a business development role. I've tried to be careful in my use of language to give weight to my current role without implying too strongly that I'm the boss! I've deliberately highlighted commercial skills and made no reference to the details of my research, as it is nearly impossible to describe dielectric spectroscopy without terminology. In your case, your research does have some relevance but you must focus on the elements that are meaningful to the employer in question.

The next stage of the CV life cycle is to get some feedback. I've shown it to a chemistry lecturer, an experienced postdoc, and one postdoc who is now a freelance science communicator. Their comments included suggestions to make the research achievements more tangible (perhaps by listing sample publications or presentations) and make it clear that my research career has been a success, so there's no implication that I'm leaving because of failure. These comments were incredibly helpful and I've changed the CV quite substantially as a result.

If I were you, I'd also go to my Careers Service, either virtually or in person. The Careers and Employability Service at the University of Nottingham for example has developed an excellent set of pages which include a complete career development strategy for postdocs. You'll also find an example CV for leaving academia which I wish I'd found myself before deciding to write my own version! This is even better for you as you may find the variety of styles between those two CVs helpful. Most other university services now offer guidance and workshops to postdocs, so take advantage of this and get as much feedback on your CV as you can. However, you should always bear in mind that, although any CV can always be improved, it is your personal marketing document, so don't incorporate any feedback you disagree with.

Finally, as well as the Web sites I've mentioned and other articles on Next Wave, I've also found a couple of books very helpful. Moving On in Your Career--A guide for academic researchers and postgraduates, Lynda Ali & Barbara Graham, Routledgefalmer, (ISBN 0-415-17870-3) which contains one of the best examples of a nonacademic CV I've seen, and University Researchers and the Job Market for yet more examples and advice.

Having been through the pain of CV writing myself for the last few days, I wish you a smooth transition and hope that your institution will support you in selling the many skills you have developed as a researcher in a convincing way.

All the best in your career,

The CareerDoctor

Any PhD students with an interest in the environment sector reading this should look into attending the Environmental Sector GRADschool taking place in April in Lancaster. Sadly it doesn't appear to be open to postdocs, but it may be worth contacting the organisers to make sure.

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