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Résumé Rocket Science 2007

Lots of articles and books have been written about résumés and CVs, including previous pieces on Science Careers (see the further reading section below). I generally avoid this topic; in fact, I haven’t given a single “CV workshop” in two decades of presentations about science-career issues.

Why? It is often a no-man’s-land of bad career advice, with no agreement on anything and books full of information that doesn’t work for scientists.

Should it be a 1-page résumé or a multipage CV for that industry job application? One adviser tells you that only 1- or 2-page résumés work for company managers, whereas another tells you that you will do best to simply modify your academic CV by adding an “Objective Statement” to the top. In each and every “Q,” you will find “As” that fall into a dozen different camps, editorializing on their preferences and how they would structure it if it were their document. Someone who cares about writing the perfect CV or résumé will find enough discrepancy to keep the résumé project going for months. Therein lies the problem: There's no such thing as the perfect CV.

So, given my reticence about pursuing this topic, why have I decided to take it on now? I couldn’t stay away when I saw the passion in the responses to a recent thread on the AAAS Science Careers Forum that takes on this subject. Besides, I have more than two decades worth of experience in looking at what most people agree is the right document, the industry CV. Let’s dissect one!

Should you care about writing the perfect résumé or CV?

More Information from Our Sources

For more CV-related pearls, check out this addendum.

I may sound unorthodox when I say that you really don’t need to be all that concerned about writing the perfect CV or résumé. If you are interested in an industry job, you want your CV to open doors as it gets routed from person to person inside an organization. But you also want it to represent you accurately when you make a good networking connection.

Industry managers are used to looking at documents that aren’t perfect. I’ll take a good résumé or CV over a perfect one any day of the week because the good one can be done in a short time, allowing plenty of time for networking--indisputably the single most important step in a job search--whereas writing the perfect document could take you ( and your CV or résumé) out of circulation for months.

This month’s column uses advice gleaned through dozens of interviews conducted in January 2007 with hiring managers, human resources executives, recruiters, and consultants working in many different science-related niches. As expected, I came across differing opinions--some of my sources contradict each other--but enough common threads emerged to give the reader plenty of confidence that the CV or résumé will do its job and not embarrass you. And that's exactly what you want it to do.

CV or résumé? The first big area of confusion

Don’t get befuddled by the “résumé vs. CV” question. A résumé is just a really short CV, with a lot more self-promotion than a CV would dare include. It’s something you would use if you were looking for a sales job. A CEO might use a one-pager when looking for her own job. It’s more like a really big business card, with just enough sentences about the last great accomplishment to hook the reader.

If you are a scientist looking to get your first job in industry, you should generally send what we’ll refer to from this point on as an “industry CV.” This document has elements of both a résumé and a CV. It needs to attract interest and accurately describe what you can do for the employer. But it's not the same thing as an academic CV, which is an exhaustive, nonselective rehashing of everything you've every done in your life--every publication, every presentation, every time you ever went to the bathroom. Okay, just kidding on that last point.

Cantankerous issues--and some areas of agreement

The biggest area of differing opinion seems to lie in the recommended length for an industry CV. Academic CV’s can run 10 pages or more for a scientist with a decade of experience. Although everyone I interviewed agreed that this academic length would be inappropriate for industry, hiring managers have varying opinions about how much they want to see from their applicants:

  • “I’d recommend no more than two pages,” said Ken Kodilla, VP of Manufacturing at Neogen Corporation (Lansing, Michigan), “but more importantly, I think that formatting issues are critical.”
  • “Two or three pages would be OK, just don’t send me a too-long academic version. If you have 10 or 12 published papers, just list the three or four most important ones,” says Dr. Burt Ensley, an entrepreneur and angel investor who has launched several companies, and who earned his stripes at Amgen.
  • “I like to see three or four pages of information that is relevant to the job at hand, plus an appended publications list,” said one Director of Research at a large pharmaceutical company who wished to remain anonymous. “It’s not all that different from an academic CV, but please don’t forget the personal contact information at the top--home address, phone, and even cell phone.”

My own recommendation has always been to write this document as succinctly as possible. The average length for an industry CV for someone coming out of a postdoc and going into industry is three or four pages, including publications, and I don’t think any of my contacts, even those above, would have issues with a well-written and nicely formatted three-pager that includes publications.

Modifying your academic CV to work as an industry CV

Some experts recommend trashing your academic CV and starting fresh with a few new ideas of how to present themselves. Others say that you can simply update and improve it, focusing on the following categories:

Contact information: As mentioned above, make it clear how to connect with you in your personal time. “Put it in bold text. H/R tells us that we can’t contact you at your place of work, so you will need to have home address and phone there for this purpose,” said one of my anonymous pharma contacts.

Summary: I found considerable resistance to leading off the CV with a statement of your career objectives. This really took me by surprise. That brief paragraph below the contact information is very commonplace ( i.e., “Seeking a responsible position in an industry lab doing cancer research.”) But I found that most hiring managers believe that a “summary” statement is preferable.

“I like to see résumés that start off with a summary of what they bring to the table,” said Donna Dimke, Senior Director of Human Resources at Human Genome Sciences (Rockville, Maryland). Pat Abbott, principal consultant at Venture Forward Partners, a Boston biotech consulting firm, agrees with Donna. “Get a summary statement up front, to describe your area of specialty and a few of your qualifications, and then fill out the detail in the work experience paragraphs below.”

Education: Jim Calvin, VP at On Assignment/Lab Support (Princeton, New Jersey), says “Make sure your educational information is easily decipherable and that it can be gleaned within the first few seconds of viewing the résumé, which means up front instead of after the Experience section. Also, it helps to have the Ph.D. following your name at the top--you've earned it.” There was wide agreement on this one.

Professional experience: Universally, hiring managers and human resources people want to see your work experience listed in reverse chronological order. Never, ever get into those alternative layouts you see written about in books for the lay public. “I sometimes see all these great things that someone has accomplished, but without the specific detail of where and when they have done those things,” said Don Bergmann, Sr. VP at Tengion Inc. in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. Bergmann is referring to the “functional style” résumé so often described in résumé books. It is clear from everyone I spoke with, and from my own experience, that you veer from this reverse chronological order only at your own peril.

Publications: Here's another area where you’ll find a great variety of opinion. Industry managers, in general, are far less concerned about seeing every one of your publications than the academic hiring committee you were trying to impress when you put together your academic CV. I agree with Burt Ensley, who said that only your most important publications need be present. The goal is to conserve space and keep it short and readable. You can always add, “Full publications list sent upon request.”

David Bomzer, a former Science Careers columnist and a senior H/R professional, reminded me that an industry CV “doesn't focus exclusively on technical knowledge. Your technical knowledge, education, thesis topic, and publications [sections are] usually just the price of entry for being considered.” In an industry CV, Bomzer says, there’s a subtle point-of-view difference. More on Bomzer's point in this article's closing section.

Skills and techniques: Many people include an area like this on their industry CV, and there is nothing wrong with it unless you go overboard. “Sure, I want to know what skills you have, but I want an honest assessment. If I see that you are ‘skilled’ in fifty different techniques, I know with some degree of certainty that you are being a bit lenient with the word ‘skilled.’ If you can do a technique right now without any help, then you are skilled in it,” said frequent forum contributor Ken Flanagan of Genentech about this topic area. Most of my hiring-manager friends like to see skills in evidence on the CV, but they caution me that it can paint you into a box, so you should adapt your skills and techniques section to the job you are applying to. Better yet, incorporate this skills information into the brief descriptions you give of the work involved in each job listing.

Bomzer's 'subtle point-of-view' shift gives your document more punch

Earlier in this piece, I described a résumé as having a great deal more self-promotion in it than a CV. The same is true of the industry CV, which aims to grab a bit of that promotion and focus it on the employer’s needs. You certainly don’t want to put out a CV that makes you look like a sales rep candidate (unless that's the kind of job you are applying for!), but you must consider the document you've prepared from the viewpoint of the reader. The industry CV needs to answer--or allow the person reading it to answer for him or herself, questions like these: What can this person do to help us solve the problems we are facing? Will this person bring a set of skills and abilities that mesh with what we have now?

In closing, let me pass along the advice of an industry hiring manager, friend, and adviser:

A mediocre CV (stylistically, not with respect to your actual expertise and accomplishments) and a lot of networking is guaranteed to get you a job. A stunning CV and no networking is equivalent to playing lotto. –Kevin Foley, Ph.D.

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