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Regrettable Resumes

CREDIT: Photo by Dan Koestler

A few years ago, the biotech company where I work needed to hire a research associate, and I had the task of reading applications.

When I started, I imagined finding my dream candidate, a brilliant researcher with academic accolades and a scintillating personality who uses his or her spare time to bake large desserts for deserving co-workers. But after an hour of reviewing applications, I began to embrace a lower standard—something like: If your resume is free of grammatical errors and typos, you're hired.

Why would any company, even a spork factory, want to hire someone whose goal in life is to work at a spork factory?

Real human resources (HR) departments must have learned to overlook such things, but I just couldn't. "Really?" I'd scream at my computer screen. "You graduated from 'Rutger’s?’  With an apostrophe? Just what, exactly, did Mr. Rutger possess?"

Resume-writing guides litter the Web, but most are written by HR people, who tend to be good at expressing themselves without cynicism or swearing. Not me. So here's my guide to writing scientific resumes for all the jerk faces who submit incomprehensible trash that only hurts their chances at employment. Enjoy, jerk faces!

Cover letter
I don't know who decided all resumes need a cover letter. Half of the cover letters I've read simply put the resume into paragraph format, and the other half just said, "See attached." To me, the cover letter is like the little sock an umbrella comes in: It makes the umbrella look slightly nicer before you open it, but the umbrella itself is doing the real work. Also, you'll probably lose the umbrella sock at some point, and you'll notice no deleterious effect on your life.

This section blares across the top of your resume like a mission statement, as though the actual listing of your abilities and accomplishments that follows is just a supporting detail. And that's weird, because the objective section is the biggest bullcrap section of your resume.

You just can't win when writing your objective. If you're applying to work at a plastic spork factory, and you say that your objective is to work at a plastic spork factory, your potential spork employers can still disparage you for not setting your sights higher. Why would any company, even a spork factory, want to hire someone whose goal in life is to work at a spork factory?

So you keep your objective general, "To become employed at a place of employment", and then it's too general. So you change it with each application you submit: today, "To work at a spork factory," tomorrow, "To work at a mackerel-canning plant." That’s fine, except that it means you're lying.

CREDIT: Hal Mayforth

Or maybe you send the wrong resume to the wrong place by mistake, and the spork factory receives a notice saying that your objective is to work at a mackerel cannery. "In that case," says your potential spork employer, "by not offering a job, I'm doing this person a favor! May you someday find the mackerel of your dreams, and may you put it in a can!"

Writing the objective section is like arguing with your significant other. At some point, you just want to write, "Tell me what you want me to say in this section, and I'll say it."

Power statement
No, wait, I lied—the power statement is the biggest bullcrap section of your resume. Luckily, most scientists avoid this business school cliché, but a few are unfortunate enough to write something vague yet douche-y, such as, "I am a dynamic, passion-driven, goal-oriented individual, and my ego is the size of Connecticut, where I'm from."

You can list your high school. But—and I wouldn't say this if I hadn't seen it on actual resumes—don't go back any further. Oh, you went to Brandywood Elementary, home of the busy bees? Well, that tips the balance! Will your lab techniques include "glue stick"?

Conversely, don't write, "I was educated on the streets."

Salary requirements
Ah, the numbers game. Guess too low, and that's what they'll offer you. Too high, and you'll be dismissed as someone who wouldn't accept a job even if it were offered. And whoever comes closest to the actual retail price wins this lovely armoire.

In a way, the first person to mention a number loses. So you keep your salary requirements nonspecific, like this:

Salary requirements: Yes.

Work experience
You're looking for a job in science. Obviously, you'll want to list your time working in labs, teaching science, or doing anything else scientific. But what about your part-time job at the grocery store? Your stint as a camp counselor? The year you spent working as a contortionist in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, which only ended because that stupid unicycling magician learned how to juggle flaming ferrets and raised local insurance premiums?

In my opinion, it's not bad to list those things. It shows you're employable, or at least that you used to be. In the latter case, it even shows that you could, if needed, fit your body into a 5 L Erlenmeyer flask. But for goodness sake, downplay your nonscientific employment history. If half your resume is a bullet point list of your duties at Wendy's, it's clear to the reader that you're just filling space—and not thinking, hmm, I could go into detail about my research with small-angle x-ray scattering, but instead I'll write this:

  • Mopped floors
  • Emptied fry grease
  • Took customer orders for hamburgers, cheeseburgers, fish
  • Also, Frosties
  • Managed cash drawers, until That One Time

You'll notice that each bullet point typically begins with a past-tense action verb. When you do list your relevant lab work, avoid the following past-tense action verbs, as they won't impress anyone:

  • Hampered
  • Impeded
  • Befriended
  • Cavorted
  • Knitted
  • Tasted
  • Screwed (around)
  • Bedeviled
  • Confounded
  • Obstructed
  • Broke
  • Burned
  • Made (messes)
  • Made (merry)
  • Made (love on the lab bench)
  • Emitted
  • Plagiarized
  • Slept
  • Delayed
  • Snorted
  • Defenestrated
  • Absconded

Laboratory techniques
When describing the laboratory techniques with which you are familiar, be specific. This is partially so that your interviewer knows your exact area of expertise, but it's mostly so that your interviewer knows you're not lying.

GOOD: Laboratory techniques include RT-PCR, commercial-scale lyophilization, electrophoresis, and isothermal titration calorimetry.

BAD: Laboratory techniques include lab work, the thing with the big green button on it, the fancy plastic doodad that looks like a penis but I know it's not, and science.

To be continued in next month's column!
Doing this in two parts makes me feel like a 1950s radio announcer. That's our word limit for the month, so be sure to read next month's action packed column, "How Not to Write a Scientific Resume (Part 2)," or "The Man From Outer Space With a Hat That Was Also From Outer Space!" Now, friends, a word about tooth powder.