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The little add-ons that add up to a standout CV

No matter where you get your career advice, you’ll hear the age-old reminder that “as a Ph.D., you’ve developed a set of transferable skills.” Yes, it’s true. Your analytical skills—honed over endless hours of labor—have value. Your writing skills developed from hours at your desk grinding out your thesis—those count as well.

But simply recognizing your transferable skills and highlighting them on your CV is not going to win you a job, no matter how you structure your application. That’s because everyone who earns a Ph.D. also develops those skills along the way.

What you really need is some way to differentiate yourself, to stand out from other job seekers. It doesn’t require a huge investment. I’m talking about a handful of ideas that aren’t all that difficult to integrate over the course of your training, but which can make all the difference when you need your application to rise to the top of the pile.

Small differentiation for big impact

Hiring managers, recruiters, and human resources staffers routinely look at dozens, sometimes hundreds, of CVs over the course of a week. After an hour or 90 minutes of this, our eyes can glaze over. We start flipping pages. We go from looking at people and their lives to scanning for keywords or phrases. It’s not that we don’t care. It’s just the reality of the job, and it happens to the best of us. 

But you can make sure your application doesn’t get lost in the crowd. Offer us something different to attract our attention. Give us a differentiator.

In one CV review session this week, for example, I was brought back from the brink of CV overload by a candidate who mentioned their “Table Topics Winner” award from their chapter of Toastmasters International, an organization that helps members develop their public speaking skills. I got a chuckle from seeing that little weekly award proudly positioned on the CV. But, because communication skills are important to the position I’m trying to fill, I also gave the CV a second look. I noted a few aspects of the candidate’s experience that I hadn’t seen before, which tied into the search requirements. So off to the “talk to” pile that person went!

Seeing this award that wasn’t all that impressive reminded me that there are things you can add to your CV to help you stand out that aren’t big investments of time and money. Some of these differentiators will have a meaningful, lifelong impact and require you to put in some serious effort. Others (like Toastmasters) are low-hanging fruit. To help you figure out what might work best for you, my colleague Ryan Raver and I put our heads together to come up with 10 things you can do—and put on your CV—to help separate you from the crowd.

  • Join a club. There are clubs that focus on all sorts of topics: entrepreneurship, biotech, consulting, and more. Whether it’s a local biotech industry “Meet Up” or an official graduate consulting organization, the experiences you get from participating in a club can be life-changing. You could meet local venture capital players, participate in consulting projects for regional employers, or show leadership skills—no matter the group’s focus.
  • Get involved with your student or postdoc association. Become a leader in your grad student or postdoc association, or even a national organization such as the National Postdoctoral Association. These groups typically require people with various interests and skills to keep things running, so play to your strengths. Manage the budget, organize social events on campus, or invite external speakers to give presentations. Internal-external coordination roles in particular are great ways to experience a whole range of great networking opportunities.
  • Serve on your graduate program’s admission committee. This will add to your credibility as a person who has initiative and show that you care about career and professional development. You’ll develop empathy and show that you care about helping others with their success. All of these skills are in demand by employers! Finally, it will give you great exposure to reviewing resumes, which will help you make your own future applications shine.
  • Take courses in a range of topics. Whether you are earning credit or just sitting in, taking courses beyond your specific research area shows CV readers that you’re not the usual academic stuck in a tiny niche. Some areas to consider, which may also be relevant to future career opportunities, include computer science, business, finance, and law.
  • Take community college courses. It may seem odd to go back to school in the evenings for a class or two at a community college, but these schools can provide a useful complement to the training you’re receiving at your research institution. In biotech regions, for example, these institutions offer very reasonably priced coursework covering industrial-scale processes, which goes far beyond the typical academic lab experience. Plus, courses are often taught by people from industry who make great networking connections. In fact, one fellow told me, “I got better job leads from my community college teacher than I did from my Ph.D. adviser.”
  • Get a certificate. Depending upon the direction you wish to go in your career, a formal certificate could help you rise above the rest. One with high impact is the Project Management Professional designation—every career choice needs people with training in project management. Another is a Regulatory Affairs Certificate for medical devices or pharmaceuticals. Importantly, these types of certificates have value even before they’re completed: Just showing that you are working toward one can make a difference.
  • Volunteer in your university’s tech transfer office. If you’re considering working in intellectual property, take advantage of your institution’s department that is responsible for patents and for relationships with companies who license those. There’s a good chance that the department will be open to bringing you in as a part-time volunteer. The Association of University Technology Managers also offers coursework and membership, which have value as differentiators as well.
  • Do an internship. A company internship has proven value. It’s the connections you make that become your take-away.
  • Bolster your technical skills in hot areas. Find out what employers consider to be their “hot” technical skills through informational interviews and networking at conferences. If you can’t gain the relevant experience in your own lab, then explore options to visit other professors’ labs or pursue side projects (with your adviser’s blessing).
  • Publish in other areas of interest. Many people think that the only good publication is one that advances their science agenda. But I’m here to tell you that employers also want assurance that you can communicate well in writing, regardless of the topic. Can you contribute career-oriented pieces to your scientific association’s website? Is there a biotech newsletter targeting your region that could use some content? Finding material to fill their pages is a tough job for editors of trade publications. They may not be scientific journals, but they reach an audience of hiring managers.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, and you may have your own great ideas for the add-ons that will really work for you and your career objectives. But I’d like to offer a word of caution that some things you might be tempted to add are unlikely to provide the value you expect. For example, don’t bother with “associations” of unemployed and unhappy graduate students and postdocs that charge money to join. Mentioning these types of organizations on your CV will only label you in unattractive ways. And be cautious with big, expensive add-ons, such as an MBA. If you don’t already have a few years of industry experience under your belt, they often don’t have the expected value in the job market.

Instead, your best bet is to focus on the little add-ons. A few of these sprinkled on your CV and you’ll be far ahead of your job market competition when it comes to getting that document read!

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