April 2010

Functional Résumé Writing Tips for Life Scientists


Meet the author

Clifford S. Mintz will be at the ASBMB annual meeting, working as part of the FASEB careers team, giving talks and doing résumé critiques. Click here for more information.

Like it or not, writing a carefully constructed résumé or curriculum vitae is a vital part of any successful job search. Inexperienced job seekers hastily tend to craft résumés without paying much attention to format, style or content and then wonder why they can’t land interviews. The best way to approach résumé writing is to think of a résumé as a work of art— something that requires a lot of thought, creativity and attention to detail. As one well-known professional recruiter and job-search expert put it, “Trying to find a job without a smart, well-crafted résumé is like showing up for dinner at a fancy restaurant in a T-shirt and cutoffs. They won’t let you in.” 

It is important to think of a résumé as a personal marketing brochure that will either help land face-to-face interviews or turn a job search into a long and frustrating process.

The primary goal of a résumé is to show prospective employers how you are different from other applicants and why you should be considered a viable candidate. While I can’t guarantee that following these tips will result in a job interview, they will help you to craft a job-worthy CV.

Writing Tips

Hiring managers, professional recruiters and human-resource professionals quickly tend to scan résumés and make snap judgments about the viability of applicants. Therefore, an applicant’s qualifications, skills and personal attributes must jump off of the paper to catch a reader’s attention. This can be accomplished easily by using bold type, headings, underlining, bullets and varied font sizes. Avoid using paragraphs, because they are dense and difficult to navigate. However, overuse of visual callout techniques also can overwhelm readers, so be judicious about their placement and frequency of use.

Powerful, action-oriented, emotional words produce strong, positive impressions. Unfortunately, we scientists have been trained to write in passive voice. That being said, try to resist using passive voice, and sell yourself as much as possible!

Objective or Summary Statement

I am sure that somebody has told you at one time or another to include an “objective” or “goal” on your résumé. Objectives and goals tend to be boring, vague and passive. Instead, I recommend that you craft a vibrant, action-oriented, can-do “summary of qualifications” section that reflects and highlights why you are a right-fit candidate.

Professional Experience

Looking for a new job? Check out the ASBMB Job Board.

Résumés and CVs can be constructed either chronologically or functionally. Chronological résumés, which are most common, list content in temporal order and should be used for either lateral job moves or when looking for a new job to advance your career. When crafting a chronological résumé, list work experience from the most recent to past. In contrast, functional résumés offer content based on skills and are most effective for individuals seeking career changes. Functional résumés should present your skills in the order of importance for the new career you are pursuing. 

It is important to include only the information that is relevant to the position to which you are applying. Unrelated job titles or skills sometimes can confuse hiring managers and, in some instances, cause them to pass on qualified candidates. As mentioned above, most hiring managers are simply too busy to read all of the CVs that receive. Résumés that are chosen for further consideration typically are the ones that present pertinent, job-specific information presented in a straightforward manner.

If you have switched jobs frequently or have gaps in your experience, put the dates of employment in the far right-hand column of the résumé, or hide the job changing by combining or grouping jobs. Also, employment dates should be listed as years and not exact start and stop dates.

Tailoring Your Résumé

A résumé is not just a list of what you have done and where you have been. It is an opportunity to present and highlight your skills and how those skills translate into making you the right candidate. Quantifying or playing up achievements and using strong, definitive statements elevate and authenticate you.

For each position you apply for, it is important to list all experience (in the order of perceived importance) relevant to the hiring manager. Carefully reviewing job descriptions will allow you to quickly and easily identify those things that are most important. What is seen first usually means the most! 

When necessary, résumés should be tailored so that your skill sets and accomplishments match what was stated in the job description. This means it is highly unlikely that you will be able to use the same résumé/CV for all the jobs in which you are interested. To insure success, I highly recommend you take the time to tailor each résumé/CV that you submit.

Odds and Ends

Many people say résumés should be no longer than one or two pages. While this may be the convention for many fields, it is certainly not applicable to CVs or scientific résumés. However, it is a good idea to limit the length of your CV/résumé, because, outside of academic circles, nobody has the time nor the inclination to read a CV that is half an inch thick! When I was working as a professional recruiter, it typically took me a minute or less after scanning a résumé/CV to determine whether I had identified a right-fit candidate. Candidates whose CVs are too long, verbose or difficult to decipher rarely make it to the interview stage. I subscribe to the notion that less is more and simple is elegant!

When listing your educational background, I recommend presenting your lowest degree first and ending with your most advanced degree or educational experience. The name and location of the institution that awarded the degree and your major or area of expertise also should be listed. It is reasonable to list the names of your graduate or postdoctoral advisers if you think it will help your candidacy.

You also may want to include your thesis title if you wrote a master’s or doctoral thesis. It is not necessary to list the dates your degrees were awarded— by listing dates, an employer may be able to deduce your age. While this may not be a bad thing for entry-level employees, it may hinder more experienced job seekers from securing new positions.

Membership in professional societies, organizations or clubs should be listed in a section that is separate from your educational background. Invited lectures or presentations also may be listed under a separate heading. It is important to list extracurricular activities or specialized skill sets you think may be relevant.

All of your publications should be listed on the last page of your CV in a section titled “publications.” This section should be divided into subsections and appear in the following order: 1) peer-reviewed publications; 2) chapters, books and reviews and 3) oral and poster presentations. However, if you are a mid-career professional, I strongly recommend that you list only peer-reviewed publications, review articles, books and book chapters and eschew the oral and poster presentations sections. Manuscripts that are in press should be listed. That being said, I don’t think it is appropriate to include submitted manuscripts— this signals you may not think your publication list is long enough to warrant consideration.

Never send your references to prospective employers unless they ask for them. Simply indicate somewhere on your résumé/CV that references are available upon request. However, for most academic jobs, it is customary for search committees to request references at the beginning of the application process. For industrial jobs, references generally are not requested unless an employer is interested in a candidate.

Finally, it is important to understand that a well thought-out and carefully crafted résumé/CV is a necessary first step in the job hunt. Poorly organized CVs that contain spelling and grammatical errors are certain to eliminate you as a candidate. With this in mind, before you send out your résumé or CV, make sure that it has been spell-checked and reviewed by a friend or colleague. In today’s economy and highly competitive life sciences job market, small mistakes may lead to or perpetuate unemployment! 

Clifford S. Mintz (cliff@biocrowd.com) is a freelance writer, blogger and speaker at career fairs and professional meetings.

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