realworld PhDs

A resource for job hunting PhDs.

When it's okay to be formulaic.

One issue I see a lot with resumes is wanting a little too much to stick out.  We all know it’s a competitive market, and it’s tempting to believe that something flashy will stick out in a sea of black and white, Times New Roman.  Although I understand this pressure, I always strongly recommend against it for a couple of reasons.


Firstly, I would never recommend anyone use the flashier graphic design templates that sometimes crop up online.  As far as I can see, there are only two outcomes for using these - either you’re applying to a non-graphic design position, in which case a lot of the design and information it contains are going to be irrelevant, or you are applying for a graphic design position, in which filling in a template demonstrates nothing of your own design skills.

But even beyond the flashier bells and whistles, I genuinely think job hunters will have a better chance submitting a resume from a template (Word, Adobe, Mac, Googledocs, whatever floats your boat, as long as it’s clean and easy to read), free from typos and errors and that follows a formula for presenting information, so that the same information is in the same place and in the same order in each section.  In drafting my own application materials, I’ve even applied this standardization to my descriptions of past positions - for each past position, I have 3-4 bullet points highlighting my biggest accomplishments, all of which follow the pattern, “I xed y, in order to z,” where x is an action verb describing what kind of work it was (designed, organized, executed, etc.), y is the thing I did, described in a few words and quantified if possible ($11M in new funding, 4 part-time and student workers, a symposium attended by more than 100 people, etc.) and z is a goal of the organization (in order to expand their research platform, in order to address an urgent community need for further information on well water contamination, in order to secure additional departmental funding, etc.)  In this way, anyone who reads my resume can easily see what I did, but they can also understand where I was in the organization (from what kinds of projects I worked on, how many people I managed, how much money was in my budget, etc.), and how my work integrated into the larger organization.

The important thing to understand about resumes is that they need to convey a lot of information very quickly and easily.  Hiring managers and HR people skim resumes more than they read them, often with a pen for underlining or a highlighter in hand, looking for particular words and phrases that match up with what they’re expecting from a new person. Giving them that information in a simple and consistent format won’t ever be viewed as underperforming (unless the hiring manager really doesn’t know what they’re doing) - it will be seen as making their job easier, which is ultimately what everyone wants from a new hire.