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Resume Tips for PhDs: Do Something Impressive

I’m often asked for tips on how to translate an academic CV into a resume that is appealing to employers.

I think people who ask this are looking for magic buzzwords to use in place of terms like “journal club” and “genotyping.” And, it’s true, there are ways to frame common laboratory duties that emphasize their impact on the bottom line (I’ll go over those in a minute). But a typical grad student or postdoc with a well-written resume is still… typical.

The best way to impress a hiring manager is to do something impressive.

You may be thinking, I already have a PhD, what more do they want?!

Having a PhD is genuinely impressive. In a nutshell, PhDs are trained to synthesize huge amounts of information, identify the most significant unsolved problems, and develop rigorous, innovative methods to generate solutions.

When you step outside of academia, you realize that this is an uncommon and incredibly valuable set of skills to possess.

Your challenge as you move to the next phase of your career is to prove that you can apply your skills and experience to new situations.

Although your academic credentials are impressive, they’re not sufficient to convince an employer that you can do other types of work. To impress a hiring manager, you’ll need more than “translatable skills” – you have to translate what you’ve already done to prove that you understand what matters to employers in other settings.

When I interview executives for high-profile leadership roles, I ask them a very open-ended question: “What did you walk into when you took your current job? How have things changed as a result of your efforts?”

An academic answer to this question would focus on hypotheses and papers. Your publications are Key Performance Indicators that prove you’ve been successful at the job you were recruited to do, so it’s appropriate to include them on your resume.

Highlight the superlatives: in what ways was your experiment the first? The biggest? The most comprehensive? This puts your achievements in context.

Outside of academia, your papers are less impressive. Therefore, it’s helpful to consider the practical challenges you addressed.

Your work made an impact on the lab’s bottom line.

Ask yourself: How did you get money? How did you save money? How did you use time more efficiently (which is a form of saving money)?

  • If you received a research fellowship or wrote up your project for your PI’s grant: “(Co-)Wrote successful application for $XXX,000 sponsored research award.”
  • If you switched to cheaper reagents for common laboratory techniques and handled all the troubleshooting: “Optimized SOPs to reduce operating costs by X%.”  
  • If you streamlined protocols, automated routine tasks, or convinced your PI to outsource some of your work to a core facility: “Designed novel efficient workflow saving XX person-hours per week”
  • If you invented new techniques, emphasize “lean experimentation” used to build an innovative solution and explain its value.

Your activities outside of the lab are also relevant. Most students do some form of service work at their university and may have a significant role in other hobbies or volunteer activities.

As you reflect on what belongs on your resume, keep in mind that not all service is created equal: students are often tapped for routine administrative tasks that impress no one, like coordinating snacks and A/V services for a seminar series.

The most impactful service work gives you opportunities to innovate and make lasting change.

Spell out your leadership experience:

  • Creating a new organization – explain the unmet need that you addressed.
  • Growing an existing organization – quantify your impact.
  • Leading a team – include the size of the team, your goals, and any metrics that you hit in achieving them.
  • Planning an event – include the number of attendees, the budget, and any fundraising involved.

To sum up: to find a career outside of academia, you’ll need to understand how your work will be perceived by people with different priorities. Creating a resume requires you to reframe the work you’ve already done, provide context for non-experts, emphasize the practical impact of your work, and highlight your leadership experience.

These tips are designed to help you communicate your achievements to a future hiring manager, but they go beyond writing a good resume. Once you get in the habit of measuring the impact of your work, you’ll become much more strategic about taking on new projects.

Your time is precious.

Use it to do something impressive.


By Laura Mariani, Ph.D.  Executive Recruiter; Free the PhD Advisor.


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