Whether you have just graduated with an advanced degree or you are leaving academia for the public sphere, building a professional résumé after a life in higher eduction is a rude awakening. How do I talk about a decade of research? What if I have no experience outside academia? Here’s a guide to building the perfect résumé that fits in all the right stuff from your years in the Ivory Tower.
Like all skills, writing a résumé is a process you get better at over time, but you’ll have to break some habits you learned in academia. The first of these is building a résumé like you would a curriculum vitae (CV)–they are not equivalent. CVs are extensive lists of academic experience, the longer the better, but résumés are short summaries that a hiring manager can absorb in a few seconds.
“In academia, you live and die by your CV, with the idea that the academic world is based on meritocracy and the CV speaks for you—and that doesn’t apply in the real world,” says Michelle Erickson, creator of PhDsAtWork.com.
Erickson struggled when she left academia herself, and created PhDsAtWork.com in 2011 as a resource she wished had existed to help with her own transition. The most important thing when leaving academia is to understand just how different the business world is. It takes a shift in attitude and self-perception, Erickson says.
“So much of your identity is tied up in external validation as an academic. You do that with publications and accolades and awards, and someone tells you that none of that has value” in the business world, Erickson says. “Everything that is your professional identity doesn’t have value in the same ways as it does in academia. You’re a rockstar in academia that no one values when you step outside the university campus.”
Let’s be honest with ourselves: As with any job search, your résumé will almost never get you the job alone. It will, however, communicate that you’re a normal human with experience that qualifies you to do this job. It’s not the be-all end-all if a résumé doesn’t get you hired—which is a good lesson for anyone.
“There’s nothing particularly special about these challenges for a PhD: Finding a job is hard, and finding a job you like is harder. There’s a universal struggle there,” says Erickson. “But the trick with academics is that you got a late start, usually 10 years behind, and financially challenged because you’ve lived in poverty for 10 years.”
PhDs are good at translating complex information, so it’s doable to translate your experience to parallels in the business world. It just takes work.
“Let’s say you have someone who is part of a lab. They’re going to talk about how they are part of a team, that they’ve achieved and can quantify certain results, and emphasize the collaborative nature of their work. Maybe they served as some kind of leadership role in a student organization, or how they organized a regular learning event every quarter that had 20 to 30 participants,” says Erickson. “You’ve just got to find a way to take what you’re doing and translate it into business speak.”
In general, academics in hard sciences will be better able to quantify their results in ways that potential employers would appreciate, but that’s also due to the tight interworking between science researchers and corporations. Humanities and social sciences have a harder time quantifying their experience, especially since society undervalues these fields’ skill sets, says Erickson, but they’re also more used to public speaking and reasoning. It’s not a far stretch to see teaching composition and grammar as experience that would apply to an editing position, for example.
If humanities students have a harder time translating their experience, they could also stand to be more elastic in their job selection, says Erickson. Many in the humanities don’t understand that there are a lot of social entrepreneurship positions and value-based work in corporations that might be interesting to them, says Erickson. Humanities academics also tend to see corporations as monolithic brands, while smaller businesses might be more open to their varied experience, give them more autonomy, and allow humanities academics more time to transition into a new workspace.
Translating their experience also helps academics fight any anti-academic bias that interviewers might have, says Erickson. Many interviewers with biases see a PhD’s 10 years of education and equate it to the workload level they experienced in undergrad. They probably won’t understand the nightmare of grant writing and department politics and reports, but since they hold the cards when reviewing your résumé, the onus slides on candidates to be able to translate their experiences.
The transition from extensive CV to brief résumé is hard for academics who track progress via accomplishments like published articles, grants, fellowships, and committee work. Leaving all their accolades off a résumé seems like hiding their best boasting material. But brevity shows that academics have committed to entering the private sector. Formatting a résumé in business style avoids the red flags that out an academic as inexperienced in the business sector, says career coach Angela Copeland of Copeland Coaching.
Here are Copeland’s quick formatting tips:
- Use only one font.
- Keep the format uniform through the document (titles on one side, dates on the other).
- Don’t list your GPA.
- Use bold text sparingly.
- Ditch the bibliographic format for publications, and just list which you’ve written for.
- Don’t use a school email address, as it makes you seem still attached to academia.
- Make your résumé either one full page or two full pages, as any empty space is awkward.
Erickson also suggests leaving “PhD” off the end of your name, as listing it at the top of the résumé might sound like the doctorate is too much a part of your identity. Finally, always use a chronological résumé instead of a functional résumé since the latter is code for recruiters that you’re likely unemployed, adds Erickson.
Following such granular formatting rules might feel oppressive, but not following them comes off as a faux pas to potential employers.
“It’s almost like if you were to walk into an interview not properly dressed in a suit. You may have a lot of great content coming out of your mouth, but if you don’t look the part, it’s a problem,” says Copeland.
Keep in mind that you’re no longer talking to academics, so leave out the jargon and speak simply. This means adopting business vocabulary, but it’s more than just learning to “talk the talk” of business. Business-speak is simple and easily understood. Copeland reviews her clients’ résumés line by line and has them explain what each entry and bullet point means, replacing the complicated language with her clients’ simpler explanations.
What better way to learn the path out of academia than straight from someone who walked it? Among the resources on Erickson’s website PhDsAtWork.com is a series called “A Week in the Life,” which has former academics talking about their transition to working outside academia. But Erickson advises you, dear academic, to reach out to folks in your field who have transitioned and talk about how they adapted.
The problem with just talking to your academic adviser or peers is that they’re stuck in the same academic bubble. Find a mentor outside academia to tell you how you can translate your experiences into marketable skills, says Erickson. Many who have left academia want to help you, says Erickson, as they remember how it was to leave—you just have to have the courage to reach out and verbalize what you want from them.
Likewise, get a friend to read your résumé and point out what still confuses them, recommends Copeland. It’s best if they aren’t academics themselves and have no familiarity with your experience, which will make them great stand-ins for how an interviewer will read your résumé.
“The good news in this whole discussion is that this stuff is super doable,” says Copeland. “These tips are not about getting another internship or going back to school again. These tips don’t cost money; they’re all about personal brand and how you present yourself.”