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511 Rejections Later …The Resume That Finally Got Me Hired

phd talking about resume

Contributing Author: Dwight Lane

Before Cheeky Scientist, 6-to-12-month contracts were the best I could get. 

Ultimately, my industry transition process took about 2 years and 1000 applications.

After joining the Cheeky Scientist Association, it took only 3 months to land my dream job.

Talk about a difference.

The resume template was, I am quite sure,  a major factor in this process. 

There was this thing called a “functional resume” where I could highlight all the relevant skills I learned as a graduate student – instead of showing that my only experience had been as a graduate student.

This made a huge difference.

Most of the time, industry employers don’t care about the specifics of your academic work.

Instead, they want to see how you can provide value to their company.

That’s what my employers wanted to see, and until I showed them, they had probably been throwing my resumes into the trash (assuming these resumes got past the filtering software, to begin with).

Employers want to see results – what did you accomplish, and which transferable skills did you master?

In a functional resume, you can split your PhD experience into multiple sections, each highlighting a key skill gained as a PhD student.

This type of resume represented me and my skillset much more fully than the traditionally chronological resume.

It was a much, much better way to represent the varied roles I played during grad school and to show potential employers the value that I would bring to their organization.

Why Not Using a Functional Resume Is Hurting Your Job Search

PhDs coming straight out of academia might have questions like, “Why do you even need to have a resume in your job search?” Or, “What’s the purpose?”

“Isn’t the purpose of a good resume to outline every detail of your past experience?”

No – definitely not.

The purpose of your resume is to show an employer that you would make a great employee.

That’s it.

PhD with too many academic titles

Your resume is meant to convince a hiring manager or recruiter that you are worth hiring.

Hiring managers are looking for transferable skills, and not necessarily specific past experience.

It doesn’t matter whether you picked up certain skills as a postdoc or as a graduate student.

The important part is that you have a valuable set of transferable skills.

That is why a functional resume is the primary option for PhDs transitioning out of academia and into industry.

Functional resumes will also help you get your job application through applicant tracking software (ATS).

According to Jobscan, 98% of Fortune 500 companies use ATS.

If you are not taking measures to get past ATS, you’re not working intelligently.

If you don’t write a resume that takes ATS into account, this will happen:

It will be rejected before reaching the hands of an actual human being.

To get past these filters, your resume must highlight your skills in a way that the software can understand.

The best way to do this?

A functional resume – there is no better option.

Follow These 5 Steps To Write A Functional Resume That Attracts Employers

It should be established by now that resumes are important.

And the key to a good resume is not merely listing your accomplishments, but depicting them in the right way.

That is to say…

PhDs need to translate their academic experience into industry-relevant results.

While this can be done with a traditional resume (the chronological variant), a functional resume makes this translation more efficient.

A functional resume allows you to highlight your skills and accomplishments without using academic language, which most people in industry don’t understand.

Here are 5 steps you should follow to create a functional resume that will support your transition from academia to industry…

1. Establish your target position.

Before writing your resume, you must pinpoint the positions you will be targeting.

Every resume that you write should be tailored to these exact positions.

If you submit stock resumes, you should not be surprised if you aren’t called in for an interview.

That being said, you can still write your resume before you’ve got a specific job post to target.

First, identify which positions interest you.

For example, you will need to highlight different skills and results if you want to work as a medical writer than as a data scientist.

Research the industry positions available to PhDs and match them to your desired lifestyle to determine a good fit.

You should set up informational interviews with people who already have the job titles you are considering. 

This will help you narrow down your ideal positions.

Ask them about their daily work, career trajectory, and overall satisfaction with their career and company.

Their perspective represents unique advice that you will never find online.

2. Identify key transferable and technical skills.

Once you have identified the position(s) that interest you, it’s time to figure out the most important skills for those positions.

To be successful in a specific role, PhDs need specific skills, and employers know this.

There are a couple of strategies you can use to figure out which skills are important for your target positions.

First, you can ask about the skills during an informational interview. 

phds shaking hands

Find out what skills were key to their success and to getting hired in the first place.

Second, look up several job postings for your target position.

Gather these job postings and copy-paste them into a word cloud.

The word cloud will analyze the text and tell you the words that appear most frequently.

These are the keywords for your target position.

For example, a data science word cloud will likely indicate that “data analysis” is a critical keyword. It will also show you other, less obvious keywords

The keywords will likely match the most relevant skills for your target position.

Think about your experience as a PhD, and identify how you developed these skills throughout your time in academia.

If need be, you can jot down some quick notes about each of the key skills, which you can revisit when you begin to write your bullet points.

3. Ditch the academic titles.

Once you choose your target position and identify key skills associated with it, it’s time to face the hardest part for many PhDs…

Stop using your academic titles.

These don’t mean anything to people outside of academia.

Postdoctoral Scholar, Graduate Researcher, Research Fellow, Graduate Assistant, Lecturer…

As far as a hiring manager is concerned, you may as well be speaking a foreign language. 

In industry, academic titles work against you.

However, they don’t clearly reflect the work that you did in those positions.

In academia, you are defined by your titles.

You have probably worked very hard to earn them and see them as part of your identity.

But it’s time to leave academia behind for now, and look to the future instead.

Those academic titles represent your past.

Industry-focused keywords are your future, so you’d better get used to it.

If you are still uncertain about letting your titles go, ask industry professionals about it when you conduct your informational interviews.

You can also ask recruiters about it.

They will tell you the same thing…

If you want to get hired in industry, employers need to know that you have the skills required to get the job done.

They do not care about your previous academic titles – that’s just the way the world works.

4. Use key skills as bolded headers in your experience section.

This step is what differentiates a functional resume from a traditional one.

It only applies to the “work experience” or “professional experience” sections of your resume.

Instead of writing your academic titles as the bolded headers for this section, add the key technical and transferable skills for the desired role.

Underneath that bolded header, you can include the place where you gained that experience.

Here are a few examples of what that looks like:

Research & Development

Graduate Researcher at xyz University

  • 1st Point
  • 2nd Point
  • 3rd Point


Project Management

Postdoctoral Fellow at xyz University

  • 1st Point
  • 2nd Point
  • 3rd Point

This way, you will emphasize the key skills you mastered during your PhD, which is what the employer wants to see.

You should use a functional resume when applying to positions online, as well as through a referral.

ATS systems rate the bolded words more heavily, so by bolding the keywords, you are telling the ATS that you have what the job requires.

And real people also detect bolded words, so when a hiring manager skims your resume, they will quickly notice that you have all these important skills.

After making sure you have the skills, the hiring manager can read further into your bullet points and find out how you gained each of them.

5. Write the remaining resume sections following the Cheeky Scientist “Gold Standard” template.

Functional resumes differ from traditional ones chiefly in the “experience” section. 

suave phd ready for job interview

You can write the other sections following Cheeky Scientist’s “Gold Standard” industry resume style.

Here are a few broad guidelines for writing an industry resume:

  • Keep it under 2 pages
  • Leave plenty of white space
  • Start with a 3-bullet summary section
  • Make your bullets result-oriented
  • Don’t list your publications
  • Only include information relevant for the job
  • Mention your education but don’t make it a focal point
  • List relevant technical skills, software, and equipment
  • Add a hobbies section

When writing your resume, remember that this is a persuasive document.

You are not doing a peer review of your accomplishments, you are writing a resume that should convince someone to hire you.

Always take into account the perspective of your potential employer.

What are they looking for?

How can I show them that I would be a valuable employee?

Remember that your resume is not a static document.

Every time you apply for a new position, you should tailor your resume for the specific job description.

You will achieve this by adding specific keywords found in the job posting and by focusing on the goals of your potential employer.

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Dwight Lane, Ph.D.
Latest posts by Dwight Lane, Ph.D. (see all)


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