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Have A PhD? Wondering How To Write A Resume? Start By Avoiding These 10 Resume Mistakes

how to write a resume | Cheeky Scientist | tips for resume
Written by: Catherine Sorbara, Ph.D.

I remember applying for my first industry position away from the bench.

It was a communication-based role where I would be liaising between clinicians and researchers, and influencing government policy on disease funding.

It was absolutely perfect.

I was an expert on the disease, having studied it during my PhD, and I knew my communication skills were up to par.

It was made for me.

I spent hours on my resume.

I added relevant publications, conference poster presentations, and every technical skill I perfected along the way, thinking it made me seem more impressive.

I used generic phrases like ‘keen attention to detail’, ‘well organized’, and ‘strong communication skills’.

I didn’t bother trying to find out who the hiring manager was because I felt certain my words would speak for themselves.

I felt confident that my resume was so impressive, that anyone else would pale in comparison and the hiring process would be a breeze.

Of course, I heard nothing back.

It never even got passed the initial computer screening, so I couldn’t even ask for feedback.

I doubt anyone even read it.

Frustrated, I asked my alternative career mentor to look through my resume and the accompanying job description.

It says here you have 5 years of two-photon microscopy experience.

That’s correct.

So what?” she replied.

She pointed out every piece of information I had that was completely irrelevant to the job description.

She also pointed out that I failed to translate my experiences into tangible results that could be applied to other fields.

We both knew I fit the role, but that I failed to tailor my resume in any way that was relevant.

Initially, I felt defensive.

How could they miss that I was the best candidate for the job?

But in a sea of thousands of resumes, mine was nothing special.

It was a rude awakening.

One that taught me that I needed to spend effort where it counted in improving my resume for industry.

How Bad Resumes Keep PhDs Unemployed

One of the biggest lies we tell ourselves in academia is that if we put the work in and make a name for ourselves, jobs will follow.

It’s a shocking plot twist when reality reminds us that this isn’t so.

When we set out to achieve an education that requires so much time and dedication, of course we do so believing that it will lead somewhere; that our dream job will be the pot of gold at the end of that rainbow.

Unfortunately, as many academics will tell you, reality doesn’t always work out that way.

The truth is, opportunities are often limited when it comes to positions PhDs are interested in.

And competition is fierce.

In fact, 54,070 research doctorates were recently awarded in America alone in a single year — a record high in the over 58 years this number has been tracked.

To make matters worse, the PhD job market has been shrinking in the process, according to the most recent Survey of Earned Doctorates.

As a result, your industry resume remains an important tool in your search for an industry job.

It’s the calling card you’ll come to rely on to get your foot in the door.

10 tips for creating a resume | Cheeky Scientist | how to write a cv

10 Amateur Resume Mistakes Keeping PhDs Unemployed

A good resume is not enough to get you a good industry job.

That being said, a bad resume by itself can keep you from getting a good industry job.

If your resume is not up to par, or if it’s littered with amateur mistakes, you’ll likely find yourself doing benchwork for the bulk of your career (work that robots and monkeys can do).

Here are 10 amateur resume mistakes PhDs must avoid to get hired into an industry role…

1. Ignoring the job description.

Recently, RecruitingDaily.com reported that 75% of big companies, and 60% of mid-level companies, were using Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) to review resumes.

Those numbers have only increased in the last two years.

These systems are making decisions long before a resume ever reaches the hiring manager in charge.

They focus in on keywords to eliminate applicants and present only those who, based on the words used in their resumes, seem best suited for the job.

That means you need to be studying job postings and descriptions to identify the most prominent keywords used, and tailoring your resume with those same keywords.

It’s not just about the keywords, though.

You should be tailoring your resume specifically to each and every job you apply for.

That’s a lot of work for just one application.

Exactly.

This work is what will separate you from other qualified job candidates.

You either want the job, or you don’t — and this is what it takes if you want it.

Hiring managers can spot a generic resume a mile away, and if you haven’t taken the time to tweak your resume for the job at hand, they likely won’t take the time to interview you.

2. TMI (Too Much Information) included.

Packing your resume with a chronological listing of every publication, presentation, award, honor, and project from your past is not impressive.

It’s arrogant and unorganized.

Your resume shouldn’t be an academic curriculum vitae (CV) — it should be the short and impactful document it’s meant to be.

I know how you feel — after all the work you’ve done, it feels wrong to leave things out.

It feels wrong to make your resume short, tight, and customized.

But your feelings don’t matter here.

Only the data matters…

An eye-tracking study conducted by Ladders found that the average hiring manager looks at a resume for only 6 seconds before making a decision to discard or interview.

Six seconds.

That’s all the time you get to make an impression.

Submitting a resume that’s several pages long doesn’t mean that you’ll impress hiring managers with all you’ve accomplished; it means you’ve added clutter with a lot of excess information they’ll never read.

It also conveys your inability to make executive decisions regarding the most relevant information to share. 

Resumes should remain concise, but powerful.

They should never be more than 2 pages long, they should consist of bullet points instead of paragraphs, and highlight only the most relevant details of your academic career.

3. Failing to translate your experience.

In the pursuit of a PhD, most academics find themselves focused on a very specific niche area.

That focus becomes their guiding force for years; it is their passion and where the bulk of their expertise will eventually reside.

Unfortunately, when they get out into the industry job market, positions in their academic niche may be limited or non-existent.

PhD candidates must learn how to translate their years of experience in their academic niche into more general skills and knowledge that could be applied elsewhere.

Often, this comes down to structure.

Most PhDs are slaves to the chronological resume format they were taught back when they got their first job at the local McDonald’s or Sunglass Hut.

This format only works for anyone who stays in relatively the same field, doing relatively the same work, for most of their career.

But when you need to branch out from a specific niche, less traditional resume formats can help you get hired.

A functional resume format, which focuses more on skills and experience than on job titles and dates of employment, is often the best bet for PhD applicants.

4. Relying too heavily on your PhD status.

You’re proud of your academic accomplishments — and you should be.

You’ve worked hard to get to where you are today.

But it is incredibly important to remember that you are not the only job seeker with a PhD.

For most of the jobs you are applying for, a PhD is probably required — which means your competition holds the same credentials as you.

In some arenas, your PhD may actually be seen as a detriment — if you’re applying for positions that don’t require a PhD candidate, hiring managers may fear you’re overqualified.

Or worse, they may fear you’re more qualified than they are!

That means you need to create a resume that highlights your skills beyond your academic degree, especially your transferable skills (click here for a FREE Top 20 Transferable Skills Ebook).

Focus in on what you are capable of moving forward in your future industry job, not just what you have accomplished in the past in academia.

5. Failing to personalize your message.

You likely put a lot of work into your resume.

But have you also gone the extra step of researching who you’re applying to?

Who is heading up the human resources department at your company of interest?

Which specific hiring manager will be reviewing your resume?

Answering these questions before you submit your resume is a must.

For many hiring managers, a resume addressed to “Dear Sir or Madam” is an automatic red flag.

Why?

Because it is so easy to find out who the hiring manager in charge of any given position is.

The fact that you failed to address your resume and cover letter directly to an individual is seen as a sign of laziness and disinterest.

In other words, you just don’t care enough to find out.

Personalization matters.

Even if the job posting itself doesn’t list who the hiring manager is, a quick call to the company, an informational interview, and/or some digging online will produce that name for you.

Personalization is a small step that can go a long way.

Once you get the hiring manager’s name, consider connecting with them on LinkedIn.

This will provide the hiring manager with an opportunity to learn even more about you, which is a good thing.

6. Using an amateur email address.

You might think that by now, most PhDs  would recognize the importance of a professional e-mail address.

Unfortunately, this is not the case.

Far too many PhDs are using the same email addresses they adopted in high school or early college.

Monikers like hugabunny@hotmail.com and jbieberfan16@yahoo.com are still making their way onto resumes.

Seriously — we see it all the time.

Maybe you are simply afraid of change.

Maybe you think your Principal Investigator secretly has access to your university email (he/she doesn’t — it’s illegal).

Or maybe you just don’t think a hiring manager really cares what their e-mail address is.

Either way, you’re wrong.

An unprofessional email address shows that you don’t take yourself seriously.

It shows that you’re not taking your job search seriously.

Do yourself a favor and set up a Gmail account with some banal variation of your name.

Something that you use exclusively for your job search strategy.

It’s such a simple thing to do, and it absolutely can make a difference in your job hunt.

7. Adding a headshot to the top.

Somewhere along the line, someone decided that putting a photo on your resume was a good idea.

Then, like wildfire, that rumor spread and people began to treat their resumes as if it were their LinkedIn account (or modelling portfolio) — attaching a professional headshot in the header, under the mistaken impression that this would help them stand out from the crowd of other applicants.

The truth is, having a photo on your resume does set you apart, but not in a good way.

Instead of making your look professional, it sends the impression that you are treating your job hunt like you might treat your Tinder account; highlighting image over substance.

Ultimately, that will be exactly what is accomplished.

The same Ladders eye tracking study mentioned above found that when resumes include a photo, hiring managers spend 19% of those 6 seconds of resume viewing focused on the photo instead of the resume content.

Expats beware, however, as some European countries such as Germany and France, as well as some Asian countries, require photos.

It’s important to do your research into the country before submitting your resume there.

8. Using very weak language.

When you only have 6 seconds to grab a recruiter’s or hiring manager’s attention, your headers and bullet points count.

Using weak or generic language in these sections can drastically harm your resume.

Don’t rely on phrases like “strong communicator” or “dedicated attention to detail” to sell you.

Why?

Because most other applicants will be using the exact same phrases.

Why waste your 6 seconds on mediocrity?

Instead, focus in on strong and succinct phrases that actually seek to quantify your value.

Be specific.

Use prove-it statements, where you prove your worth by providing unique and real-life examples from your past.

Take it one step further by quantifying your results.

Use numbers to help recruiters to picture the impact you’ve made, which will simultaneously make your results sound much more impressive.

Here’s a simple example of how quantification can improve a results-oriented bullet point your resume…

Initiated project x, saving the lab time and money.

Or:

Initiated project x, saving the lab $50,000 through a 25% decrease of staff allocation time.

9. Refusing to leverage social media.

A recent Jobvite survey found that 92% of recruiters utilize social media in their hunt for the perfect job candidate.

This means hiring managers are vetting candidates online, AND recruiting directly through social media sites like LinkedIn.

You can have the most solid resume in the world, but if a recruiter decides to look you up online prior to scheduling an interview — and discovers something unsavory — you might just find yourself “selfied” out of a job.

For this reason, your personal social media accounts should be kept at the highest level of privacy.

You should also create secondary professional social media accounts specifically for your job search.

Most importantly, make sure you have a professional LinkedIn profile that will give hiring managers and recruiters more insight into your background.

Include a link to your LinkedIn profile on your resume so that employers can easily connect with you online as well.

10. Burying the lead behind nonsense.

When you have a finite period of time to capture a hiring manager’s attention, you need to lead with the most relevant and powerful contribution you have to bring to the job.

In other words, don’t bury the lead.

Don’t bury your biggest strengths and the biggest value that you bring to the company under less important information.

Instead, rearrange your resume with every new job application you submit.

To do this, you’ll need to have a powerful understanding of your most relevant and powerful contributions.

If you don’t know what those are, any recruiter you’re trying to impress won’t either.

Very often, rearranging your resume for maximum impact will involve highlighting your transferable skills equally if not more than your technical abilities.

Thousands of PhDs will also know how to do a Western Blot but very few will be able to articulate their business-related skills like you.

Resume writing really is an art form, and just because you have a PhD doesn’t mean you automatically know how to sell yourself in two pages. Most PhDs fall into the same bad habits and lazy resume blunders as other job candidates because they don’t know how to market themselves like a business person. You need to translate your academic experience into results that have value to the specific job you’re applying for. You also need to highlight your transferable skills and craft your resume into a format that is clear and relevant. Doing anything less is a mistake that should be avoided.

To learn more about transitioning into industry, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the wait list for the Cheeky Scientist Association.

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Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.

Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.

Cathy has a PhD in Medical Life Science and Technology and is COO of the Cheeky Scientist Association. Cathy is passionate about science communication including translating science to lay audiences and helping PhDs transition into industry positions. She is Chair of Cambridge AWiSE, a regional network for women in science, engineering and technology. She has also been selected to take part in Homeward Bound 2018, an all-female voyage to Antarctica aimed to heighten the influence of women in leadership positions and bring awareness to climate change.
Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.
  • Vivek Sunkari

    One quick question: do the % of key words matter – I mean if your resume is 2 pages and then you have included all the key words which come up to say 20% and rest 80% is all other info… does tracking systems count the percent of key words or it just want enough key words to pass the test

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Great question Vivek – they normally look for inclusion of keywords and not percentage of the overall word count. The best thing to do is avoid the tracking system altogether and get your resume directly in the hands of the hiring manager through networking.

      • Marvin D’Esprit

        This is great advice, Cathy!

  • Willow Sampson

    Ooh, this makes me cringe because I always use “keen attention to detail,” “well organized,” and “strong communication skills.” Ouch! Better to get the message now than waste a few years job searching. Thanks, Cathy!

    • Cathy Sorbara

      You’re welcome Willow! Anything to stand out from the crowd 🙂

  • Theo

    The first part of this article was making me feel bad. No way have I been going through and tailoring each resume into a custom document for each individual job.

    Oops!

    But by the end, I can see it has a direct impact and if I’m going to go ahead and send these resumes out, then I’d better get with it and do it right.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Yes Theo! I am glad that was a big takeaway message for you. No one has time to read through your resume and figure out what is relevant and what isn’t. Best of luck with your search!

  • Madeline Rosemary

    This is invaluable! I was shocked to see that photos were actually a step down. I saw someone with a nice headshot on their resume, and I liked it so much, that I assumed that’s what we’re supposed to do these days. It seemed like such a friendly way to make my resume stand out. Not good. On the other hand, reaching out on LinkedIn would be such a great idea. Thanks, Cathy.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Thanks Madeline! Photos allow for unconscious bias to form in the hiring managers head. Sometimes it can work in your favour but it is not worth the risk. Better to let your words speak for themselves!

  • Carlie Stevenson, PhD

    The art of the CV/resume is always evolving. It’s easy to get trapped in what’s trending or get stuck in the past, and it’s no wonder that so many turn to professional resume writers. Some qualifications will never get too antiquated, such as being reliable and on time, but it’s a trap to overemphasize qualities that almost everybody shares. Information like this really helps make your strong points pop out and command attention without seeming too institutional and boring. I really like it.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Thanks Carlie! I appreciate the feedback!

  • Marvin D’Esprit

    The number of other PhD candidates seeking positions is pretty daunting, even though I was somewhat prepared for it before enrolling in the program. Exactly what you’re saying is becoming more and more clear: you can’t count on popping out simply because you’re a PhD! It’s actually a job requirement in a lot of cases! Thanks for helping us sharpen up our skills.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      You’re welcome Marvin. Having a PhD is valuable but not enough to get you a job without putting in the effort to market yourself accordingly. Thanks for the comment!

  • Matthew Smithson PhD

    I think the key here is using a thoroughly tailored document that takes into account who’s going to be reading the resume, what tasks are included in the position, what transferable skills are required, and how to make your strengths, talents, and achievements pop out before less important data. The job for the PhD is to apply the PhD’s investigative skills and enthusiasm for questioning everything to the testing of your resume in the real world.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Exactly Matthew! Thanks for bringing that up – great point.

  • Winona Petit

    Cathy, you’re right that the PhD’s should feel proud of their achievements but also draw in other aspects of their character to round out the nerdy image we all have (!) in the world of industry. The boss or hiring manager has to feel comfortable hiring you because you’ll fit in, you’ve got the skills and training, and you’ve demonstrated through your track record that you can achieve the objectives professionally and effectively. If your resume doesn’t reflect all that, you don’t stand the chances of a snowball in the desert.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      LOL – I love that line ‘a snowball in the desert’ – a perfect analogy. Completely agree. Thanks for your comment Winona!

  • Kathy Azalea

    Do you think it’s more important to organize the experience listing in order of the skills they’re looking for than to list them in chronological order?

    • Cathy Sorbara

      I would always list your experience in chronological order Kathy. Otherwise, it may give the impression that you have something to hide (ie a big unemployment gap).

  • Harvey Delano

    Sometimes a previous boss wouldn’t necessarily want to agree that an innovation saved the company x amount of dollars or hours. I’ve been listing my contributions anyway, but I’m wondering if recruiters would think that I’m falsifying my qualifications if the previous boss doesn’t want to give me credit. I’m guessing that a lot of other people have the same quandry, and that’s perhaps why they’re speaking in very general terms. Thanks in advance on your help on this, Cathy.

    • Cathy Sorbara

      Hi Harvey – question is: how would the recruiter know that your previous boss does not want to give you credit for the innovation? You do not need to use him as a reference (and nowadays recommendation letters are rarely asked for in industry except as proof of employment). If you believe the innovation is yours to claim then I would say, go for it!

  • Monika

    I am always puzzled with that if I address my Cover letter to Dear Madame/Sir, it might be considered wrong. Indeed, sometimes the job posters are mentioned, e.g. on LinkedIn, but otherwise it is impossible to find out (as opposed to “very easy” as the article says) who the person in charge is. Moreover, even if somebody posts a job advertisement, isn’t it likely someone else handles the case down the line? Or e.g. a Scientist at the company makes final selection for research jobs, because the HR person wouldn’t kow how to judge the qualifications? Even the jobs accessed through LinkedIn usually link to companies’ websites and electronic application systems, which are anonymous. To be honest, sometimes it is impossible to find any contact information other than hr@company.com to HR departments – no names or e-mails are given away. It is not my lack of care that stops me from addressing specific people. I just find it more polite to keep it general when the final reviewer of my Cover letter is not possible to identify or uncertain. I always imagine, after I apply whoever might look at it, and if they see some other name than theirs, then they will feel weird/upset, while seeing Dear Madame/Sir is at least neutral. In the end, the recruiter is just a mediator in my eyes, I think only the final boss can actually see if a person fits the role.