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This Resume Format Gets PhDs Hired – 5 Steps To Writing A Functional Resume

Contributing Author: Jeanette McConnell, Ph.D.

Writing my first resume was so hard.

First of all, I felt like I had accomplished very little.

Most of the people I knew in academia went on to do a postdoc after their PhD, so as a newly minted PhD I felt unqualified for just about everything.

But I didn’t want to do a postdoc.

As I started to write my resume I only had one ‘experience’ my PhD studies.

It looked so lonely on the page.

I wondered if I should include the time I worked at Starbucks or when I was server during highschool…

I was lost and felt like this resume did not do justice to the years I had just spent getting my PhD.

I had about 10 bullet points all underneath the heading ‘Graduate Student’.

I submitted this resume to a few places, but I never heard anything back.

Finally, I started asking for help.

What I learned was incredible.

There was this thing called a functional resume where I could highlight the skills I learned as a graduate student rather than highlighting the fact that my only experience was as a graduate student.

Immediately I switched my resume to this ‘functional’ style.

Instead of one lonely experience I split my PhD studies into 3 sections, each of them highlighting a key skill I gained as a PhD student.

Since I was targeting science writing positions I choose, Written Communication, Project Management, and Scientist as my headers.

This was just the first draft. Overtime and for each new position I applied to those headers changed.

I knew that this type of resume represented me and my skillset much more fully than the traditionally chronological resume.

And it was this style resume that helped me land a job.

It was a much, much better way to represent the varied roles I played as a graduate student and show potential employers the value that I would being to their organization.

Why Functional Resumes Benefit Your PhD-Level Job Search

Why do you even need to have a resume in your job search? What’s the purpose?

Is the purpose to outline every detail of your past experience?


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

The purpose of your resume is to convince the hiring manager to hire you.

And those hiring managers are looking for specific skills, not for you to have a specific past experience.

According to LinkedIn there are 25 hard and 5 soft skills that employers are really looking for in candidates this year.

These in demand skills are what hiring managers will be looking for on your resume.

It doesn’t matter if you gained that skill as a postdoc or as a graduate student, that is not the important part.

The important part is your skill – and that’s why a functional resume is a great option for PhDs transitioning out of academia.

Additionally, the functional resume is great for getting past Applicant Tracking Software (ATS).

Jobscan reported that 98% of Fortune 500 companies use ATS, so if your resume isn’t written with ATS in mind it will probably be rejected before a human even looks at it.

These ATS systems are set up by hiring teams to scan resumes for the skills they want in job candidates.

So, to get past these filters your resume needs to be highlighting your skills in a way that the software understands.

A functional resume makes this easy.

The 5-Step Process For Writing An Excellent Functional Resume

Everyone knows you need a resume when searching for a job.

But not everyone knows how to write a good resume.

As a PhD making the transition from academia to industry you need to translate your academic experience into industry relevant results.

This can be done with the traditional chronological resume, but the functional style resume makes this translation even better.

A functional resume allows you to highlight your skills and accomplishments without using academic language that 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. Identify your target position.

Before writing your resume it’s essential that you narrow down the types of positions that you will be targeting.

Every resume that you write will be tailored to the exact position.

This is a must.

If you have been submitting stock resumes, it’s not surprising that you haven’t been getting called in for interviews.

However, you can start writing your resume before you have a specific job posting in mind.

To do that you just need to identify the type of position that you are interested in.

For example, your resume will highlight very different skills and results if you are targeting a medical writing position versus a user experience position.

So, before you start writing, look over the industry positions available to PhDs and reflect on your core values to decide what positions might be a good fit for you.

Additionally, when deciding what positions are a good fit for you, it’s wise to set up informational interviews with people who already have those jobs.

Ask them questions about their day-to-day, career trajectory, and overall satisfaction.

They have a perspective on the position that it would not be possible for you to gain by just doing online research.

2. Determine the key transferable and technical skills.

Once you have identified the position(s) that you are interested in (try to keep it to 2-3) you need to figure out what skills are important for those positions.

Employers know that for someone to be successful in a specific role they need specific skills.

To understand what skills are important for your target positions, there are a few strategies you can use.

First, ask during those informational interviews.

Ask experienced industry professionals what skills were key to their success in the role and ask them what skills were key to them getting hired in the first place.

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

Gather at least 5 different job postings and then copy and paste the text from theses job descriptions into a word cloud.

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

These frequently appearing words are the keywords for your target position.

For example, a Data Science word cloud will likely have ‘data analysis’ as a frequently occurring keyword, and the word cloud allows you to figure out what the other, not as obvious, keywords are.

Write down these top key skills.

Start thinking about your own experience as a PhD and identify ways that you have demonstrated these skills.

If needed jot down some quick notes about each of the key skills that you can revisit when writing your bullet points.

3. Ditch your attachment to academic titles.

By now you’ve decided on your target position and identified the key skills for that position.

But next is the hardest part for many PhDs – you need to stop using your academic titles.

These academic titles do not mean anything to people outside of academia.

Postdoctoral Scholar, Graduate Researcher, Research Fellow, Graduate Assistant, Lecturer – huh?

In industry, these academic titles are going to work against you because they do not clearly describe the work that you did in those positions.

This is tough because in academia you are defined by these titles and you have worked hard to earn the title that you identify with.

But it’s time to look to the future.

Those academic titles are your past, industry focused keywords are your future.

If you are still uncertain about letting go of these titles, ask industry professionals about it in your informational interviews.

Ask the recruiters that you talk to.

They will tell you the same thing.

To get hired in industry, employers want to know that you have the skills required to get the job done, they do not care about your previous academic titles.

4. Make the key skills bolded headers in your experience section.

This is the step that really makes your functional resume different than a traditional resume.

It applies only to the ‘Work Experience’ or ‘Professional Experience’ section of your resume.

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

Then underneath that bolded header you can add in the place where you gained that experience.

Here are a few examples of what that looks like:

Project Management

Postdoctoral Fellow at xyz University

  • Bullet point 1
  • Bullet point 2
  • Bullet point 3

Research & Development

Graduate Researcher at xyz University

  • Bullet point 1
  • Bullet point 2
  • Bullet point 3

This method places the focus onto the key skills that you have and that the employer wants to see.

It is important to do this when applying online to positions as well as when you have gotten a referral and are giving your resume directly to the hiring manager.

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

And bolding these skills means that when a hiring manager skims your resume they will see right away that you have important skills.

Once it’s clear that you have these skills they can read further into your bullet points and find out how you gained and demonstrated these key skills.

5. Finish up the other sections of your resume in the traditional way.

The functional style mainly affects the experience section of your resume, the other sections should be written in the traditional industry resume style.

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

  • Only 2 pages long
  • Lots of white space
  • Start with a 3 bullet summary section
  • Include your education
  • List relevant skills
  • Include a hobbies section
  • Don’t list your publications
  • Results oriented

When writing your resume it’s important to 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 keep the perspective of your potential employer in your mind as you write.

What are they looking for?

How can I show them I have what they are looking for?

Your resume is not a static document either.

As you apply for more positions it will change each time to be tailored to the position and each time you will make changes and improve it.

Your resume is a fundamental part of your industry job search. You can’t really get started without one. However, as a PhD making the transition from academia to industry, the traditional chronological resume may not be the best option for you. Instead, you can write a functional resume and to do that you should identify your target position, determine the key transferable and technical skills, ditch your attachment to academic titles, make the key skills bolded headers in your experience section and finish up the other sections of your resume in the traditional way. Having a solid, functional resume will set you up for a successful industry job search.

To learn more about how This Resume Format Gets PhDs Hired – 5 Steps To Writing A Functional Resume, 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.

Jeanette McConnell, PhD


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