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The Power Of The Functional Resume: A Game-Changer for PhDs Seeking Industry Roles

Sometimes you’re too close to a situation to really understand it. That was definitely the case for me when it came to my industry resume. 

As a PhD leaving academia, it took me a long time to understand that I was wasting my time submitting an academic CV to industry employers.

It wasn’t until I was hired in an industry role that I understood there was a specific resume format for people like me. When I had a chance to shadow an industry recruiter, that’s when I really understood the goal of a resume – the zoomed-out view that I wish I’d had back then. 

Transitioning from academia to industry can be a challenging process for PhDs for many reasons. But one of the biggest ones is that, as an academic, your experience has been that more is more. 

The opposite is true in industry. And nowhere is that more evident than in the difference between an academic CV and an industry resume. 

The recruiter I shadowed told me resumes that don’t meet certain criteria never even make it to her. Software programs called Applicant Tracking Systems weed out almost 80% of the candidates before she sees a single resume.

From there, she said, she skims for criteria to decide which ones she’ll even read. She doesn’t look at names or academic history at all. All she cares about are job titles and specific keywords about specific functions of the job.

Once she has a manageable number to read – about 25, she said – she’ll read through the professional summary. If she likes what that short paragraph has to say, she’ll read the entire resume.

I listened as she explained, and winced when she said she tosses out academic CVs without ever reading a single word.

Understanding The Functional Resume Format

This recruiter wasn’t cruel, and she wasn’t atypical either. She was very good at her job. Watching her at work gave me an insight that I just didn’t understand when I was transitioning into industry. 

Human resource professionals are busy. It’s their job to make an important investment in talent, often on a tight deadline. As an applicant, it’s your job to make sure that the decision to hire you is an easy one to make. That’s where the functional resume comes in.

PhDs transitioning to industry need to be able to showcase skills and experiences beyond their research expertise. One of the most effective ways to make this transition smoother is by leveraging the functional resume format. 

A functional resume is a unique format that focuses on highlighting skills, achievements, and abilities rather than a chronological work history. This format is particularly useful for PhDs who lack extensive industry experience but possess valuable transferable skills that can be applied to various roles.

Functional resumes are the best option for PhDs who have no industry experience but plenty of proven abilities in academia. Everything you include on your resume should directly support the conclusion that you are a great candidate for the specific role that you’re applying to.

Your resume should be skimmable and compact. To do this, use white space strategically. In addition, format each line of your experience section as a bullet in a list.

Your finished resume should only be two pages long. The bullets create plenty of white space that has been proven, through eye-tracking studies, to guide a reader’s eyes to specific information in a specific order.

Skip The Dates And Academic Titles In A Functional Resume

Most PhDs have one major problem when it comes to creating an industry resume: they don’t have any formal work experience. Their problem isn’t a lack of experience, but a lack of job titles.

Using the popular chronological format is a mistake for PhDS for several reasons. 

For one, most recruiters are not PhDs. That means they may not know what it means that you were a “Graduate Research Assistant” or “Postdoctoral Fellow.” Even if they do, the ATS system screening your resume before it gets to them will not. There is a 100% chance that an ATS will not be looking for any of those job titles among its keywords. 

Another reason the chronological format is a terrible choice for PhD-level resumes is because of the way it presents dates. An ATS system cannot read the academic dates that make sense to other PhDs as anything but a gap in your work history. “Graduate Researcher, 2015-2019” and “Postdoctoral Fellow, 2020-2023” look like a one-year break in your work experience. 

If you don’t have industry experience, use a functional PhD resume format that will highlight your many skills and forgo your academic job titles. The functional format resumes well for PhDs without any prior industry experience or short careers, those with career gaps, or those who have shifted industries. 

The functional format also places emphasis on what matters most to industry employers: the transferable or technical skills from the job posting. Therefore, instead of job titles as the section heading, how one acquired the skill is enlisted. 

All the deliverables in this kind of resume are organized by a transferable skill. Since this resume format downplays the work history, it proves to be extremely successful for those with no prior industry experience.

5 Sections Of An Impactful Functional Resume For PhDs

1. Contact Details Should Be A Thoughtful First Step

At the top left of your first page, you should add your contact details. 

Make sure that this information is updated. If a hiring manager is going through a resume that they like, they might send a message or try to call the candidate. If they don’t get a response, they will move on to the next application without looking back. 

Your contact information should include your

  • name
  • phone number
  • email address
  • LinkedIn profile URL
  • city, state, and zip code (optional, but recommended)

Including your LinkedIn URL as part of your contact information is a must, not a nice-to-have. Some recruiters will open LinkedIn profiles and leave tabs open as a sort of callback shortlist. If you don’t have one (or a complete, industry-ready one for that matter), you should make it a priority to build your profile out.

2. Start With A Strong Summary Statement

Begin your functional resume with a clear, concise professional summary. You may see some resources call this an objective statement, but this term is obsolete. If you’re using that term, replace it immediately with a header that reads Summary Statement or Professional Summary.

Some resources advise you to include a title in lieu of the phrase “Summary.” I suggest that you forgo this title at the risk of being perceived as misleading. If you’ve never held a professional job title, giving yourself one could feel arbitrary to employers. However, if you do use one, it should be the job title you’re applying for, NOT an academic one. 

In your summary, you’ll write a bulleted list that outlines your career goals, industry interests, and the value you bring to potential employers. This statement should be tailored to the specific position or industry you are targeting. By tailored, I mean you should be rephrasing details from the job description and explaining your skills in a relevant context.

Your professional summary should have three concise bullet points –  no more and no less. These three bullet points should illustrate your biggest career highlights related to the position you’re applying to. 

Keep in mind that this is the section where employers will spend most of their time, so it should make it clear right away why you are the best person for the role. Make sure to include keywords from the job description, relevant technical and transferable skills, and measurable results.

Here’s an example:

  • Experience leading the development and fulfillment of new and existing electrochemistry projects with an ability to assess the current state of existing technology related to Physical Polymer chemistry and Physical Electrochemistry, as evidenced by 4 peer-reviewed publications and 1 book chapter.

2. Highlight Key Skills Under Professional Experience

You might be thinking that the section right after your summary should be your education, but this doesn’t apply to a PhD-level industry resume. Even if you have spent all your life in academia, your next section should be your professional experience.

Ideally, you should include two or three previous positions that are the most relevant to the job you are applying to.

If you have industry experience that’s relevant (read: not a job at Starbucks or dog walking), you’ll list those here. In that case, each position should be accompanied by three or five bullet points in this format: transferable skill + technical skill + measurable result.

But if you have no industry experience or very little, the functional format is the best fit for you. It will follow that same format, but with a twist.

Instead of writing your academic titles as bolded headers for each experience section, you’ll write key technical and transferable skills. You’ll decide which skills to use by reviewing the job posting and building bullets that are most relevant to your experience.

Aim for three skills to highlight, shown in the example below in bold. Underneath each bolded header, add the title you held when you gained that experience and the institution/s where you gained that experience.

Here is an example of what that looks like:

Work Experience

R&D and Project Management Expertise 

Gained as a Postdoctoral Scholar and Visiting Assistant Professor of Neuroscience at Smith College in Northampton, MA & as a PhD Candidate at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY

  • Ability to interface with a scientific team and to assist in the handoff of technical information relating to a project, as demonstrated by a 98% success rate of mentored chemistry students.
  • Cross-functionally collaborated with key opinion leaders in the field leveraging expertise in protein purification and bioconjugate technology optimization and validation, resulting in 9 well-received presentations and 3 multi-institutional collaborations. 

Notice that, where numbers are concerned, these examples use numerals instead of spelled-out numbers. This is because eye-tracking studies prove that the human eye is drawn to characters that help break up blocks of text. Studies also show that people are more likely to remember facts with numerical data to anchor it in their memory.

Also, notice that there are no dates associated with these bullets. Listing a date range, as I touched on above, will confuse the ATS. It can easily compute those ranges as a gap in your work history, and it will use that data to recommend or dismiss your application. In a functional resume, don’t worry about dates.

3. Tailor Your Education Section

Your PhD is undoubtedly an impressive accomplishment. However, it’s not what employers are most interested in. That’s why it takes up minimal space on your industry resume. 

It’s crucial to tailor your education section to the industry role you’re applying to. That means maximizing space and being succinct but informative. More specifically, this boils down to including only your highest level of education: your PhD.

You can list any degrees, certifications, or training that are relevant to the position you are applying for. However, your education section will most likely be one line long.

If it’s relevant to the job, you can include a few specific details that might help a non-PhD in industry understand where your expertise lies. 

An example might be:

Education 

PhD in Analytical Chemistry with a focus on Electrochemistry, Electrochemical sensors and chemically modified electrodes.

Notice that this is one single sentence. It is not a bulleted list, and does not include a list of publications, tertiary accomplishments, or unrelated credentials. I can’t stress enough that employers do not need this information on your resume. 

4. Technical Skills Have Their Own Section

At the beginning of the second page, you should list your technical expertise in columns. 

Don’t go into detail. Just add three columns and a list of skills that are mentioned in the job description. 

Recruiters in particular will get a list of techniques, instruments, reagents, and a variety of things that they need to look for in job candidates. 

Adding this list is especially useful for recruiters, but it’s also valuable for hiring managers as well as ATSs. Here is the space to share any keywords from the job description that didn’t fit neatly in a previous summary or experience bullet. 

This is a great place to list your highly extensive technical background. Your actual list of technical expertise is probably very long, but for the purposes of your resume, it should include the most relevant technical skills only. 

A good example would look something like this: 

Techniques, Technical Skills & Documentation

FTIR

UV-Vis

Data Analysis

Technical Writing

Project Management

5. Show Off Relevant Achievements Under Awards & Hobbies 

In this section, highlight your accomplishments that demonstrate your transferable skills in action. Be sure to use quantifiable metrics where possible, such as the size of the research grant you secured or the number of articles you published in prestigious journals.

Affiliations, Awards & Hobbies

  • United Nations Development Program intern dedicated to rainforest sustainability
  • Member – Phi Lambda Upsilon, The National Honorary Chemical Society
  • Nature enthusiast with a passion for baking (I love pineapple cake!) and the culinary arts

In this section include details that are pertinent to your character but don’t fit neatly into your experience bullets or technical skills. For instance, if you’re affiliated with a professional association or a member of an academic society, include this here. 

If you volunteer, that information qualifies as a hobby and work experience. Don’t be afraid to include it twice!

Including a detail about yourself that helps identify your personality might feel a little unnecessary, but PhDs tell me all the time how surprised they are that it makes an impression. Employers remember candidates based on details that differentiate them, not ones that they have in common with everyone. If you’re the pug enthusiast who loves to restore classic cars, those are details that will help bookmark you in a recruiter’s mind.

Concluding Remarks

The functional resume format is a powerful tool for PhDs transitioning from academia to industry. By placing focus on your transferable skills and achievements, it’s a format that demonstrates your value. A functional resume allows PhDs to emphasize their transferable skills and demonstrate how they can benefit a potential employer. It’s an ideal format for PhDs who may have gaps in their employment history due to research or academic pursuits. By focusing on your skills and abilities, you downplay concerns about your work history. Quantitative results and keywords are extremely important to keep in mind when you create your industry resume. Application Tracking Systems (ATS) weed out applications using keyword input. The best way to survive elimination is to incorporate keywords from the job description into your resume. Quantitative results are equally important, offering employers proof of your industry-ready skills and mindset as well as helping them associate your achievements with your name as a candidate. 

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ABOUT ISAIAH HANKEL, PHD

CEO, CHEEKY SCIENTIST & SUCCESS MENTOR TO PHDS

Dr. Isaiah Hankel is the Founder and CEO of Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by millions of PhDs and other professionals in hundreds of different countries. He has helped PhDs transition into top companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, Intel, Dow Chemical, BASF, Merck, Genentech, Home Depot, Nestle, Hilton, SpaceX, Tesla, Syngenta, the CDC, UN and Ford Foundation.

Dr. Hankel has published 3X bestselling books and his latest book, The Power of a PhD, debuted on the Barnes & Noble bestseller list. His methods for getting PhDs hired have been featured in the Harvard Business Review, Nature, Forbes, The Guardian, Fast Company, Entrepreneur Magazine and Success Magazine.

Isaiah Hankel, PhD

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