Rethinking Your Résumé

When academics apply for jobs in the business world, they need to focus on one question, and they usually get it wrong, writes Jerry Jellison.

May 10, 2010

Writing a business résumé can be a challenge for one-time academics who are now seeking their first job in the business world. While the format for a C.V. is very different than the one used for a résumé, they are both designed to answer one question. But your answers to that question cannot be the same.

When recruiters and managers in the business world read your résumé, they have one overriding concern: What can you do for us? By explicitly answering that question in a single-page business résumé, you’ll entice recruiters to invite you for an interview.

Your academic C.V. addresses the same question, but it communicates how you could contribute to the stature of a particular academic department or university. Since universities are especially interested in bolstering their reputation for scholarly and scientific research, your list of publications is the prime indicator of how you’ll enhance their reputation.

Because academics live within a university environment, they take great pride in their research and publication record. Naturally, they highlight articles, grants, and presentations. Giving prominence to your publications make sense if you’re applying for a tenure-track job at a research-oriented institution, but it’s a colossal mistake when you want a business job.

To most business people, academic papers and grants are mystifying and intimidating. Unless you're applying for a research job in business, article titles and journal names say very little about how you could help a for-profit company. After reading your list of publications, a recruiter will conclude, "She must be smart, and hard-working too, but I’m not sure exactly what she can do for us."

To put it bluntly: omit your list of publications from your résumé. Article titles don’t communicate the practical skills and knowledge you’ll bring to business. To make matters worse, article titles suggest you’re more interested in solving intellectual questions than in finding solutions to practical business problems.

If you have past business experience, it’s easy to document the ways you could help the company. List past employers and the positions you held; then, list your achievements. For example:

  • Doubled sales through a new online marketing program.
  • Reduced production costs by 23 percent in six months.
  • Championed safety initiative that reduced injuries 56 percent in one year.

The message is obvious: if you hire me, I’ll increase your sales, reduce costs, and improve worker safely.

The ideal résumé clearly communicates how you could help the business be more successful, innovative, efficient and profitable. The more explicit the linkage between your past performance and what you could do for this company, the more attractive you are as a job candidate. But what can you put on your résumé if you lack business experience?

Re-brand yourself as a business person

Instead of listing academic publications, describe the skills and traits that enabled you to write the articles or to conduct the research. Your goal is to portray your best self, so don’t be modest about your assets. To get started, select five of your outstanding attributes from this list:


Interpersonal Skills


Quick learner

Research skills


Critical thinker

Quantitative skills


Public speaker

Communication skills



Language fluency


Hard worker

Technological savvy

By identifying these key assets, you’ll also be developing a structure to answer the most frequent opening question in job interviews: "Tell me a little about yourself." You can enthusiastically respond, "I’m an innovative and hard working individual who is capable of assuming leadership responsibilities."

For each of the five talents you selected, identify three concrete situations in which you utilized or manifested each trait. For example, think of an incident that occurred when you were completing a research project. Or, you could have displayed the trait while teaching a course, or perhaps while working with faculty members on a committee. When condensed to a single line and translated into the language of business, these assets and the corresponding examples will become the core of your résumé.

Consider these two assets:


  • Motivated team to meet time benchmarks during nine month project.
  • Resolved a longstanding conflict between two key managers.
  • Achieved the goal of 100 percent participation in team meetings.


  • Saved $6K by adapting existing equipment to perform new tasks.
  • Analyzed the root cause of a mechanical problem saving $4K.
  • Improved self-report health data by 83 percent with an online survey.

When you read these examples, what did you notice? They’re brief. The words don’t hint that the examples were actually drawn from an academic setting. Numbers are used to quantify outcomes.

Brevity. The examples that illustrate each asset can be drawn from specific incidents in your everyday academic work life. Begin by casting each example in a narrative format consisting of three elements: (1) the setting in which a predicament developed; (2) the actions you took to resolve the problem; (3) the resulting quantifiable benefits.

Initially, your example stories will be many sentences in length. Next, refine this three-part story, so that you can state it in 60 seconds. This version will be used in job interviews. Continue rewriting and compressing until you’ve reduced the story to a single action phrase. This succinct summary becomes a bullet point on your résumé.

Your 60 second stories will serve as perfect answers to a behavioral interview question (more business jargon). These questions take a basic form, "Could you tell me about a situation in which you demonstrated _X_ (e.g. leadership)?" The interviewer is asking for a brief story describing a specific instance in which your actions revealed this particular personal asset.

By employing business terminology (e.g., teams, motivation, goals, and benchmarking), you can transform an academic situation into a business example. The first bullet point under "leadership" refers to how you motivated a team to achieve goals over a long period of time. People outside academe probably wouldn’t guess you’re referring to the graduate and undergraduate students in your research group during one academic year. The second leadership example "resolving a conflict" could involve two feuding professors in your department or on your dissertation committee. For business purposes, they’re identified on the résumé as managers. If you think about it, part of a professor’s job involves managing graduate and undergraduate students, so it’s not too much of a stretch to use this label. In example three, "100 percent participation" means all members of the research group voiced their ideas during meetings.

When you’re invited to a job interview, you can elaborate on the actual academic situation in which you demonstrated an asset. By confidently interpreting behavioral examples in business terms, you’ll help interviewers understand the parallels between the work you’ve done in academe and the work you are ready to do for their businesses.

Quantify. Business people live and die by numbers. If possible, quantify the results in your behavioral illustrations. In some cases you might have precise measures, in others you’ll have to make a rough approximation.

For example, the first bullet point under the attribute of innovation alludes to saving $6,000. The number sounds precise, but it’s only a rough estimate. In the past, someone may have casually mentioned it might have cost as much as 6K to purchase a new machine. That’s a sufficient basis for the numeric estimate on your résumé.

Not every behavioral example will have results that are easily stated in numbers (e.g. resolving the conflict between managers). Where possible try to create a metric that quantifies your achievements (e.g., 100 percent participation).

Initially you might select 5 personal assets and then develop behavioral examples for each. On your résumé, or during a specific job interview, focus on only three attributes. Naturally, you’ll select the three assets that are most relevant to each particular job opening.

By tailoring your self-description and examples for business, rather than academics, you’ll provide a winning answer to the question: What can you do for this business?


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