Verbal Origami

Joseph Barber explores how to think about your résumé -- and how to reshape the language you use -- if you are a new Ph.D. looking for employment outside academe.

July 27, 2015

“What do you want someone to take away having read your résumé?”

This is often one of the first questions I ask graduate students and postdocs that I work with at Penn before discussing my feedback on their résumé – especially if they are Ph.D. students and postdocs working on transforming their academic CVs into résumés. I find this a great question because there are many people who don’t have an immediate answer for this. In fact, I often get the silent stare and then “ummm…, that’s a good question” response. It is helpful to hear this because it allows the discussion of the résumé to extend beyond just what has been written on the page to the process of putting the document together in the first place. Taking a step back and thinking about this process, and the actual goals of the document will result in something that is much more meaningful to the eventual reader.

When people do try to answer this question, the answers they give me range from the honest:

“Actually, I don’t really know”

to the generic

“That I am smart, and successful at research”

to the specific

“I enjoy communicating science to different people in different settings, and my interest in science extends beyond the bench”

Although I try to frame my responses to these in more interactive and constructive ways, my reply to the first type of answer can by generally summarized by stating that if you as the writer don’t know what you want someone to take away from your own résumé, then the person reading it, who doesn’t know you at all, will have much more trouble trying to figure you out. In other words, if you don’t have clear message points, and if you don’t control how these messages are communicated to the reader, then you run the risk of the reader making their own assumptions or presumptions about you.

To the second answer, my response is usually more focused on the fact that generic takeaways like being smart and good at research may not resonate too much with the reader if the majority of applicants are also smart and demonstrate success with their different types of research. This opens up the discussion to the idea of trying to breakdown concepts like “smart” or “research” into smaller, more illustrative concepts. For example, being smart could be seen as the consequence of choosing the right topic to explore, making connections and building relationships with key researchers in the field, getting involved in effective collaborations, learning new skill sets and applying them creatively in future research, and so on. These are much more specific skills that can be nicely illustrated in action, and will demonstrate the concept of being smart in ways that should allow the reader to more clearly see you in their mind’s eye.

The résumé is the version of you that you give to an employer when you are not there. It should try to capture your key selling points in one-to-three pages, and communicate these to the reader in the same way that you would talk about your skills if you were actually there in person. But this is challenge – if you are not certain what you want to tell the reader, what skills you want to focus their attention on, and what you want them to remember about you, then it will be hard to write a résumé that is effective. In order to communicate clear message points, it is important to understand yourself and skills (through a process of self-reflection and self-assessment), and to understand the nature of the position you are hoping to obtain. After all, if the message points you leave in someone’s mind using clear illustrations within your résumé are not that relevant to the job you are applying to, then this still won’t be an effective approach to take. The reader might remember you, but might just remember you as the person who doesn’t seem to be a good fit for the position.

The style and format of an academic CV is not the best foundation for non-faculty applications that generally favour a résumé approach. You don’t really need to think about creating takeaways from CVs in the same way, although I think many CVs would be far more informative if they borrowed gently from the résumé style (especially in the research and teaching experience sections). The CV focuses on where you did research, who you did it with, who thought your research was good (i.e., lists of publications and presentations, funding/grants), and how well you fit into the academic world (honours and awards, university service). In academic settings, these speak for themselves – no further explanation needed. In other situations, they tend not to say much at all because there is no information on how the writer did anything that is listed. You may have 20 publications, but what skills, experiences, and knowledge were necessary to be this successful?

The three pages of conference abstracts, presentations, and publications seen in some CVs are certainly not the most riveting material to read for most people. They won’t hold the attention of the reader because it is hard to do anything with that information other than to say “wow, that is a lot of abstracts (whatever those are!?)!” In those three pages of abstracts and presentations, the reader is not given any information that helps them to understand the context or importance of those experiences. If you give an academic CV to a professional in other career fields and watch them read through it, you know when they reach the publications and presentations section because they start flicking through at pace. It can be hard to make an impression on professionals in other career fields if they skip over important information without understanding how or why it is important. If you are reading a well-written novel, you tend not to start skipping through pages in the middle, because every page should offer and add something important to the narrative. And then there is the Twilight series. My wife would argue that you could skip through most of the pages of the Twilight series without too many problems…, and so I would encourage you to raise the standard of your résumé above these books.

The academic CV also differs from the résumé because it tends to show only one or two versions of the writer. There is the successful researcher, and/or the effective teacher. The writer can prioritize one of these aspects more than another by putting it on the first page of the CV – making sure the section that is most relevant and important to the reader comes first, and is given the most attention.

With résumés, there are many more versions of yourself that you can create depending on where you want to put the emphasis in terms of skills, experience, and knowledge. A little bit of verbal origami is all you need to achieve this. You can think of verbal origami as a the process of taking one of your skills-based experience bullet points from your résumé and verbally folding and refolding it so that it can emphasize different skills for the different positions you might be applying to. Take this bullet as an example:

Created new assessment tool as part of a team to determine success of new training methodology.

As written, the main emphasis of this bullet is on the creating skill; “created” is the action doing verb that will stand out to the reader as they are quickly scanning through a résumé. The “assessment tool” is the knowledge area of interest, but emphasis is still on the process of developing a new tool using this knowledge. So, focusing on creating something would be ideal if the job description mentioned something about being creative, innovative, showing outside of the box thinking, and so on. Being creative is never a bad skill to have, but if you were applying for a position where other skills were more highly sought after, then it would be a good idea to think about how you might be able to emphasize those skills. You might pick a new experience to talk about, or you could use the same experience but put the emphasis on a different aspect – you could do some verbal folding. Here’s an example:

Collaborated with team of 2 MBA students and an engineer to develop an online assessment tool used to measure training outcomes.

This is the same experience, except for this time the emphasis is on team-work and collaboration. This bullet focuses in more detail on quantifiable elements that make the team feel like real people in a real-life context, as it describes who was in the team and how many people were involved. Let’s fold some more:

Successfully used Qualtrics and SPSS to develop a tool to help analyze 30-minute online assessments for training outcomes that is now used as a standard protocol and tool for evaluation in an office of 15 researchers.

Again, same experience but seen from a very different perspective. In this case, the technical skills are emphasized. Compared to the last two examples, this bullet point also adds a new element – an outcome. Having outcomes is important, as the outcomes demonstrate how effective the skill is. The reader feels more confident that the technical skills are effective because the evidence points to the fact that others saw value in them (the 15 researchers in the office who thought they were useful).

So, this is just a quick reminder that you always use multiple skills in whatever you do, but your job in a résumé is to draw attention to the skills that are most relevant to the reader. To do that, you sometimes have to verbally fold and refold you experiences so that the right skills are emphasized in the right way.


Joseph Barber is associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania.


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