Anatomy of a Job Ad

To land the position you really want, it's important to spend some time analyzing the job postings first, argues Julia McAnallen.

June 6, 2016

Most Ph.D.s develop a résumé as the first step in their expanded, or nonacademic, job search. Once they create a résumé, they apply for jobs, perhaps tweaking the résumé slightly for different applications. But I argue that this order should be reversed.

I encourage students to build their documents around job postings. The résumé and the cover letter are the first steps in a conversation between an applicant and an organization. In conversation, it is obvious when someone is not paying attention and responds inappropriately; likewise, it is usually obvious when a résumé was not written in response to the posted job.

You might be thinking, "Wow, that sounds like a lot of work." It’s true -- tailoring your job documents is a lot of work, but if you are genuinely interested in the jobs you are applying for, the work should be an engaging process and help bring you closer to organizations and companies you are interested in joining. Thus, it is worth spending a little time dissecting job postings.

The Job Ad Dissected

Most job ads are broken into a few major subcategories, which include:

  • Name of company/organization
  • Job title
  • Description of company/organization
  • Description of position
  • Responsibilities
  • Requirements or qualifications (sometimes required vs. desired)
  • Legal and administrative details
  • Instructions on how to apply and where to direct questions

The responsibilities and requirements or qualifications sections are the core of most job ads. One way to start building your résumé and cover letter around the job posting is to respond directly to the listed items in both of those sections. I’ve listed below excerpts from real job postings followed by examples of evidence from graduate school of those responsibilities and qualifications:

  • "Knowledge of computer applications for publishing, image handling and/or web production." Created event flyers for department colloquia using Adobe InDesign; managed student group WordPress website.
  • "Proven track record in microbiome research." Wrote three peer-reviewed publications; completed four years of doctoral course work.
  • "Ability to anticipate emerging online trends." Anticipated trends in X research, leading to publications/presentations recognized by Y. Current trends are likely to be in A, B and C areas. Already attuned to developments in Z.
  • "Commitment to diversity." Developed new modules for introductory computer science course resulting in increased enrollment of female and underrepresented minority students.
  • "Excellent oral communications and writing skills, and demonstrated ability to communicate to both scientific and lay audiences." Currently teaching introductory courses; presenting at professional conferences; maintaining a general interest science blog.
  • "Strong project-management and time-management skills and the ability to manage competing requests." Managed team of international scholars to complete project on X, resulting in three conference presentations and a published paper. (Note: Outside academe, project life cycles are often much shorter and less thorough than in academe, and sometimes projects are canceled or changed without much notice. Employers want to know that Ph.D.s can handle this different pace and style of work, so demonstrate to them that you can.)
  • "Ability to ensure alignment of goals of research projects with business objectives." Created budget for grant-funded research project and tracked progress to make sure that the project stayed on schedule and on budget; performed market research on novel technologies in the lab and presented findings to industry partners.

This exercise is just a starting point. After you have collected evidence from your own graduate school career that speaks to the responsibilities and requirements in a posting you have chosen, you can polish the prose and begin writing your résumé.

It's OK if you do not meet all of the qualifications listed in the posting. Ideally, you can demonstrate -- with specific examples -- that you are qualified for 70 to 80 percent of the requirements. If you can meet half of the qualifications, you still might consider applying if you can make a strong case for those qualifications you meet.

Also remember to identify comparable or parallel skills or experiences -- for example, if they ask for someone with R programming skills, let them know that you are proficient in Python and Perl. Or if they ask for someone with a certain type of professional work experience and you have relevant unpaid or volunteer experience, alert them to that. In many cases, doctoral research, teaching and postdoc work count as professional experience.

Never waste precious space in your résumé and cover letter addressing qualifications you do not meet. Either leave any mention of those requirements out of your documents or emphasize comparable skills that you do have, e.g., "While I do not have experience programming in R, I have extensive experience scripting in Python and Perl." Just delete that first clause, and -- voilà! -- you have a concise and positive (not distracting and ultimately useless) bullet point that’s résumé ready.

Be sure to pay attention to "soft" or transferable skills, such as communication, teamwork, ability to meet deadlines, attention to detail and the like, that are listed in the posting and that you have developed in your graduate career. You might be thinking, “But they all say that they want someone with excellent communication skills.” Well, there’s a reason for this: communication skills are extremely important. Avoid the unsupported claim that you have "excellent communication skills." Instead, use teaching, presentations at conferences, public outreach, writing research papers and grants, writing blog posts, and even your job documents to demonstrate your ability to communicate effectively.

Skills by Any Other Name

In many applications, you will need to decipher the language of business or human resources to craft a successful application. The good news is that most of the skills you honed in graduate school are applicable in business and other sectors. Here is a short glossary for common language in job ads that Ph.D.s tend to struggle with:

  • Budgeting. Budgeting experience can be demonstrated through managing grant funds, whether your own fellowship dollars or parts of a larger faculty research grant. Even managing the budget of a conference, meeting, student group or other smaller budget is relevant.
  • Development. In certain contexts, like nonprofit organizations and university administration, development means fund-raising.
  • Entrepreneurship. This usually means independent and creative problem solving, and the ability to work with limited direction and supervision. The academic enterprise is, in many ways, inherently entrepreneurial: you are working on the cutting edge of research, which rarely has clear or obvious solutions.
  • Fund-raising. This can be defined as making an argument to successfully obtain money for a specific purpose. An example in academe: applying for grant or fellowship money (even better if those applications were successful). Rarely does this mean knocking on doors and begging strangers for money or schmoozing with business executives at cocktail parties. Instead, it involves a complex of activities, including building relationships and writing proposals backed by research and evidence. (Sound familiar?)
  • Managing. This can include managing projects, people and budgets. Ultimately, it means consolidating control for all or part of a professional activity and requires good record keeping, attention to quality and accuracy, collaboration with different people, and adherence to a schedule.
  • Oversight and supervision. In many cases, this is the same as or very similar to mentoring and teaching. Supervising student projects as a teaching assistant or supervising undergraduate researchers in your laboratory or department can speak to this qualification.
  • Project management. This involves coordinating and organizing resources, including time, money and information. Project management can be used in two different ways: as a general skill set and as a formal certification. When it refers to a general skill set, Ph.D.s are well equipped to link their experiences to this skill using evidence from the dissertation project, laboratory management, developing grant proposals, teaching and so on. If it means a certification, then the company may be looking for people who have gone through PMI (Project Management Institute) training.
  • Stakeholders. These are simply people who are influenced by or interested in the work. In academe, your stakeholders are your faculty advisers; graduate students and postdocs in your department, lab or research group; and other scholars who are working on similar research topics. How you interact with and manage the needs and expectations of these different parties can provide good examples of how you would work with stakeholders in nonacademic settings.
  • Training. This one is simple: teaching.

Lists of transferable skills of Ph.D.s abound. Check out the Michigan State University Career Success website for a list of common transferable skills for Ph.D.s alongside definitions and examples.

In your own materials, make an effort to use the language from the job posting. Even if it feels awkward to call aspects of your graduate work "management" or to refer to your grants as successful “fund-raising,” the linguistic change will show that you are not entrenched in another cultural system, unable to adapt to the needs of a different workplace and style of work.

One final note about the job search: it's never a good idea to rely on responding to job postings as your sole job-search strategy. Always talk to people you know, connect with new contacts and attend conferences and other events to learn about careers beyond the tenure track. Such activities will both help your job prospects and strengthen your ability to tailor your application.


Julia McAnallen is director of Ph.D. Career Services at Michigan State University. You can follow her on Twitter @JuliaMcAnallen.


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