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In my work advising graduate students on their career development, I’ve come to see the résumé as a fascinating chunk of job-search territory, where the pathways, concerns, questions and struggles of the graduate student on the job market become visible. Many students finishing an advanced degree pull out their résumés and begin to revise right as they find themselves at a crossroads -- where the signposts begin to point either toward or away from the road to a research or faculty position.

For graduate students, creating the résumé can be an exercise that not only helps to reframe their research and education as transferrable and relevant to the world writ large but also allows them to reclaim the value of the activities outside of the pure exercises of scholarly life.

Yet I find that graduate students, as they work through the process of transforming their CV into a résumé, are sometimes surprised by the suggestion that they include unpaid experiences on their résumé. Many graduate students are anxious about their work experience -- or what they see as a lack thereof. That is especially true for Ph.D.s who entered their programs directly after their undergraduate years.

But I Didn’t Get Paid …

Undergraduate students commonly include clubs, extracurricular activities and volunteering on their résumés to supplement what may naturally be a limited collection of work experience. Such activities also confirm that they fulfilled the same kind of promise made in their college application: they are well-rounded, involved, likable and generous.

Midcareer professionals are generally advised to include such activities judiciously, when they corroborate or reinforce the career narrative that already runs through the résumé. A professional with a career in development, for example, would certainly do well to include her volunteer experience organizing and delivering a charity function. Showing service on the résumé can be a compelling illustration of personal values, social/ethical conviction and broad effectiveness as a contributing citizen.

When it comes to graduate students, career advisers who work with them often hear the refrain: “I have no work experience. I’ve never worked outside the lab.” When a job description calls for two years of work experience, for example, graduate students will assume that anything they have done under the umbrella of school does not count. But graduate students without work experience can, in fact, use the résumé as an argument for the transferability and credibility of the years of experience that they have already acquired, embedded within their advanced-degree programs.

Writing about research and work as a teaching assistant/graduate teaching fellow has been the focus of much discussion within the world of graduate career advising. Similarly, writing about extracurricular activities or volunteerism should also be approached with strategy and care.

Some graduate students will already be familiar with the idea of service as a formal category and will have built this into the closing sections of their academic CV. Service to the department or field, however, is somewhat different from altruistic service to a larger community. I often advise graduate students to create a Leadership and Service category on their résumés.

Service as Experience

Leadership, for graduate students, can range from union stewardship to an elected position in an organization like the Association of Women in Science. Those kinds of positions couple nicely with service roles, which need not be appointed or elected.

Graduate students can present that category of experience in a number of ways. Most commonly, the experiences and roles are shown in a list that includes the role/title, the name of the organization or cause, and sometimes the year of involvement. As an extension, graduate students can think creatively about how to display their (unpaid) leadership and service work.

At times, graduate students who may not have had extensive experience creating a résumé feel that an employer would consider service work to be “pretend” or too lightweight to “count.” Of course, that isn’t the reality in most situations. Students may also feel that to include service experience in their work experience would be a misrepresentation or “cheating.”

I advise them to frame their service experiences as work, indicating (volunteer) as necessary after the role/title. Bulleting out the service experience helps graduate students to recognize the many ways in which they put their graduate training to work as they did that service.

For example, when supporting a charity fund-raiser, they may have created a pre- or postevent survey to assess the success of the event. They may have integrated a significant amount of information as they designed a curriculum for an after-school program. Or they may have used their technical skills delivering a particular service.

Service experiences can be bound to a paid experience in order to create a strategic category on a résumé. For example, an epidemiology Ph.D. student can yoke their volunteer experience at a free community clinic to a paid health-care or research position. The experience deepens, the skills are reiterated and reinforced, and the student’s character becomes authentically highlighted.

Here are some examples of a Leadership and Service category, as well as an example of volunteer work bulleted out as experience.

For a newly graduated master of science in nursing, applying to a pediatric residency program:

Los Angelitos Orphanage, Tijuana, Mexico, Aug. 2015-present

Coordinator and volunteer, Foundation for the International Medical Relief of Children

  • Created volunteer mission, as chapter president, to collaborate with and support the orphanage, providing financial contributions and education materials.
  • Developed curriculum program to teach and reinforce safe hygiene practice, first aid and nutrition through interactive lessons, integrating English language vocabulary.
  • Guided 10 to 20 volunteers on ongoing site visits, improving the health and wellness of 20 resident children, aged 2 to 18.

For a Ph.D. graduate in comparative literature, looking to work in higher education administration:

Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation, 2013-2016

  • Served as liaison between the comparative literature department graduate employees and the GTFF union.
  • Contributed to decision making at council and organizational meetings; attended bargaining session between the university and the union.

While this student might want to consider the university’s attitude toward student unionization when they apply to jobs, the experience does showcase their experience communicating between different groups or stakeholders, and it indicates a willingness to serve as an advocate for others.

Service as Networking

Coaching graduate students early in their programs to recognize the marketability and value of their unpaid work, and to anticipate how this work could be attractive to their future employer, might also shape the way they design their years in graduate school. While, for many graduate students, the pressures of their graduate program preclude any other activity, others find release and balance in their service and leadership involvement. The reality is that such activities are rarely wasted time -- whether in terms of personal development or résumé construction.

Without diluting the underlying altruism and generosity that drives this work, graduate students can recognize and represent the bankable reality of these experiences as expressions of skills and sometimes subject-matter expertise. In an ideal world, students will also cultivate their networks they deepen this category of experience. The people they join in providing service, and the individuals they serve, can become meaningful connections that help to close the gap between graduate school and career.

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