For many people, crafting a résumé is akin to dating. You spend hours getting ready, upselling your life to make yourself attractive, only to be left at the front door at the end of the night with a peck on the cheek, scratching your head trying to figure out why there was no spark and why things didn’t keep moving.
Clearly, the HR person on the other end chose someone else, judging your qualifications inappropriate for the position; or, worse, he or she totally overlooked you, the perfect candidate, without realizing what he or she was missing. It’s in the latter scenario that you can execute some degree of control, understanding how to create different résumés for different types of jobs.
This applies to both academic and nonacademic jobs, as the job search committees in each case are equally discerning and judgmental without ever meeting you.
Résumé advice books and websites always tell you to create a specific résumé and cover letter for each company. What these sites don’t understand is that you frequently don’t have time to spend many hours crafting a unique résumé for a particular position, especially not in this tough economy when people are applying for multiple jobs at once.
That said, there are some job applications that seem designed to torture you, especially in the case of those cleverly advertised jobs that make you happy to stay up until 3 a.m. writing the perfect academic cover letter or completing those endlessly extensive questionnaires for a public sector job.
Yet, so often, these painstakingly completed applications go nowhere, making you wonder why you bothered in the first place, particularly when you have more jobs to apply for. So, the question is: how do you make your résumé stand out among the crowd without spending a lot of time, particularly when your job search and life are crowded?
Last year, after a summer of failed interviews and useless HR screenings, I felt like I was against a brick wall in my job search. I no longer found my day job challenging and was keen for new horizons. The prospect of hitting the academic market for yet another year sickened me, but options in the professional job market seemed to be thinning out.
With my humanities-focused British Ph.D. and seven years of experience, three in communications and four in education research, it was as if neither academics nor the professional sphere knew what to do with me. In college, they always tell you that being multi-dimensional is a good thing. Not necessarily so when you’re trying to convince a potential employer that you’re the ideal person for a job for which on paper you either don’t have quite the right experience or are overqualified.
To my surprise, I found help, direction, and focus via a random connection I made through a LinkedIn alumni group. This guy, whom I will call Nigel to protect the innocent, also had a liberal arts Ph.D., but had achieved a dream career as the head of the research and publications division of a major management consultancy. I wrote to him of my career dilemma. Nigel quickly replied, asking me to send my résumé for his review. He then generously offered me a half hour of his time, during which he would give me feedback on my résumé.
I was convinced that Nigel would tell me that my true place was in academics, particularly as I had just gotten a contract to adapt my dissertation into a book. But, as I discovered, his tone was overwhelmingly positive, and his advice was simple and straightforward.
Nigel’s suggestions can be summed up as follows:
Have at least two active versions of your résumé that highlight different facets of your professional and academic experience. Nigel’s first suggestion was that I immediately divorce myself from the notion of having “a résumé.” Based on his understanding of my background, he advised that I create two résumés, one that played up my research and publications experience, and could be used for communications-related positions, and another that highlighted my management experience, which he classified as both my years as a manager in the nonprofit sector as well as my experience as a university instructor.
Be fearless in cutting, rewording, and collapsing parts of your résumé into larger concepts or bullets in order to describe your background. The second piece of advice Nigel gave me was perhaps the most painful: get rid of, or at least dramatically shorten, most of the Publications and Presentations section, even in my “research” résumé. Huh? What was the point of all those conferences, peer-reviewed articles, and professional publications if not as résumé builders?
“Résumé filler is just that,” he suggested. Employers, it seems, want to know the big picture. Nigel advised that I leave in major publications, like my book and most recent academic articles, and reduce my lengthy list of credits from my job as a communications manager to one line describing the range of publications for which I authored content. The awful truth, according to Nigel, is, “No employer, not even an academic one, cares if you wrote the most groundbreaking work ever to hit literary criticism. They want to know that you are an expert in your field, whatever that is, and can fully envision how you would do the job that they’re advertising.”
Boil down your major responsibilities. Nigel’s final comment was that my résumé had way too many bullets. Three or four bullets should be the rule for each position listed in the Experience section and one at most for each degree or study program listed the Education section. Most importantly, if you authored a master’s or doctoral thesis, do not include the full title of your academic research, unless this information is directly relevant to the position for which you’re applying, such as, obviously, an academic position. For my “research” résumé, this advice meant summarizing my content expertise and promoting my ability to write and research about a variety of topics; for my “management” résumé, I needed to re-present my leadership experience more succinctly in the vocabulary of team management and client relationship building.
At first, splitting my résumé into two and making extensive revisions felt grotesque. As a student of English literature, reducing and reorienting my publications list was rather like cutting off my own arm and then attempting to sew it back on. Yet, the resulting documents looked cleaner and seemed to present a clearer story of the development and different phases of my career.
While the job search process and fairytale endings rarely go hand in hand, I can say this: having multiple versions of my résumé sped up the application process considerably for many jobs and got me more face-to-face interviews. Ultimately, I think that my two résumés helped me more accurately target positions that were appropriate for my background, and made it easier and thus more pleasant to apply for them.
Jessica Quillin owns Quillin Consulting, LLC, a consultancy in Washington focused on content development, research, and strategy for the education and arts sectors. She holds a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Cambridge.