#alt-ac 101

The #Alt-Ac Job Search 101: Writing a Résumé, Part I – The Master List

Let’s dismiss one big lie right off the bat: no matter what mygradskills.ca or your university tells you, there is no such thing as turning your C.V. into a résumé. Career professionals who work with PhDs phrase résumé writing as converting your C.V. to make people who have only ever written a C.V. feel more at home and less like they’re starting from scratch, but we’re stretching the truth by using words like “converting” to describe the process. Yes, a C.V. and a résumé are both documents that contain lists of things you’ve done and degrees you hold. Yes, they both usually follow some sort of chronological order. But that’s about where the similarities stop, and their differences are major.

A C.V. is intended to be a catalogue of your professional accomplishments, and a comprehensive one. It is intended to show what you did, and when. At most, it has a few columns, some subheadings, and a little light bolding and italicizing as formatting. In all likelihood, it contains no qualifying or descriptive information about any of its entries. A résumé, on the other hand, is not comprehensive but highly selective. It is intended less to demonstrate what you did but how, using what skills, and to what effect. It qualifies and describes almost everything, normally using CAR (challenge-action-result) statements. And it can have formatting ranging from the generic to the highly graphic. To attempt to turn a ten or fifteen page C.V. into a two-page résumé is not only nearly impossible–it is, from my experience, counter-productive and results in a résumé that is both harder to write and not nearly as good.

So, let’s start fresh.

Keep your C.V. open, because you’re going to want to remember things that you did during the job that was the PhD, but we’ll let the résumé be it’s own thing. And for the moment, a résumé isn’t what we’re going to be writing. What we are going to write is a skills and experiences master list. This is the master document of all of the skills and experiences you’ve amassed in your life thus far, along with descriptors of those skills and accomplishments and, ideally, with quantifiable outcomes of your actions. Here’s how to start creating your master list:

1. Collect

Write down all of the things you do in your current job as a graduate student/postdoctoral fellow/contract or tenure-track academic faculty. Don’t forget to think about the whole breadth of your job: teaching, research, writing, administrative work, editing and publishing, conferencing, writing funding applications, service work, supervision and mentorship, etc. 
Do the same for any jobs you’ve had outside of academia, or in academia but in academic administration. At this point, keep the things you’ve done grouped together by job–there are a number of ways you can choose to arrange them later, some of which will divorce your skills and accomplishments from any specific job, others that will keep them grouped together under the umbrella of one specific role and employer.

2. Assign skills 

Assign skills, or multiple skills, to each of those things you do or have done. Include both hard and soft skills. For example:

  • conferencing and teaching should get associated with the skills of public speaking, tailoring communications to the needs of a diverse audience, oral communication, and using online learning technologies like Moodle or Blackboard
  • administrative work might get associated with ability to prioritize and meet multiple and competing deadlines, attention to detail, ability to manage high volumes of work, and proficiency with Microsoft Office and the Adobe suite of programs
  • writing and publishing articles requires skills like written communication, ability to take and make use of feedback, editing, using LaTeX, and synthesizing and communicating complex ideas to a varied audience. 

If you’re having a hard time figuring out what skills are associated with each of the things you’ve done in your working life, it’s often useful to look at job postings in fields that are of interest to you and see what skills they specifically look for; you can also look at general lists of résumé skills for inspiration.

3. Frame as CAR statements

Then, start framing the things you do and the skills you use to do them as CAR statements–challenge, action, result. These are accomplishment statements that frame things you do in terms of the skills you employ to do them, and the tangible outcomes of your actions. The “challenge” part of CAR statements is a bit misleading, as the challenge is usually implicit in the statement by the time you’re done composing it, although it can be useful to spell it out as you begin crafting it. You’ll also find that your skills sometimes become more implicit than explicit once they’re framed as CAR statement. Here are a few examples of how to go about turning a “thing you do” into a CAR statement; these are things from my actual résumé(s):

  • Thing I did: identified the fact that my university wasn’t nominating enough PhDs for high-level doctoral scholarships, and figured out ways to get more applicants
  • CAR statement: Conceived and implemented creative communication, recruitment, and proposal development processes and strategies that have increased Vanier and Trudeau PhD award applications by 1200% and tripled number of Vanier award winners 
    • skills noted in this CAR statement: communication, process improvement, strategy development and implementation, grant development
  • Thing I did: researched and wrote academic articles and reports for work
  • CAR statement: Performed sophisticated qualitative and quantitative research and analysis that informed policy/program development (including the creation of York University’s Graduate Professional Skills program), furthered institutional research objectives, and expanded knowledge in the fields of Canadian literature, digital humanities, and higher education studies
    • skills noted in this CAR statement: qualitative and quantitative research, policy analysis and development, written communication
  • Thing I did: co-founded a peer-reviewed online journal
  • CAR statement: Co-founded and managed an open-access digital peer-reviewed journal that created skill-building opportunities for graduate students, enhanced the reputation of York University’s graduate program in English, and created a needed venue to showcase innovative interdisciplinary humanities research that averages over 100 downloads per issue
    • skills noted in this CAR statement: initiative, project and people management skills, coordination skills, computer skills 
Note the use of language in all of the CAR statements–they are never full sentences (bullet points only), never use the first person (or pronouns of any kind, actually), and always start with an active verb (conceived, implemented, performed, managed, etc). If you get stuck varying your active verbs, there are lots of lists out there to give you ideas. 

4. Collect evidence of results

Collect quantitative and qualitative results of your actions wherever possible–did your redesign of the online course you took over reduce the drop rate by 10%? Did your grant writing skills net you and your collaborators over $1M in research funding? Were your teaching evaluations 5% better than everyone else in your department? Did your article get cited 142 times? Did your students praise your teaching and mentorship skills in your course evals? Collect that data, and add it to the results part of your CAR statements.

5. Decide how to organize 

Now that you’ve got your master list of CAR statements and employment experiences, you have to decide how you want to organize them all. Do you want to leave your CAR statements grouped in relationship to a specific job title–Researcher, Instructor, Tutor, Professor–or do you want to group them by skills? There are advantages to both, and resume types that align more closely with each one. For people looking for their first #altac job, I often think that grouping CAR statements by skill makes things a little easier. Job descriptions and postings are, after all, most often organized by skills required, and having your own skills grouped together in the categories that might show up in a job posting–oral, written, and interpersonal communication; organization, planning, coordination; leadership and team building; research and analysis; technical skills–can make seeing the connections between your experience and the job you’re interested in clearer.

6. Take a breather

For now, you’re done. Overwhelmed? That’s understandable. But you’ve now got a master document that’s going to allow you to effectively and efficiently create a perfectly tailored résumé aimed at each job you’re applying for. And that’s what we’ll talk about next time. 

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