I recently attended a career-themed panel discussion at an OSA Topical Meeting. Scientists and engineers from industry and academia were represented in the panel and the audience, so this was a great opportunity to hear from both sides how to most effectively write a resume and cover letter. Here are some of the highlights.
Tailor your resume.
Some of the take-away points on the age-old issue of resume layout and content were perhaps unsurprising. The panel reiterated the importance of tailoring your resume to each job application, listing experience and skills relevant to the position to which you’re applying. Be selective! An application for an industry role doesn’t require an in-depth publication list; a list of “selected publications” related to the role is sufficient. This becomes increasingly important as you get more experience and your project and/or publication lists grow. First, list the experience that is most applicable to this job opening, then, if space allows, additional information can be included. For each prospective job, rank your achievements and experience in order of pertinence and build your resume from there.
Personalize your cover letter.
While the resume conveys that you fill the prerequisites for the role, the cover letter is where you can show your enthusiasm. For example, you might highlight the experience and skills that are relevant not only to this role, but to the company’s mission statement or to the academic department’s broader research goals. The panel expressed their frustration with the frequency of generic cover letters crossing their desks, so put in the time and effort to make yours stand out and show that you’re passionate about the position.
Consider your personal interests.
Just how important is the “personal interests” section of a resume? Does a prospective employer actually pay attention to your extracurricular activities? This section is typically very short and devoted to showing a bit of your personality in just a few words. Do you love team sports? Craft beers? Rebuilding your robot vacuum cleaner so it can fetch your paper and brew your morning coffee? If so, be prepared to talk about it.
A hiring manager with several years of interviewing experience highlighted how this seemingly innocent list of hobbies can prove an important topic during the interview, and can be a potential downfall for a candidate. If an interviewee professes a love for playing basketball in their spare time, this manager will inquire as to the air pressure level they use when pumping up the basketball. When the audience expressed their shock at this line of interview questioning, the hiring manager simply explained that, in his view, a technically-minded person would know this information, or at least possess the skills to give a good estimate.
So, do you like to lift weights at the gym? Do you like playing the latest Call of Duty game interactively via a Bluetooth headset? Do you play racquet sports or guitar? If so, it’s time to do your homework. Be prepared to explain why you chose to include those particular personal interests, and explain how they could relate to the job that you’re applying for. This is another opportunity to make yourself stand out and show how uniquely qualified you are for a position.
Arlene Smith (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a research fellow in the department of internal medicine at the University of Michigan, U.S.A.