Recently I was asked by a university's postdoc association and graduate student council to spend a day in individual meetings with their members. The idea was that I would conduct 15- to 20-minute "interviews" with each of them, reviewing their CVs as a human resources person or busy hiring manager might do before sending an applicant on for interviews with the rest of the team.
It was a helpful experience for me, because after a few years of concentrating on the résumés of senior scientists, board members, and vice presidents, I needed a refresher in what entry-level marketing materials look like today from new grads and postdocs. My interviewees were from every discipline you can think of in science and engineering.
I had one major issue with the CVs I reviewed: Almost all of them lacked focus. Without that vital ingredient, your CV won't have the sharp edge that it needs in this kind of job market. No one will take the time to determine what you are capable of doing if you don't make that point yourself.
This lack of focus may arise from the fact that, for academic jobs, the CV is expected to list absolutely everything you've ever done, written, applied for, and so on. Not so in industry. In companies including consulting firms and every type of science and engineering employer, hiring managers with a job to fill will be looking for the right fit in your document. (I won't go into the specifics of an industry CV here; for that explanation, see CVs That Open Industry Doors and Put Some Muscle Into Your Marketing Materials.)
Résumé real estate
Focus means preparing your CV so that it resonates with the needs of the employer. There needs to be concordance between the job description and your application. Grad students and postdocs are used to defining themselves with respect to a particular niche or field of science; they're not used to tying their capabilities directly to an employer's requirements. This tie-in is essential for industry jobs, and it needs to occur in a place where it will be noticed immediately.
The term "résumé real estate" has been used for decades by recruiters and résumé-writing firms. Just like "real" real estate, the value of the "real estate" on your CV depends on the same three things: location, location, and location. The high-value area--the really prime location on your CV--is the top half of the front page of the document, whereas the "slums" are found on the last page. The value of résumé real estate is determined by the chances of something being seen during the typical 30-second review your document gets in the initial screening.
I demonstrated to the group of students the way a CV is typically scanned by an HR staffer or a busy hiring manager. I needed to make obvious how little time is spent reviewing what the applicant has taken days or weeks to put together. One graduate student, an electrical engineer, was upset that I didn't go over each page in detail. "I believe you might have missed my 'awards and recognition' section and possibly even my presentations," he noted with concern.
Of course I missed it; it wasn't right in front of my nose. HR staff will miss it too, and, unless you make it onto HR's short list, the hiring manager will probably miss it. After all the work and time spent preparing that document, it's hard to believe that a reader could skim right over an important section or fail to get that far. But that is what happens every day.
The overwhelming question on the mind of the hiring manager as she scans your material is, "What's In it For Me?" Let's call it "WIFM" for short. Addressing the hiring manager's "WIFM"--as well as the actual job requirements--should be your focus as you prepare the document. For those of you having difficulty with the transition to industry thinking, yes, I'm talking about customizing your CV for each job application.
The aforementioned engineer had this part covered; his CV contained a lot of information about how well he fit the job opening--but it was hidden back in the slums of his CV while my attention stayed mainly on the high-end, oceanfront condos on the front page (and on his cover letter). He made the problem a lot worse by squandering that high-value CV real estate with one of the biggest wasters of space there is, the "objective statement."
Many books and articles erroneously suggest that one of the best uses of the top of your document is this "objective statement." Even some of my older articles suggest incorporating this if you are targeting jobs outside academia. But times change and so does résumé advice. The old-style "objective statement" ends up being a piece of utter BS imprinted blindly and without modification on the top of every industry CV that goes out. Here's an example:
Objective: Experienced microbiologist seeks to move from bench research to applied process sciences for a therapeutics or animal health division of a dynamic Fortune 1000 company. Creative, fast learner with a past record of success.
The example above isn't all bad, as it interests the reader, at least a little, in learning more. The problem is that "objectives" like this never change. No matter where the application is going, the statement is always the same. Objective statements are also famous for tired phrases, such as "seeking a fast-growing and dynamic organization" or "seeking stimulating work where I can put my creative abilities and interpersonal skills to good use."
Of course, the single biggest issue with the old-fashioned objective statement is that no one really cares what your objective is. Employers would like you to think they care, but their sole concern is whether you fit the opening and have the six items on their checklist. They are in too big of a hurry for much else. So why not give them what they want?
A statement of qualifications
What needs to go in this extraordinarily valuable piece of résumé real estate is something that grabs the reader's attention and tells him or her how you fit the job--in other words, the answer to the WIFM question. Particularly in the Wild West job market of 2009–10, you have to spell it out for them.
Can't you just cover that turf in the cover letter? You can and you must. But cover letters and CVs often part ways, so the cover letter doesn't completely meet your concern. Replace that tired "objective" statement with a "statement of qualifications": a short paragraph that can be modified to fit each and every job you apply for. Something like this:
Qualified By: Five years of post-Ph.D. microbiology experience in classical mutation and recombinant strain development. Fermentation process development expertise, with hands-on experience using bench-top to 20-liter fermenters. Microbial physiology skills include analytical biochemistry, nutritional analysis, and process debugging.
See how much more "punch" the second version has? The differences are even more important than it might seem, however, because much of what he wrote in that statement was drawn directly from the job description. Better still, other parts were based on information this candidate got by picking my brain about unstated work requirements and then talking to others about the opening. It's also true; you can't fake a good fit.
With the number of people looking for jobs today, you need to look like a "must call" in just 30 seconds. Don't force the reader to go beyond that first page. At the top comes your contact information, followed by the statement of qualifications. After that comes a brief account of your education and professional or research experience, all on the front page. It may be that you don't have room on page one for all your experience. In that case, make certain you have at least your current position on the front page, along with a description that brings up points from your summary of qualifications.
Nowhere in the field of job seeking will you find more conflicting and confusing advice than on the topic of résumés and CVs. This issue is compounded by the fact that today's job market seems to require a more aggressive stance than in previous recessions. As always, a lot of advice in numerous books and articles is general, directed to those who have chosen the most popular careers. A two-page résumé may be perfectly fine for an experienced accountant but not for an experienced scientist.
I'll close with an aside: I don't advocate two-page résumés for most people, unless they are seeking a business position. But I certainly do recommend succinct writing--and, in particular, a recognition that anything important had better be spelled out in prime résumé real estate. If your CV extends to 3 to 5 pages or more, that may be fine, but just make certain you answer the employer's WIFM question while you have their attention.