PhD Questions of the Month: February 2021

Welcome to the seventh installment of our blog series, PhD Questions of the Month, where the Grad Student/Postdoc Team at Career Services answers the top 3 questions that we have been asked in our individual PhD career advising appointments. This month, we’ve gotten some questions about resumes and cover letters. If you have any questions about these documents as it relates to your job search or longer-term career goals or would like to have them reviewed, make an appointment to meet with a Career Advisor on Handshake!

Here are the top 3 questions we have been asked by PhD students and postdocs this month:

I know a resume should list experiences in reverse chronological order, but what if I have a very relevant experience (for a job I’m applying to) but it was a few years ago. What should I do?

If you find that your relevant experiences are not your most recent experiences, we recommend creating “Relevant Experience” and “Additional Experience” sections on your resume, so you can curate your most relevant experiences and put them in a section before your “less relevant” experiences. In some fields, you will have a resume that goes beyond a page, and we advise that you make sure the most important skills, experiences, and qualifications are listed on that first page. This way, you’ll prioritize the most important information for recruiters and hiring committees. Need help deciding which specific experience belongs under “relevant experience” or “additional experience”? Make an appointment with us!

I’m very interested in a particular job, but I don’t hit all of their qualifications listed. Should I mention all of the skills or experiences that I lack in my cover letter?

Since you usually only have two documents to demonstrate your qualifications for a job (cover letter and resume, and sometimes just resume), we don’t recommend taking up precious space in those documents to point out your weaknesses and elaborate on what skills or qualifications you lack. However, it’s a good idea to address what skills you’d be most excited to develop and what kinds of projects you’re most looking forward to working on, that build on the skills that you do have. For example, instead of saying “While I lack experience supervising a team…,” you can say “As an instructor, I manage classes of 20-30 undergraduate students, providing feedback individually and collectively to help students improve their performance. As a senior data scientist at X company, I’d be excited to mentor and lead a small team to… and develop my management skills as a supervisor through X, Y, and Z.” In general, avoid using negative language to describe what you lack, but instead, proactively address a possible area of weakness with concrete steps you’d be excited to take.

A formatting question. I’ve seen some nicely designed resume templates. Should I use one?

This depends on your personal preference. You can use a template, but sometimes they might not be flexible to allow you to make formatting changes where needed. As for the design aspect, most (if not all) recruiters and hiring committees will care more about the content of your resume than the style of it. For most companies and organizations that use Applicant Tracking Systems, where software is used to scan your resume for key words related to a specific job ad, an overly designed resume can throw off the scanning process, making it harder for your resume to end up in front of the hiring manager. Bottom line: you can use a template, but it might be best to avoid them so you can have total freedom in crafting your resume.

If you have more questions about resumes or cover letters, or if you’d like to chat with us about your career plans or job search, feel free to make an appointment with us. We look forward to working with you!

By Helen Pho
Helen Pho Associate Director, Graduate Students & Postdocs