From CV to Resume

I am frequently asked how to write an effective resume when the vast majority (or all) your experience is in academia. There are many guides out there about writing a resume, and I don’t want to add to that vast literature. But I’ve never seen anything that explains why resumes are so different from vitae. Because nobody bothers to explain this, I’ve found that academics have a hard time adjusting to the resume writing process, which causes them to make needless mistakes.

Let’s think about vitae for a moment. Every academic field is a bit different, of course. But no matter what your area, there will be a very specific set of sections to your vita: education, publications, talks given, grants received, courses taught, service assignments, and references, for example. Furthermore, little or no explanation is required in those sections. Your audience already knows all about your field, knows what to expect in a vita, understands what’s entailed when you’re teaching a class, and probably even knows which journals, conferences, and publishers are the most prestigious. This, of course, is why vitae are basically lists divided into sections.

Now imagine that you had to write a vita that would be read by someone who didn’t understand all of these facts about the nuts and bolts of academic life. Suppose you had taught a large freshman level intro course, with a few teaching assistants who ran the discussion sections. To another academic, you’d just tell them that it was a big intro course, and they’d be able to fill in a lot of the details.

But this is not true for someone outside academia, even if they have a college degree. “Large lecture course” could mean almost anything. Sure, students at your university know what “large” means. But someone reading your vita, who went to a different kind of school, might not. But even your own students rarely, if ever, really understand what goes into teaching a course like that. You wouldn’t want your students to be in charge of evaluating your work experience without someone providing a goods explanation of what you’ve really had to do at your job.

But that’s who is going to read your resume. Even an intelligent, college educated person who really wants to understand your experience could be totally misled by the description “taught large lecture course”. And I’ve deliberately chosen teaching as an example because that’s the one part of an academic position that people have the easiest time relating to.

Consider another example. Let’s say you’ve published a paper in the highly prestigious “Fancy Journal”. You and your colleagues know that Fancy Journal has a really low acceptance rate, that it’s read by everyone in your field, and so on. But what does a layperson know about this impressive accomplishment? Nothing. So, quite naturally, they try to relate it to something they have some experience with. This means that they have no reasonable choice except to equate it with blog posts, trade publications, Newsweek, and so on. These assumptions obviously diminish your qualifications.

I think it’s safe to say that teaching and publishing are the most relatable aspects of an academic job. But they’re useless or even detrimental as experience on a resume unless they’re explained. If grant writing is part of your experience, then you’ve got something even more mysterious on your vita/resume.

This is why it’s crucial to switch away from a vita mindset to a resume mindset. Someone reading your resume wants to know what you’ve done, and what it says about your skills. I guarantee that if you do not explain your experience on your resume, you will cause a lot of frustration for anyone reading it. Explaining your work will feel awkward because you’ve never had to do it before; you’ve always had an audience that understood the vocabulary and already had a very similar work history. People often tell me, “I feel like I’m just bragging on my resume, and I feel like I’m being obnoxious.” My advice is this: get over it! By explaining the skills necessary to do your academic work, you’re doing your reader a favor. If you don’t, you’re wasting your reader’s time. In fact, you risk making your reader frustrated and angry.

Soon, I’ll write a follow-up post about how to translate your academic work experience into language that’s appropriate for the private sector. But in practice, what I’ve found is that this step is pretty easy for most people, once they’ve gotten past thinking of their resume as just another vita.

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