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5 Best Practices for Resume Writing That Transitioning PhDs Need to Know

This is the fourth article in my Transitioning PhD Blog Series. 

Transitioning academics often contact me for assistance in writing their resumes because it’s one of my areas of specialty—and because I’ve been in their shoes. Simply put, I know what it’s like to look at a CV and wonder how I should change it to a resume. (Before starting my consulting practice, I “tried out” other roles, all of which required a resume.) Since my own departure from academia, I’ve worked with PhDs—from grad students through tenured professors—representing dozens of disciplines as they took steps to leave academia. In this article, I’ll outline my top five best practices for creating an effective, compelling resume.

Before proceeding, I must offer a note on terminology. When I use “resume” below, I’m referring to the document that is commonly used in the for-profit and non-profit sectors in North America. In contrast, this document is called a CV in the UK (confusing, I know, because CV in North America typically refers to the lengthy document academics and medical doctors use). Also, the advice in this article is not meant to apply to resumes used for federal job applications within the United States. The federal resume is a whole other animal that isn’t addressed below.

Without further ado… let’s dive into the practices.

Best Practice #1: Write from the reader’s perspective.

I have said that sentence at least half a dozen times a week since learning about George Gopen’s approach to writing when I was a tutor at Duke’s Writing Studio. It resonated with me because we often only think of ourselves when we write our application documents. After all, we are writing about our experiences! But this phrase and mindset helps us reframe our approach. It is a crucial consideration for career changers who often have to communicate to an audience who does not have the same perspective, or even vocabulary.

In the context of the resume, take a comprehensive look at your background and experiences and decide what to include based on what your potential employer will value. In most cases, a person’s side hustle of being a freelance photographer wouldn’t be relevant. But if that person is looking to transition away from being a social scientist and into a sales or customer relations role, then the ability to acquire clients and maintain relationships with them might be EXACTLY the type of information an employer wants to see—much more than the highly technical details of a research methodology.

Rather than a CV, which assumes the reader understands your accomplishments, a resume must be understandable to both a generalist and a specialist. Because of this, provide context liberally. Don’t assume a reader knows what is involved in being an instructor or running a lab. Remember, many people have a preconceived notion that professors work a few hours a week during each semester—and have summers off. (Yes, I’m serious. People think this.)

Handling grants and fellowships are a good example for this practice. Whereas in a CV, an applicant would likely just list these awards, on a resume they might be translated to highlight a particular skill, such as research or writing. “Research excellence demonstrated by successfully applying for and receiving 9 grants and fellowships totaling $157,000 in support of dissertation research project, including from the National Science Foundation.” Notice the intentional duplicate use of “research.” Not all readers would know that the dissertation is a research project. The previous statement makes it clear and reinforces the writer’s claim of having research skills.

Best Practice #2: Make design decisions based on your unique situation.

 For instance, some clients come to me with assumptions about the length of their resume. I’m here to tell you that I write resumes that range from one to three pages in length for just about all early to mid-career professionals. I had one person tell me I “batted 1,000” with a one-page resume, while another client recently blindly submitted (meaning the client did not know anyone at the hiring company) to a large pharmaceutical company with a three-page resume and got called for an interview within a few days. Another client got called for interviews at several tech giants with a two-pager. Truly, applicants should take into consideration their individual situations. For some graduate students and PhD-holders, one page would simply be insufficient, whereas others would have a much stronger one-page resume than a two-pager. For some clients, I’ve written a resume that functions as either a two- or three-pager, with the third page being dedicated to conference presentations and publications that only a segment of their potential readers would value.

Consider these two related, guiding questions as you make decisions about the length of your resume, and even when you contemplate which sections to include and how to label them (e.g., “Community Leadership” versus “Volunteering”):

  • What must the reader know to realize I’m a strong fit?
  • Am I educating the reader on what makes me qualified for this role?

Remember, readers won’t know your qualifications, skills, accomplishments, and overall fit for a role unless you tell them.

Best Practice #3: Write for two primary audiences: the human reader and the computer reader.

 For a person, consider visual appeal and what I call “skim-ability.” Research has shown you only have about 6-10 seconds to entice a person to decide to read your resume carefully. Hint: People tend to skim down the left-hand side of the page during those first crucial seconds of reading, so make sure it captures the reader’s attention by incorporating strong, action verbs at the beginning of bullet points. Banish the phrase “responsible for” from your resume; you can do better than that when describing what you do.

For a computer reader, what I mean is that the resume might go through an applicant tracking system (ATS). If so, the use of well-placed keywords is particularly important. But rather than use keyword vomit (that’s my official term) mindlessly throughout your resume, or in a list that appears unrelated to your work experiences, try to incorporate keywords into your job descriptions. In addition, you might include keywords in a skills section, if you choose to use one. In other words, don’t just assert your skills; show the reader how you have put them to good use. Doing so will be helpful for both human and computer readers.

Wondering whether your resume will go through an ATS? A hint is to look at the size of the organization. If it is so large that hiring is a continual or near continual occurrence and it has the financial backing to pay for an ATS (or for a recruiter who likely uses one), then the chances are good a tracking system will scan your resume. Keep formatting basic, although you can use common bullet points. To err on the side of caution, I prefer using a single column resume rather than two (or more) columns, which can be problematic for tracking systems.

Best Practice #4: Lean toward showing accomplishments, results, and how you completed tasks rather than just listing responsibilities.

Everyone has tasks and responsibilities but not everyone delivers on those responsibilities in the same way. Here’s a common example I discuss with clients:

  • Original: Conducted research.
  • Revised: Completed 2 clinical and 3 laboratory research projects, resulting in 4 first-author publications and selection for a university-wide award in recognition of research excellence.

Both are equally true. But which one is stronger because it clearly demonstrates concrete results? Likewise, consider one more example:

  • Original: Mentored student.
  • Revised: Supervised research of a senior undergraduate who won first place in a competitive departmental essay competition.

For each job description or bullet point, ensure you provide enough context for a layperson to understand but then enough detail for someone who might be your peer or boss to appreciate what you’ve accomplished in the past. The not-so-subtle message is that you’ll continue to be a high performer.

Best Practice #5: Don’t make the reader work for it.

What I mean here is that it’s best to assume the reader is busy and possibly distracted, so make sure the words you choose are meaningful and direct so you grab the reader’s attention. Remember, on average, you have 10 seconds or less to get someone to stop and really examine your resume.

For example, if you have a profile section (and I recommend most people have one), don’t start with fluffy adjectives. No one wants to read that you’re a “results-oriented, self-motivated, driven, and problem-solving professional in the life sciences field with 7 years of research experience.” That description made the reader suffer through 11 needless words before landing on anything concrete: life sciences. Favor nouns and strong action verbs over adjectives and adverbs. Consider this revision: “Neurobiologist with 7 years of research experience that has resulted in 9 publications (3 first-author publications in premier journals).” Better yet, emphasize your areas of specialty if they are relevant to the readers’ interests and needs.


In over five years of writing resumes for clients, I have come to a conclusion that initially surprised me. The thoughtful construction of a resume is a tool to empower job seekers. Yes, the physical product is a document, but the ultimate end result is typically a person who gets a confidence boost, which helps him or her land a job. In the words of one PhD client who transitioned from musicology into project management: “I never knew I looked so good on paper!” By crafting a compelling resume that positions you as a qualified candidate for the position to which you are applying, you’ll be less nervous and more empowered when networking and doing informational and employment interviews.

Heidi owns and operates Career Path Writing Solutions, a communications consulting firm dedicated to helping individuals and businesses communicate when it matters most. She delights in helping job seekers navigate career change and guiding business owners to present their value proposition persuasively. Heidi earned her PhD in history from Duke University and teaches professional development for various university programs and organizations. She holds certifications in resume writing, interview preparation, and empowerment coaching, and sits on the Certification Committee of the Professional Association of Resume Writers and Career Coaches.

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