The little addons that add up to a standout CV


No matter where you get your career advice, you’ll hear the age-old reminder that “as a Ph.D., you’ve developed a set of transferable skills.” Yes, it’s true. Your analytical skills—honed over endless hours of labor—have value. Your writing skills developed from hours at your desk grinding out your thesis—those count as well.

But simply recognizing your transferable skills and highlighting them on your CV is not going to win you a job, no matter how you structure your application. That’s because everyone who earns a Ph.D. also develops those skills along the way.

What you really need is some way to differentiate yourself, to stand out from other job seekers. It doesn’t require a huge investment. I’m talking about a handful of ideas that aren’t all that difficult to integrate over the course of your training, but which can make all the difference when you need your application to rise to the top of the pile.

Small differentiation for big impact

Hiring managers, recruiters, and human resources staffers routinely look at dozens, sometimes hundreds, of CVs over the course of a week. After an hour or 90 minutes of this, our eyes can glaze over. We start flipping pages. We go from looking at people and their lives to scanning for keywords or phrases. It’s not that we don’t care. It’s just the reality of the job, and it happens to the best of us. 

But you can make sure your application doesn’t get lost in the crowd. Offer us something different to attract our attention. Give us a differentiator.

In one CV review session this week, for example, I was brought back from the brink of CV overload by a candidate who mentioned their “Table Topics Winner” award from their chapter of Toastmasters International, an organization that helps members develop their public speaking skills. I got a chuckle from seeing that little weekly award proudly positioned on the CV. But, because communication skills are important to the position I’m trying to fill, I also gave the CV a second look. I noted a few aspects of the candidate’s experience that I hadn’t seen before, which tied into the search requirements. So off to the “talk to” pile that person went!

Seeing this award that wasn’t all that impressive reminded me that there are things you can add to your CV to help you stand out that aren’t big investments of time and money. Some of these differentiators will have a meaningful, lifelong impact and require you to put in some serious effort. Others (like Toastmasters) are low-hanging fruit. To help you figure out what might work best for you, my colleague Ryan Raver and I put our heads together to come up with 10 things you can do—and put on your CV—to help separate you from the crowd.

  1. Publish in other areas of interest. Many people think that the only good publication is one that advances their science agenda. But I’m here to tell you that employers also want assurance that you can communicate well in writing, regardless of the topic. Can you contribute career-oriented pieces to your scientific association’s website? Is there a biotech newsletter targeting your region that could use some content? Finding material to fill their pages is a tough job for editors of trade publications. They may not be scientific journals, but they reach an audience of hiring managers.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, and you may have your own great ideas for the add-ons that will really work for you and your career objectives. But I’d like to offer a word of caution that some things you might be tempted to add are unlikely to provide the value you expect. For example, don’t bother with “associations” of unemployed and unhappy graduate students and postdocs that charge money to join. Mentioning these types of organizations on your CV will only label you in unattractive ways. And be cautious with big, expensive add-ons, such as an MBA. If you don’t already have a few years of industry experience under your belt, they often don’t have the expected value in the job market.

Instead, your best bet is to focus on the little add-ons. A few of these sprinkled on your CV and you’ll be far ahead of your job market competition when it comes to getting that document read!

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