Tag: job search tips

Helping students to draft CVs and resumes

In preparation for this week’s lab meeting I asked all of my students to put together a draft CV or resume. They each emailed it to the other members of the lab and we all made constructive comments on these documents. At our lab meeting each person gave feedback to each student on their document that was useful and insightful. It was also a great way to generate questions and have a good discussion about CVs and resumes.

One thing that all of my students noted was how time consuming it was to put together this document for the first time. We talked a lot about content (e.g. what should go into the document) and organization (e.g. what sections or headings to use?). I also impressed upon them the importance of updating the document regularly (I do mine once a month) because if you leave it too long it becomes very difficult to remember what you’ve accomplished. My students also have a tendency to undersell their skill set or they often don’t recognize that they have particular talents or skills. In a previous lab meeting we addressed that issue by brainstorming about transferrable skills and how to capture and describe them to an employer.

I also encouraged by students to take their drafts to our campus Career Centre. It’s been a while since I’ve been on the non-academic job market, or the academic job market for that matter, and the staff at the Career Centre are much better informed about current job market trends and application expectations. I think that part of my job as a faculty member is to help my students prepare for their next phase of life, whether that is looking for a job, further education, or some other goal. I think that professional development is an important part of training students in my lab.

Transferrable Skills

I generally think that graduate students under sell their skill sets to employers. Many graduate students think only of technical skills when they are putting together their CVs or resumes and it’s a real shame. They are failing to capture many great skills that they have developed during the course of their graduate degree and are not effective in highlighting these skills in job applications. Many researchers are competent in running gel electrophoresis protocols, but not as many have competencies in project management or leadership. It is these “soft skills” that will make one applicant stand out from the crowd.

I also think that many principle investigators (PIs) don’t realize that transferrable skills are absolutely required by students in this economy in order to get a job. It is no longer enough to be technically competent; employers are looking for what additional value a researcher can bring to the job. I’ve always been dismayed by hearing stories from students about how their supervisor discourages them from attending professional development workshops. I think that this “chained to the bench” attitude has no place in science.

It is for this very reason that I encourage my graduate students to participate in professional development workshops, go to conferences and meetings, collaborate with other scientists, and take part in student government or organizations. These are opportunities that I took advantage of as a graduate student and post-doctoral fellow and they have served me well over the years. Frankly, these experiences (and the skills that I acquired participating in them) have provided me with an edge over the competition at every transition that I’ve faced in my research career.

Let’s talk about some tangible examples using the case study below. This is a case study that I’ve made up, but many graduate students would be doing these activities during the course of their degree.

Janet has just completed her thesis based M.Sc. degree in the laboratory of Dr. Jones. Her thesis involved the identification and cloning of a gene involved in the biosynthesis of digestive enzymes in mouse saliva. She also characterized the enzymatic activity of the protein encoded by the gene. During the course of her project, Janet was assigned two undergraduate summer research assistants by Dr. Jones to assist her with data collection. Janet’s research has led to the publication of 2 peer-reviewed research articles and 3 conference presentations. While in graduate school Janet was employed as a Teaching Assistant for a 3rd year undergraduate biochemistry course laboratory.

Here is a list of the obvious soft skills that Janet has acquired during her degree:

i) Ability to plan, execute, and finish a multi-year project

ii) Ability to supervise and manage staff

iii) Scientific writing skills

iv) Ability to present information in oral/written format

v) Networking skills

vi) classroom management

v) Ability to evaluate the performance of others

vi) Ability to work effectively with a supervisor


Some other skills that Janet might have gained along the way:

i) Teaching skills

ii) Ability to manage a research budget

iii) Ability to receive and use constructive feedback/criticism

iv) Ability to work as an individual and part of a team

v) Troubleshooting and problem solving skills

vi) Ability to adapt to new challenges quickly

You can see that the potential soft skills that could be developed by Janet during the course of her degree are diverse and that I have not included any of Janet’s technical skills (e.g. molecular biology skills, enzymatic characterization techniques, etc.) in this list. Obviously when you are putting together your CV or resume as a student you only want to list soft skills that you believe are relevant and that are your strengths. You also want to think about tailoring your application package to the specific job for which you are applying. When you think about your soft skills in addition to your technical skills, a larger range of job opportunities become available. Casting a wide net in terms of identifying potential employment prospects is a smart move these days.

Academic Interviewing: Finding and Evaluating Academic Job Ads

In the usual ebb and flow of the academic job market postings are advertised in the fall with application deadlines in December or January. In this post I offer some advice on how to identify and evaluate academic job postings for research and teaching tenure-track positions.

1) The first trick is to find academic job postings. When I was on the market for a job I had already spent some time identifying where jobs in my field of science were often posted. Two great resources for academic job listings in Canada are the CAUT (Canadian Association of University Teachers’) Bulletin (http://www.caut.ca/) and University Affairs (http://www.universityaffairs.ca/default.aspx). In addition I had a list of specific universities where I wanted to work and frequently checked their Human Resources page for career opportunities for Faculty positions.

2) The second important tip is to spend some time thinking about what you want in a career and how that fits with your personal and professional goals. Spending the time to really figure out what you want (and sometimes equally important what you don’t want) is time well spent. There is no point in applying to job ads if the “fit” between you and the position is poor.

3) You’ve located a job ad that looks like a good opportunity. Your next step is to very carefully read the job ad in detail. In particular you want to determine:

a) What position is the ad for? Is it tenure-track? A limited-term appointment? A short-term contract? It is being advertised for someone at the beginning, middle, or near the end of their career?

b) Is the academic area of the position a comfortable fit for you? A bit of a stretch? A massive stretch? Can you really do the job? Do you have the research, teaching, and/or service experience to be successful in the position?

c) Where is the job? What country, province, and city is the job in? What kind of institution is offering the job (e.g. university, private institute, etc.)? What do you know about the institution and its culture? What department is the posting in? Can you live and work in this geographical location and be happy?

All of the above points are usually revealed in the first one to two sentences of the job posting. That’s a lot to think about before you dive further into the job ad!

4) So far, so good! This looks like a job that could be a good fit. Now you will want to determine:

a) What set of knowledge and skills are they looking for (e.g. Plant Physiologist, Particle Physicist, Urban Geographer)? Can you make a solid argument that you fit this description?

b) What do they tell you about the duties of the job? Is it a teaching position, a research position, or a bit of both? Does the type of position match with your career goals?

c) Will you be interacting with undergraduates and/or graduate students? Do they list any specific courses that they are looking to cover?

d) Do you need to set-up and fund an active research program?

These things can be determined by reading the body of the job ad. You want to go over this section of the ad with a fine tooth comb in order to ensure that you have a very clear understanding of what they are looking for.

5) Still interested? Now you need to figure out how to apply to this job.

a) When is the application deadline? Do you have the time to put together an excellent and solid application package and meet this deadline?

b) Who is receiving the package? Is it the search committee chair, the departmental chair, an administrative assistant?

c) What has to be included in the package? The usual components are a curriculum vitae (CV), research plan or proposal, and a teaching statement or portfolio. Sometimes ads will request 3 reference letters up front, but recently many committees are only asking for these if you make the short list of candidates for the position. Are there any other pieces requested in the application (e.g. professional portfolio, etc.)?

d) How do you send the materials? Email? Snail-mail?

Your in-depth analysis has indicated that this is a job you are interested in that may be a good fit for your future career aspirations. The next step is to get busy and start putting your application package together.