Fatimah Williams Castro

Founder & CEO at Beyond the Tenure Track

Do You Speak Résumé?

Full mary loomis

Image: Mary Texanna Loomis/Library of Congress

Your CV is a long and detailed record of your achievements. Education, research, teaching, service — it’s all there. By contrast, a résumé is like a highlight reel. There’s a lot you’re going to have to leave out as you transform your CV into a résumé. And what you leave in will have to be reworded.

Unlike a CV, a résumé has to give the context for your academic achievements and experiences. That context is usually put in the form of some challenge or problem you faced, and how you handled it. Each description on your résumé should focus on outcomes and results — illustrating your contribution to a particular solution, project, or goal.

The idea is to show a hiring manager just how you’ve used the skills you say you possess, and their relevance to the job for which you are applying.

Fair warning: You will spend a lot of time trying to describe — briefly — on your résumé what you’ve done and what you would like to do. Basically it’s a translation exercise that you will, most likely, find time-consuming and burdensome. As a career consultant, I work with Ph.D.’s who are pursuing a nonacademic career, and I’ve seen plenty of them get stuck on the rewording. Here’s a simple three-part formula I use to help people get unstuck, and to craft résumé descriptions in a way that illustrates the value and relevance of their past experience to nonacademic employers:

  • Challenge: What was the challenge or problem?
  • Action: What action did you take to deal with the problem? If you worked in a group, try to describe the specific action you took that contributed to the group’s work, or your role in making the group work effectively and efficiently.
  • Result: What result came from the actions you took?

Now let’s put that formula into practice. Say you’re a doctoral student who has been treasurer of the university’s graduate-student association. Your initial stab at describing that service work for your résumé might look like this:

  • Challenge: Graduate-student association took too long to reimburse its 300-plus members for out-of-pocket expenses. It was difficult to manage all the requests so reimbursements often took more than 90 days.
  • Action: Created a streamlined system and a form for processing reimbursements. Made form available for download on association website.
  • Result: Reimbursements are now processed within 30 days of receipt.

The next step is to condense that information into a single bullet-point description for your résumé. Here’s one way to do that:

Treasurer, State University Graduate Student Association

  • Streamlined the system of processing reimbursements for a 300-member organization, reducing time to reimbursement from 90 days to 30 days.

Remember, the résumé is the highlight reel. You will have an opportunity to flesh out all the details and tell a compelling narrative about yourself in your interview. At this point, readers may be thinking, “Great, but how do I use this method to describe teaching and research that do not have clear results?”

I’m glad you asked. I used the same approach to help a creative-writing professor and award-winning (yet financially struggling) novelist secure a job creating digital content at a media company. His CV featured a lengthy list of universities in the Unites States and abroad where he’d taught courses and workshops. No company would be interested in all the details of his many teaching assignments. However, a company might be interested to know that he can write for American and global audiences and that he has experience teaching adult and youth audiences. Here’s how we transformed that part of his CV for his résumé:

  • Created instructional curriculum and assessments for youth and adult learners at 8 public and private universities in the U.S., Europe and the Caribbean, offering short writing intensives, residencies, and semester courses.

Note: We showed the context. We quantified some details. And we swapped academic language for industry language, and highlighted the outcomes.

If you’re serious about seeking a nonacademic job, you will have to get over the pain of trimming pages and pages of your CV down to a paragraph. I did just that with a public-health professor who wanted to move to a government agency or a foundation working on health care. In particular, she applied for positions in monitoring and evaluation (M&E) and program management. Such positions require a deep knowledge of qualitative and quantitative skills, research design, crossdisciplinary collaborations, and project management.

On her CV, that information was spread out over six pages. For her résumé, we consolidated those pages into a brief entry showing the context, quantifying the number of team members she’s worked with, stripping out the discipline-specific language, and listing the results:

  • Convened, as part of a 6-person team, a symposium of 120 researchers and health practitioners on challenges in designing culturally appropriate and theoretically rigorous measures to study diverse aging populations. Resulted in the publication of 4 articles in the Journal of Aging and Health.

In that single description, the job applicant shows she has designed research projects, published results, worked with practitioners, organized a large meeting, and successfully collaborated.

It can be tempting to keep your nicely organized and well-crafted descriptions from your CV and simply cut and paste a few relevant ones to create the résumé. That simply will not do. You must describe your background and skills from the perspective of the type of position you want, and in the language and values of your potential employers. I dedicate anywhere from 8 to 12 hours to help clients convert their CV into a résumé, depending on the length of the vita and the complexity of the career transition.

If you are successful in this conversion process, you not only will have an effective résumé, but you also are more empowered to apply for the jobs you want, clearer about your skills, and focused on how to talk about yourself in the postacademic job world.

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