I find that academics are particularly prone to this mistake, as they have been taught as researchers and writers to qualify their statements and to categorize based on strict criteria. But in the “real world,” the basis for describing reality is not limited to strict research criteria, and relevance depends more on one’s perspective and explanation.
- Too often, no one asks the question, "Is the experience (from work, during education or from some other activity) relevant to the job being applied for?"
- Too often, we act on the assumption that any experience that happened more than 10 years ago is too old to be included on a resume.
- Too often, we assume that we can’t include experiences that occurred in a non-work environment, or that aren’t exactly like the job to be included.
- Too often, we do not analyze the job description sufficiently to consider what we have done in our lives that might be relevant to the job, or we completely forget about things we’ve done that might be relevant.
Dan’s story, below, illustrates many of those points.
Dan was about to graduate with a Ph.D. in geology and was looking for his first job in that field. It was just after the dot com bust and even though he wasn’t in IT, he was finding the job market tougher than he had expected.
He’d applied for several positions as field geologist for several reasons. First, he wanted a change from grad school, with more lab and library work than he really enjoyed, especially following several years work as a GIS technician. And, he also thought it could be easier to get started in a job that fewer men with families would want, as some of these jobs required one to work in isolated locations for weeks at a time.
He came to me at the university for help with his resume. It wasn’t that bad, but we agreed that he could bring out a little more information about his science courses and lab work.
After a few more questions, I found that he’d even had a Teaching Assistantship for a field geology class one summer, but they’d surveyed along highway cuts, and had not camped out, nor hiked more than a few hundred feet.
He didn’t think it showed his ability in the field, and didn’t think it "counted" as field work, so he had not even listed the topic in that section of his resume.
We changed the title from "Teaching Assistantship" to "Field Geology Teaching Assistantship," and described it by listing the major geologic formations reviewed, which were certainly relevant to field geology.
Other Relevant Experience
That led me to ask him if there was anything else in his background, including any outdoors activities that would convince an employer that he could do field work, like hiking, camping, hunting and so on. He said, "Yeah, but that was about 15 years ago, when I was in high school, so I can’t use that."
I asked for details and it turned out that he had grown up in a Colorado family that had enjoyed hiking and camping all year long.
Before he graduated from high school, he was an Eagle Scout, leading groups of local cub scouts on 1-2 week camping trips into the mountains. He had planned the trips on his own, selecting equipment and provisions, and deciding which trails to take, according to the length of the trip and the ability level of the participants. He even had experience using pack animals, and he had trained the younger scouts in basic wilderness survival skills.
We added a brief description of that hiking/camping experience to his resume, under a section we called "Other Relevant Experience."
In his cover letter, we added a brief paragraph that explained some of his responsibilities in leading groups of cub scouts into a National Wilderness Area.
Then, to revisit his own skills, he went on a 4-day camping trip in a nearby wilderness area. I suggested that he take some time while there to list his skills, to give himself a greater appreciation for his specialized knowledge. He returned with 3 pages of small print.
A few weeks later, he was thrilled to report that he had just completed an interview, and the interviewer had asked a number of specific questions about his earlier camping experience (which he felt he had answered competently and completely).
He was offered the job the following week, and he eventually found out that he was the only candidate who had any life experience with camping, hiking and wilderness skills.
Had he not mentioned and expanded on his "Other Relevant Experiences," he would have been one of many candidates with the same general skill set that qualified for the job.
The very skills that made him stand out would have been invisible.
Clearly, economic trends don’t bode well for career centers in higher education. Even as the job market becomes more complex and strained, universities are providing less professional help to grad students in making the decisions that will affect the course of their lives. Grad students who take responsibility early for their own career topo maps are most likely to thrive. (Are YOU one of them?)
© Copyright, 2010, Kate Duttro. All rights reserved. Used with Permission.
Job-Hunt's Academic Job Search expert Kate Duttro is a career strategist, coach, and instigator. She writes the Career Change for Academics Blog, for current and recovering academics, and other smart cookies. For more than 10 years, she has provided career services at the University of Washington, where she has counseled, taught classes and workshops, and dug out information for thousands of undergrads, grad students, post docs and alumni in all phases of career development. Holding several degrees, including a PhD in anthropology, Kate has also earned many professional certifications in the field of career coaching.