9 Winning Resume Strategies for PhDs


By Rudy Bellani, PhD and Zach Marks

This is the first in a series of posts by Rudy Bellani and Zach Marks, former recruiters and co-founders of Oystir, a new free service helping STEM PhDs find non-academic jobs.


You pour your heart and soul into years of research all for this one document. It is how your time in grad school will be judged and it will play a significant role in determining your future. PhD candidates dread it more than anything. Not the thesis. The resume.

You have to summarize yourself, your accomplishments, your transferable skills, and what makes you stand out into one page. We’ve been in your shoes. We know it’s hard. But it’s important. Are you going to let years of hard work in the lab, applying to fellowships, and succeeding in extracurriculars go to waste by not investing time into your resume?

A senior HR executive at a top consulting firm told us, “PhDs are the hardest group of individuals to evaluate from their resumes. They’re terribly written.” Take this as encouraging news. It means that if you take the time to write a stellar resume you will stand out from the pack.

We’re former recruiters and have read thousands of resumes. As co-founders of Oystir, we are currently helping hundreds of PhDs get non-academic jobs. We know what works and what doesn’t. In a series of exclusive posts for Scizzle, we will share our job market-tested, hiring manager-approved resume strategies for PhDs.


1) Resumes matter

[box style=”rounded”]Unless you have a major connection to help you get an interview, you’re going to need an awesome resume.[/box]

Let’s kick things off by making one point clear: your resume is the key to getting an interview. A biotech hiring manager told us, “We’ve probably interviewed and ultimately hired less qualified candidates at times simply because they wrote a better resume.”

The average recruiter reads about 200 resumes a week. Of those, 50 will get a second review and 15 will get a phone screen. Your goal is to write the resume that makes you one of those 15.


2) Resumes aren’t CVs

[box style=”rounded”]1 page for every 10 years of work experience. If you’re a 5th year postdoc, that means 1 page.[/box]

A resume is not a curriculum vitae (CV). The biggest difference is length: a resume is a 1-2 page summary of your experience, education and most relevant skills; a CV lists everything, including publications, presentations, honors, awards and affiliations. You might put some of that in a resume, but only the information that is directly relevant to the job you are applying for.

A CV is used for applying to academic jobs. A resume is what you need to transition out of academia and apply for industry jobs.


3) Mind the ATS: use relevant keywords

[box style=”rounded”]Use keywords from the job description and keep formatting simple to get past Applicant Tracking Software.[/box]

The first screen of your resume will most likely be done by a computer. Most companies use Applicant Tracking Software (ATS) to do the first review of resumes. ATS systems typically eliminate 75% of resumes before passing them on to a hiring manager. So before you can impress a human with your resume; you have to impress a machine.

ATS systems parse resumes looking for keywords relevant to the job, so be sure to include keywords from the job description in your resume. If the job requires experience with SPSS or R, don’t just write “statistics” – list those specific skills. If the job requires project management experience, explicitly list “project management” – don’t let that skill get lost in a long sentence about working with a team in a lab for your thesis research.

Also keep structure and formatting in mind to get past ATS systems. The resume is not the place to get creative with design. Don’t include any images or logos. That is the best way to “break” the ATS’ parsing mechanism and disqualify yourself before your resume even gets reviewed.

Have clearly separate headings for each section and be conservative with formatting. Use standard fonts (e.g., Times, Arial, Helvetica). Try not to go smaller than 12 pt and stick with black ink. This is important beyond the ATS: you don’t want to get passed because you made the hiring manager squint to read your accomplishments or confused him with arbitrarily blue text.


4) Make one for every role

[box style=”rounded”]Tailor a resume for each type of role you’re applying to.[/box]

Every job requires a resume specifically tailored for it. Emphasize the skills, attributes and keywords required for a particular role – for guidance, read the exact keywords listed in the job description and make sure to include them up front in your resume. For example:

  • If you’re applying to a consulting position that will require you to lead others, play up your project management skills (e.g., managing an undergrad) and entrepreneurial experiences (e.g., starting a student organization).
  • If you’re applying to a medical science liaison job that will require you to interact with clients, play up your communications skills and list any science outreach you’ve done.
  • If you’re applying to a research scientist or data analyst job, make sure you list the specific research techniques or statistical skills included in the job description.


5) Win with structure

[box style=”rounded”] Give your resume structure with clearly demarcated sections.[/box]

A study tracking where recruiters looked at resumes show they spent nearly 80% of their time on six points: name; current and previous position’s title, company, start and end dates; and education. After that, they’re skimming for relevant keywords to the job.

Put that information where hiring managers are expecting to see it.

List your name and contact information up top followed by an executive summary (more on how to write an executive summary in a future post), your experience, then your education. Separate each section with clear headings. Bold each position on your resume so the hiring manager can easily skim and see all the roles you have held.

Recruiters spend more time on highly structured resumes; without that structure, the person reviewing your resume will throw his hands up and move to the next one. Look at this heat map tracking recruiters’ gaze as they reviewed two resumes: one structured, one not. There is simply more “heat” on the structured one: the recruiter reads the summary then scans each of the individual’s titles and spends time reading bullet points from each experience. In the unstructured resume, the recruiter doesn’t even make it all the way through.


heatmap for resume scanning
Credit: The Ladder.


6) Prioritize information

[box style=”rounded”]The information in your resume should be ordered by relevance to the job.[/box]

After you write each line of your resume, consider what would happen if the hiring manager stopped reading then. Would they walk away with the most important points?

That is a very real hypothetical. Recruiters spend an average of 5-7 seconds on your resume. Every piece of information on your resume should be important. Prioritize it ruthlessly to make sure the most important information is at top. Apply this principle to your whole resume and to each section. Put the most important information up top in an executive summary. Within each section, list your bullet points in order of importance.

Make sure you are prioritizing what the hiring manager wants to see, not what you want to tell. The most important pieces of information to a recruiter are the skills and attributes needed for the job, which don’t always line up with your proudest achievements.


7) Less is more

[box style=”rounded”]Be brief. Pack it in.[/box]

As PhDs, we are taught the more data the better, so we are often tempted to include as much information as possible: all our publications, all our posters, all the projects we have contributed to in lab. On your resume, less is more. For each experience, ask yourself: “Is this relevant to the job?” If it’s not, cut it. Treat every centimeter on your resume as precious real estate and be sure to leave some white space.

If you are not applying for a research scientist job, your exact publications are not very important. If you have a first-author publication in a high-impact journal, it’s fine to list it in a section showing selected publications, but don’t list all of them. Better to have a punchy bullet point that says, “Co-authored 7 publications, including in Nature, PLoS Biology, and Journal of Neuroscience.”

Tangibly this means you might have to cut 70% of your most prized accomplishments so you can really zone in on the 30% that are relevant to the job. We know this is hard. Trust us, it’s for your own good!


8) Avoid the most common killer

[box style=”rounded”] Have others proofread your resume.[/box]

We’ve reviewed thousands of resumes and most have typos. Our most recent favorite: “Professonal experiences.”

Don’t do this. Have friends read your resume – often it takes someone else to find hidden typos. This is particularly important if English is not your first language.

A life sciences recruiter told us: “A flawless, well-written resume tells me something about a candidate. They can communicate. They’re attentive to detail. They put in the extra bit of effort on even tedious tasks because that’s the kind of person they are.”


9) If you only remember one point: Be results-oriented

[box style=”rounded”]Write bullet points that describe and quantify what you did, beginning with an action verb.[/box]

Write punchy bullet points that describe your experiences in concise, results-oriented language. Make each bullet a single sentence and lead with an action verb (e.g., developed, launched, managed) and include a result. Hiring managers want to know what you have achieved, not your job duties. Avoid bullets like “responsibilities included” or a list of roles. Instead, include tangible achievements. To make them tangible, quantify them. For example, if you helped secure funding for your lab, list how much; if you managed lab technicians, say how many. Here are some examples to illustrate the point:

A wasted bullet: Nathanson, C., Jensen, R., & Bender, Y. (2002). Nature.

A boring bullet: I was part of a team that published a paper in Nature, which was cited by over 50 other researchers.

A great bullet: Led the development of a multi-national collaboration, coordinating 3 research groups across 2 time zones, resulting in a Nature publication cited by 50 researchers, all within 6 months after work began.


This was the first in a series of posts on winning resume strategies for PhDs. Stay tuned to Scizzle for future pieces including writing an executive summary, making your skills and achievements stand out from the crowd and samples of “before” and “after” resume success stories.


Rudy Bellani and Zach Marks are co-founders of Oystir, a new free service helping PhDs find non-academic jobs. You can reach them at info@oystir.com. To begin exploring what jobs match your skills, sign up at www.oystir.com.