Components for a smooth transition to a career outside academia: the cover letter and resume

Pandemic or no, many PhD students and postdocs are leaving their programs and looking forward to starting a career in industry. Remember that if you decide to leave your PhD program early, you’ve still done complex problem-solving work and gained invaluable experience that employers are looking for. In any case, this transition presents the daunting double layer of questions: A) what do you want to do; and B) what do you need to make that happen?

First, how on earth do you decide what kind of job is right for you? Ask yourself what you like about your work and what you’re happy to leave behind. Did you love the camaraderie in your lab and the close collaborations with your teammates? Did you love precisely optimizing a particular protocol, testing out different conditions until it gave you a clean measurement with no noise and no errors? Was writing papers or grant applications your most rewarding type of work? These are examples of things that make all of us love the jobs we do in academia, but they relate very differently to careers in industry to which you might apply. Ask your peers, mentor, program coordinator, alumni groups, or student organizations for people who came from your program (or even your lab) who are now in industry. Find those people and chat with them about what was connected between their time in academia and their present work. This information-gathering can be more formalized, like an informational interview, but it doesn’t have to be in all cases. Maybe it’s as simple as getting coffee (or a virtual coffee) with a friend of a friend. In any case, those connections might surprise you with a common connection between lab work you are familiar with and a career trajectory you hadn’t considered. And finally, check out this post for more on these big questions.

There are many jobs for which you are qualified due to your experience and skills that have nothing to do with the particular subject matter you have been working on. Having working knowledge of the process of science is equally valuable, for example, to university licensing offices as it is to reagent and lab supply companies. For more on transferable skills from a PhD in biology, see this blog post. For more tips specifically on responding to job ads and tailoring your resume, check out this recording from the ASCB Annual Meeting on this topic.

At a webinar organized by the COMPASS Careers subcommittee, career coach Tracy Costello outlined strategies for creating the documents that will carry you through your career transition: cover letters and resumes. Cover letters are short, succinct introductions that frame your application to hiring managers and HR staff at your desired organization. I think of cover letters as the introduction you give yourself when meeting someone you’d like to work for. After shaking their hand, you’d probably indicate to that person how you came to know their organization and especially if there’s someone who suggested the job to you or if you have a connection in the organization. In real time, this exchange establishes rapport and makes you unique to the hiring organization. The cover letter does the same job but on paper. It communicates your reasons for applying to this job, and makes clear any personal connections you have within the organization. Beyond this personalized introduction, the cover letter is the beginning of your argument for why YOU and you alone are a match for the organization.

Waving goodbye to your tenure in academia usually means also bidding farewell to the strange document known as the curriculum vitae (CV). A CV will help you in academia but is almost never what employers in other sectors want to see. Transforming a CV into a resume is a big task that will ultimately produce your single most powerful tool for landing a job. Making a resume is not simple and is not done once; rather, it is tailored to each position you apply for. The most obvious difference between a CV and a resume is the length, so get ready to scrutinize every bullet point and word choice. You’ve got one page to make a strong case for yourself! The basic steps to transform your CV into a strong resume follow and are equally applicable to postdocs and grad students:

  • Collect information: GPA, course titles and grades, contact info for advisors and collaborators.
  • Describe your work: break up the huge mess of responsibilities you have as a grad student or postdoc and focus each into a skill or responsibility. Teaching, writing, editing, researching, advising, even designing devices and making purchasing decisions all count as relevant work experience.
  • Quantify: resumes argue more effectively when each bullet point includes quantifiable information. This means stating over-arching research results in terms of numbers. But it can extend to non-research responsibilities. For example, “Developed and taught a 12 week curriculum for a discussion-based class of 20 graduate students”. Or “Performed due diligence and testing for the purchase of an $80k time-lapse microscopy system currently used twice weekly.”
  • Add: This process works best if you ignore space limitations at first and just get every detail on the page. Take every single thing that could possibly go into your resume and just put it on the page.

Start with these bullet points, and refine, refine, refine. Make every bullet point pull its weight by communicating something important about you. Take your draft resume to those who can evaluate it objectively, such as a career center at your university or peers in your program or lab. This proofreading helps to identify the spots that you might think are strong but are actually underwhelming or distracting or too wordy. Finally, be prepared to ruthlessly remove or diminish bullet points or descriptions that won’t be relevant to the person reviewing your resume, regardless of how much time and effort you put into them.

Finally, don’t try this at home (alone)! Get help from ASCB on your resume with personalized resume review service. This service is for any member of ASCB to get personalized help with improving your resume before you put it into the world.

For more tips and ideas on other components of your smooth landing into a new career, be sure to keep an eye for ASCB webinars organized by COMPASS, and of course check out more blog posts like this one that address topics in careers.


About the Author:

Tim Fessenden is a postdoctoral fellow studying immune cell motility and tumor immunology in Stefani Spranger’s lab at MIT. In his free time Tim coproduces the podcast GLiMPSE, along with two other postdocs at MIT ( Twitter: @timisstuck Email: