Science Notes

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aug 4, 2010; updated feb 10, 2011

Ten Tips To Writing Scientific Résumés

A s a practicing research scientist [1] in a biotech industry-oriented environment, I am sometimes called upon to hire junior scientists, postdocs, and technicians [2]. This involves reading and classifying hundreds of resumes and cover letters. I've also sent out more than my share of resumes, and I've spoken to many other scientists who were seeking senior-level positions in industry, government, and academia. Below are some tips that I have discovered.

1. Anticipate resume scanning

In the old days, we used to type up each résumé (or, more accurately, CV) by hand--using carbon paper was frowned upon. Then we would put the resume and cover letter in an envelope, stick a random number of stamps on it, and mail it. Two or three months later, if the company was interested, the Pony Express guy would deliver a reply from the company asking for an interview. Most companies would send a courtesy reply even if they didn't want you. We would pore over that rejection letter looking for clues. That's changed. Now, if they're not interested, you don't get any feedback at all. So you have to know what they want before you start.

Bad Resume Example Example of a bad resume

Every employer handles resumes differently. Many large corporations have software that tries to parse your resume to extract keywords and draw conclusions about you. These data are put in a database, and when a manager needs to hire someone, they scan the database looking for keywords.

If you've ever applied for a job online, you know that this software is incredibly stupid. Often it does things like setting your last employer to “123 Main Street” and setting your job title to “Phone.” Yeah, sure, computer, I was a telephone at my last job. (Sounds like not a bad job, actually: you have many people who answer to you.) You have to write your resume so that even the most idiotically programmed computer can find the correct keywords. Every word in the job ad, with the possible exception of and and the, should be considered a possible keyword, and you must include it in your CV, no matter how stupid it may be. For example, if the ad says the candidate must know how to pipet and must have experience with A, B, and C, and must know how to write D's E's and F's, you must put these exact words A,B,C,D, E, F, and "pipet" in your resume. Do not use a synonym or variant of the term. Yes, it's likely that anyone who took a first-year course in the subject can do these techniques blindfolded. But if you don't mention that you too can do them, you won't get an interview.

One solution is to add a section called "Technical expertise" and include a comma-separated list of every technique and every piece of equipment you're familiar with. If the ad says, "must be breathing and have a pulse," you must put down in your resume that you are highly experienced at breathing and you do in fact have a pulse, or you won't get the job. Remember, these things are not obvious to everyone--a surprising number of businesses are run by people who don't breathe and don't have a pulse. (Rumors that some of them can't see their reflection in a mirror, however, are unsubstantiated.)

The list of equipment can get quite long. Right now, the job market is so tight that employers can demand experience not only on a specific technique, but on a specific model of the instrument. If your experience is on an Agilent Model 5975C, and they're looking for someone who has experience on a Model 5975E, you're out of luck. Yes, it's stupid. But this kind of idiocy stops being surprising after awhile. Eventually, as you climb the ziggurat of management, the medication will kick in, and this kind of thing will start to seem perfectly normal and sensible.

HR people don't know much about your job. To them, it's inconceivable that someone could learn a new technique in five minutes, as most scientific types probably can. As far as they're concerned, if you didn't say it, you can't do it and you'll never be able to. They don't ask the important questions like how smart you are, because they have no way to validate or rank your answer (and in the USA, it's illegal to give applicants an IQ test or an aptitude test because it disfavors certain minorites).

This brings us to the obvious question: what should you do when the job ad misspells a keyword? You will find many job ads looking for a “Principle Investigator” who can do “electrofreeze” or some such nonsense. It is a catch-22. If you include that term in your resume, the employer will reject you for being illiterate. If you don't, the computer will reject you. My approach is to assume it's a test and spell the words correctly, and hope their database contains the correct spellings.

2. Deal with bad websites

Some companies have a nasty habit of posting job opportunities that have already been filled. You spend three hours customizing your resume and writing a cover letter, only to have their software block your submission, telling you the position has been filled months ago. Consider it a gift from G-d. Remember the old saying: if this is the company's sales pitch, what's it like in the complaints department?

Another big company has a website that only works in Windows with certain versions of Internet Explorer. Even so, their software often crashes before you can finish submitting an application. If this happens, write the employer off. If you try to send your resume through a non-approved channel, such as email, they will not only not consider you, they will blacklist you.

The U.S. Government can afford better programmers. And why not? They have all of your money. So they typically have better websites that don't crash as much. One government agency has the best website I've ever seen. It clearly tells you what you have to do and where you are in the process. They ask for so much information, including written essays and interview-type questions, that it takes three days to submit an application. You can write page after page about how smart you are. The only drawback is they won't tell you what the job is about. It's a secret. You have to guess what qualifications they're looking for. And so you can only guess why they didn't hire you.

Some online sites don't even allow you to upload a cover letter. What this means is that everything you say in your cover letter must also be in your resume. As for the content, there are a few critical rules:

  1. Be honest in what you write. Unless the company is run by incompetent boobs, your resume will eventually be read by someone who knows the field better than you. If so, they will suss you out. (So, fifty-fifty chance.) Yes, it is true that the companies are lying to you in their ads about your responsibilities and the job qualifications they're looking for. But do you really want to stoop to their level? Well, okay then!

    All kidding aside, it's in your interest to be honest, so you don't find yourself over your head, and shortly thereafter unemployed, if they hire you.
  2. Don't use weird encoding types or charsets for any text files you send. ISO-8859-1 is the standard for the USA. Anything else can cause weird characters, Unicode strings, rectangles, or Dingbat characters to be scattered through your document when it's printed out. I've seen this happen to resumes many times. It makes it hard to read and it puts the applicant at a disadvantage.

    Despite my well-documented opinion of Microsoft products, I recommend MS-Word or PDF if possible. Not Open Office. Do not use docx format.
  3. Spill-chuck the dorcument, and read it it to make sure it makes makes sense (no stray words or grammatical errors) sense before submitting it it the document it to them the employer it.
  4. As everyone else says, emphasize concrete achievements. Don't just say “Managed Kansas and Oklahoma sales territory.” Say “Increased sales of pork rinds and fritters by 0.567% in Kansas and Oklahoma sales territory over a ten-year period.” Including numbers is easier in some fields than others, but in every field there is some metric, whether it is the number of papers in major journals, the length of time you were able to stay out of prison, or whatever. Give a number. HR managers may not know one end of a pipet from the other, but they do know how to count. Well, most of them do.
  5. Avoid unexplained gaps in your employment record. If you make it to the point where a real person reads your resume, and there are unexplained gaps, they will assume you were in prison.
  6. Make sure the job is really something you want to do. We once hired a guy who looked really good, only to discover after he started that he only wanted to do cloning--nothing else. Anything else was not interesting to him, and he would, probably on purpose, do it badly. Once I got the results of a protein assay from him in which every single number was a negative value. A negative quantity of protein is a physically impossible result. He just didn't care. Ask yourself how inconvenient it would be to get fired from your new job after only a few months. Of course, that's not an easy question to ask if you've just come home from begging the electric company not to shut off your power.

    You might not care too much, but it's actually as bad for the person who hires you if you bomb out as it is for you. Most bosses are hopelessly out of touch with the real world. If a manager hires somebody who starts fights, messes up, or breaks equipment, the manager's boss may accuse the manager of having bad hiring skills and fire both you and your manager at the same time.

3. Include a cover letter

Smaller companies without an HR department usually use the old-fashioned technique of “reading” the resume. When I receive a resume, I attach it to the applicant's cover letter, and read both of them carefully several times. This takes time, so if you send to a small company, don't be surprised if it takes a month or longer.

Some managers have gotten the idea that a cover letter is just boilerplate, and they don't even read it. These are companies that don't care how you write. In science, as elsewhere, writing is thinking. If they don't care how you write, they also don't care whether you can think. They just want a machine to grind out the work, and if somebody invents such a machine they'll buy it and get rid of you. It's safe to conclude that if a company doesn't let you upload a cover letter, they're an inbred organization staffed by people who all have the same background. A place like that isn't likely to survive for long.

To deal with this, your cover letters and resumes have to duplicate a lot of stuff. While this feeds the perception that a cover letter is useless, you can't take the chance that some manager will ignore your letter and focus exclusively on your resume. If it's important, it's got to be in the resume.

And make your cover letter readable. If your writing skills are so bad that you get bored re-reading your letter, you can be sure the potential employer will, too. Of course, you can't add jokes or wisecracks. But ruthlessly cut any extra words. Simplify your sentences.

4. Mention lab techniques

If an employer asks for a lab technique that you can't do, find a way to learn it before starting your job search. Some labs are happy to teach you new techniques for free in return for carrying out mundane lab tasks. Or, you can write to the lab, saying you have read and enjoyed their latest paper, and ask if you could learn the technique from them. The worst that could happen is that they will say no.

Okay, that's not really true. The worst that could happen is they will tell you to f*ck off and call you an asshole. Actually, the worst that could happen is that your resume will open up a freak wormhole in the space-time continuum and suck all sentient life into a swirling abyss of unending torment, where billions of super-intelligent beings will curse your name for all of eternity. But this is very unlikely.

If you destroy the space-time continuum, it would be very inconvenient for all of us, because we use that a lot.

5. Narrow your focus

If you look at the job ads in industry, one thing that stands out is how narrowly they're focused. I mentioned the idiocy about equipment in Tip #1 above. Another idiocy is the discrimination against people with more than one skill. In biotech, for example, they may be looking for someone who has experience purifying antibodies. But if you're a half-decent protein biochemist, you probably have experience purifying enzymes (which are a lot harder to purify) as well, or maybe viruses, or whatever. Unfortunately, if you mention it, the employer may very well pass you up for someone who only has the one skill they're looking for. The employer thinks they're getting a specialist. But in fact they're selecting for people with less experience. The solution is left as an exercise for the reader.

One question that always comes up is: if you send a resume and get rejected (along with the 99 other applicants who applied for the same position), does this harm your chances if you send another resume six months or a year later? Does the fact that you said the word "booger" during your interview or the fact that you showed up naked go into their database? I don't know the answer. If it does, it might be better to wait until the economic depression is over before even starting your job search.

6. Move to America

Another tip is to be located in the same country where the job is. When I received resumes from weird places like Kazakhstan and Bhutan, I tended to disregard them, because it meant we would have to pay thousands of dollars and take up a week of some impoverished applicant's time to get them here for an interview--not to mention the paperwork if we hired them. Maybe it's not fair, but it's a fact.

In fact, many employers even discriminate against you if you're from a different state. The Federal Government is probably the worst offender here, but it's a sad fact that many parts of the country hate other parts of the country and won't consider you if you're from a region they dislike. Part of this is fear of different cultural values, but that's just a polite phrase for discrimination. It doesn't hurt to put "willing to relocate" or even "planning to move to xyz area" on your resume (if it's true). If you can say you're planning to be visiting the area next month, that's even better: it saves them the trouble and expense of flying you in.

Sometimes, especially in science, being from a foreign country is a big advantage. Employers will think they can get you cheap. Or they may think they can use you to get a free vacation in your country. That can be a big draw if they're corrupt, as many of them are, and if your country is a famous vacation spot, like Tahiti or Majorca.

7. Forget placement agencies

One of the worst workdays in my life was the time I was asked to be a witness to the firing of a colleague of mine, a brilliant molecular biologist and a good friend who had studied under a Nobel laureate. The boss offered this guy “placement assistance” which basically meant emailing his resume to Kelly. It was a promise that was as empty as the promises the boss made to him when he hired the poor guy.

Placement agencies may be helpful if you're a secretary or a welder, but for highly specialized fields like science they're much less useful. They're a lot like dating services--their only goal is to match you up with someone, and they don't much care whether it's a good match or not. For one thing, they don't know the codewords that employers use. In science, and no doubt many other fields, employers use titles that have different meanings in different sectors, just as "captain" has a totally different meaning in the Army than in the Navy. Although the meanings change from time to time, a good example is “scientist.” In academia and government, it's quite a respectable title. As used by industry, this term is roughly equivalent to what academia calls a “research assistant,” i.e. technician (not that being a technician isn't respectable). You need to learn what the codewords mean, or you might find you're being offered jobs that pay a lot less than what you want--or rejected for being overqualified.

8. Learn to accept corruption

Speaking of corruption, it is an unfortunate fact of life that a large percentage of the population in this world is corrupt. When put in a position of hiring someone, instead of advertising the position, they will give it to a friend or relative. This saves them the effort of searching for a good candidate, and increases their social standing within the family or their circle of friends. The job-seeker who does not have the benefit of these close social ties is at a disadvantage.

This corruption is so prevalent that in some fields, the vast majority of positions are filled through personal connections, and people don't even recognize it as unethical and unfair, because they themselves have benefited from it. For example, one book author boasts that all of his job positions in the computer industry have been obtained through personal connections. Even organizations that should know better, like the U. S. Government, follow this practice. When I was there, whenever we promoted anyone, we were told we had to advertise the position, and that we should make the job criteria so specific that no one could ever qualify for it, except for the person who had already been chosen. I have no idea if the Feds still do this, but there is no doubt that many big companies have the same rule.

Sadly, there is only one way to deal with this form of corruption, and that is to become corrupt yourself. When you become a manager, you can push for reform. Until then, you're an outsider, and you have deal with the dishonesty as you find it. You need to make friends with the people who are in a position to recommend you for a position. We had one guy who wanted desperately to work with us. He was constantly hanging around, doing experiments, generally being helpful, writing documents and attending all our meetings without getting paid. He was constantly flattering everyone, telling them what exciting work they were doing. And they ate it up. If he hadn't been so bad at doing science, he almost certainly would have gotten hired.

9. Watch out for phony ads

Companies and government agencies publish phony ads when they want to promote someone, but are stymied because some bureaucrat in the organization has created a rule that every opening must be publicly advertised. So they write a job description that no one could possibly qualify for. There are two types of these fake job advertisements: the ridiculously vague and the ridiculously specific. I mentioned the ridiculously specific ones above. The vague ones are written so that you can read them several times and still not know what the job's about. If you can't figure out what the job is, you can't apply--which is exactly what they want. For example, here's one I saw recently from a big company in Illinois.

Advances scientific expertise within function. Proactively advises and shares knowledge and expert opinions with subordinates, peers, and senior management. Mentors and trains functional colleagues. Develops network valued by functional leaders. Actively supports open exchange of expert discipline knowledge. Deepens insight to better assess current and emerging business challenges enabling functional goal achievement.

Good luck proving you have the requisite experience in "deepening your insight."

If they mention their own company, that's a dead giveaway that the ad's a fake:

Skills/Experience Requirements: Experience in research and/or development environment. Proven ability to innovate with a history of successful new or improved product releases. Accomplishments at [name of our company] a plus. Listens and understands others' points of view and articulates tactfully and respectfully one's own perspective orally, in writing, and in presentations.

Okay, you're probably wondering ... but what, if anything, does the person actually do? Read on:

Significant Work Activities & Conditions: Continuous sitting for prolonged periods (more than 2 consecutive hours in an 8 hour day)
Percent of Travel 0 - 20 %

And corporate executives wonder why people hate them.

Employers also create phony ads when they need to manufacture evidence that native scientists who can do the job can't be found. Sadly, they will say, we couldn't find one single qualified candidate, so we need to import someone from someplace where labor is cheap.

Here's an example. After a half-page telling us what a wonderful company they are, and how their employees are their greatest asset, this ad has a one-sentence description of the job, then spends the next 22 lines talking about how the company will provide a visa for the applicant:

[Company] is committed to equal opportunity in the terms and conditions of employment for all employees and job applicants without regard to race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, age, gender identity or gender expression, national origin, disability or veteran status. [Company] also complies with all applicable national, state and local laws governing nondiscrimination in employment as well as employment eligibility verification requirements of the Immigration and Nationality Act. All applicants must have authorization to work for [Company] in the U.S. In certain circumstances it may be advantageous to [Company] to support the application(s) for temporary visa classification and/or sponsor applications for permanent residence so that a foreign national colleague can accept or remain in a work assignment in the U. S. For certain classes of temporary visas, the resulting work authorization may be specific to [Company] and the specific job and/or work site. [Company] may at its business discretion decide to or refrain from obtaining, maintaining and/or extending the temporary visa status and/or sponsoring a colleague for permanent residency and /or employment eligibility, considering factors such as availability of qualified U.S. workers and the colleague's long-term prospects for securing lawful permanent residence, among other reasons. Employment applicants requiring immigration sponsorship must disclose, when initial application for employment is made, whether or not they are legally authorized to work for [Company] in the U.S. and, if so, whether that authorization permits them to work in the job they seek. In no case should [Company]'s support of a colleague's temporary visa application or sponsorship of a colleague for permanent residence be construed to guarantee success of that application or amend or otherwise invalidate the at-will employment relationship between the colleague and [Company].

Hint hint.

This ad was from a company that bought one of its competitors, then fired 20,000 of the former competitor's employees, flooding the job market with unemployed scientists and administrators. There might be a case to be made for stealing scientists from other countries. Heaven knows this country needs as many smart people as we can get. But it'd be nice, especially for these guys, to be a little more circumspect about it until the depression's over.

And don't even get me started on how Nature magazine and the National Academy of Sciences encourage this kind of behavior.

10. Always be positive

If I had titled this section “never be negative,” it would be negative. The cardinal rule of American corporate culture is to spin everything in a positive way. That's why you always hear phrases like, "We have many challenges ahead of us" (we are circling the drain), "We need to enhance our competitiveness" (everyone is being replaced with immigrants from Bangladesh) and "We are excited about our new direction" (the grand jury did not find the old boss's testimony convincing).

This doesn't mean being so positive that you're using New Age visualization techniques to wish yourself into the job. Indulging in wishful thinking and cutting yourself off from reality don't work--and anyway, ignoring reality is your boss's job. Most of them have far more experience at this than you do.

Avoid casting aspersions on your past employer. This is one area where you are expected to lie through your teeth. Anyway, the person reading your letter will probably be thinking: if you think your previous boss was a deranged lunatic, wait until your meet your new one.

If you have some handicap, wait until the interview before revealing it. For instance, if you are just a disembodied brain, don't mention this in your letter. It will only create uncertainty about whether you can do your job: how will you operate the copy machine, for instance, or how will you hail a cab if you're late for work? You can explain it once you get there, face to face ... so to speak.


[1]. Actually, "professor", even though they won't let me get any closer to the students than to the patients.
[2]. Please don't send me any resumes. We aren't hiring at the moment.

Update (sep 02, 2018)

Here are some more tips.

  1. Never put the company's name or the job title in your cover letter more than once. If you re-use the letter and miss one, it looks bad.
  2. Never give them your cell phone number. Corporations will call you on their cheap company cell phone, which means you won't be able to hear a word they're saying. Or they'll use the microphone on their laptop and all you'll hear is weird banging noises. Naturally, this throws the interviewee into a panic, and the interviewer will think you're desperate. Companies will do this on purpose if you're a demographic they're not allowed to discriminate against.
  3. Don't wait until you're out of work. Companies know from experience that good employees always leave a bad company of their own accord. Of course, this means you'll leave them as well, but they don't realize that, because they're deluded into thinking they're one of the good ones.