Avoid using the words “student” and “school” outside of academia

Many, if not most, ecology PhD graduates will go on to jobs outside of academia. One particular area needing improvement in most (all?) graduate departments is on teaching trainees how to market themselves outside of academia. CVs are non-starters outside of academia and resumes are very different beasts. In crafting a resume, you need to show what you’re good for in the future much more so than a CV, which is focused on your past.

Killers in resumes are the words “student” and “school,” which are words people outside of academia use when they think of an 18-year-old undergrad.

I came at academia all backwards, having worked multiple jobs outside of it first, and having crafted a handful of resumes for those jobs. My longest job – and the one I had right out of college – was actually very similar to graduate school: I took classes. I worked on various team and individual projects that spanned many months each. I even developed a class to teach, and co-taught it. All that was seen as professional experience by my employer, and that’s how it appeared on my subsequent resumes.

I mention this because often job ads will be looking for someone with, say, 5 or 10 years of professional experience. If you apply for such a position thinking that your experience as a graduate student should count towards that, you’re right! But you’ve got to frame it that way on your resume and in your cover letter. If you just mention that “as a graduate student,” you created conservation plans for local watersheds, it may not count. As a “student,” you are not considered a professional by those outside of academia.

A PhD friend recently failed to be even considered for a position for which he was well-qualified. The position attracted many resumes, and as a first step, an administrative person scanned resumes to winnow out those who did not have basic qualifications. These included – you guessed it – some number of years of professional experience. Unfortunately, my friend’s resume failed to make it clear that he was doing professional work as part of his dissertation, and so his resume failed this first hurdle. His application wasn’t even seen by the scientists doing the hiring.

This administrative winnowing step is super common, and you don’t want your application tossed out before it’s even considered! So here’s what you do on your resume:

  1. List your PhD in your education section. That’s all the mention of “school” you need.
  2. Where you list your work experience, describe your research projects, and in particular describe your role, the skills you used, and how the experience relates to the job in question. Keep it all short. Do not mention that this research was done as part of your dissertation and do not describe yourself as a “student” anywhere.

As fodder for future blog posts, I’ve been scanning the CVs of ESA Early Career Fellows. The CV of ecosystem ecologist Ariana Sutton-Grier actually incorporates a resume style part-way through. (She’s worked for NOAA, so she’s probably needed a resume at various times.) Her resume-style section on her dissertation research is brilliant. It’s listed under “Professional Experience” and reads:

Wetland Ecology and Biogeochemistry Research Assistant, Instructor, and Mentor, Duke University (2002-2008)

Duties: I designed and conducted interdisciplinary research examining how wetland restoration techniques, including organic matter amendments and plant species diversity, affect the restoration of wetland ecosystem functions.

Major Accomplishments:

  • My research resulted in four first-authored and four co-authored publications.
  • I successfully obtained research grants and fellowships to fund my research and studies including the prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship, the NSF Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant, and the American Association of University Women Graduate Fellowship.
  • I supervised over a dozen Masters students as well as one high school student and one undergrad in the lab.
  • I mentored one independent research Master’s project which resulted in a peer-reviewed first-authored publication for the student.
  • I co-designed and co-taught an undergraduate class “Feminism and Ecology” as well as guest lecturing and TAing several courses; received very good teaching evaluations.
  • I mentored three middle school girls for a PBS DragonflyTV “SciGirls” Episode.

What do we learn from this statement? Not only that Dr. Sutton-Grier was a kick-ass grad student (the academic interpretation), but also that she’s gained considerable professional experience in wetland restoration, that she can design and conduct research and produce written reports about it, that she can write grants, and that she has teaching and mentoring skills (the industry interpretation). Importantly, none of these achievements are diluted by calling attention to the fact she was a student in graduate school. Instead, she was a “Research Assistant, Instructor, and Mentor.” [1] If I had written this, I probably would have written “Researcher” instead of “Research Assistant”. Designing, carrying out, and writing up your own research means that you’re not actually an “assistant” in the colloquial meaning of the term.

If you’re a graduate student or recent PhD graduate – and especially if you don’t aspire to an academic career – I encourage you to start practicing seeing yourself as and speaking about yourself as a professional instead of a student right away. When you meet someone at a party or holiday gathering, and they ask you what you do, don’t start off with, “I’m an ecology graduate student,” or “I study ecology in graduate school,” or “I’m a postdoc.” [2] Nobody outside of academia has any real idea what a postdoc is, so it’s best to avoid the term anyway. Instead, whether you’re a grad student or postdoc, say “I’m a researcher at University of State. I study how plants are affected by climate warming,” or “I teach at University of State. I teach a lab on evolution,” or “I’m at University of State. I’m working out ways to avoid roadkill in conservation zones.”

If you get in the habit of viewing yourself as the professional that you are, it will be easier for others to see you that way, too, including in interviews and during networking opportunities. And it will be easier to make it clear in your resume that you have many years of professional experience, regardless of the fact you were a graduate student.

Permanent link to this article: https://ecologybits.com/index.php/2016/09/21/avoid-using-the-words-student-and-school-outside-of-academia/

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