Thoughts on life after the PhD
Recently I’ve been put in the unique position of helping to hire a PhD for a non-academic job. The position is linguistics-related (my company posted a fairly lengthy listing on a popular linguistics job search site). Basically I’ve been asked to review resumes. Lots and lots of them. After I’ve come up with a short list of candidates, there’ll be a meeting with other people on the hiring committee and we’ll decide who to actually contact for an interview.
This whole process has taught me a lot about how NOT to apply for a non-academic job. It’s remarkable how quickly I toss someone’s resume in the reject pile–being on the other side of the hiring process can make you pretty cold, I guess. I also remember from my (not so long ago) days as a grad student that a fair number of humanities PhD’s have never applied for a private sector job. They’ve likely had summer jobs waiting tables, and they’ve applied for postdoc fellowships, or TA positions, but not private sector jobs with specific education and experience requirements. And the hiring processes for academic and non-academic jobs are pretty different.
So for the (presumably) large number of humanities PhD’s who might be looking beyond academia to jobs in the private sector, I’m going to offer a few tips based purely on my experience on the other side of the table. Most of this advice could probably apply to job hunting in general, but I feel like some of it–particularly “be brief” and “don’t pad” has particular relevance for academics. I’m hardly a seasoned expert in hiring, but here’s my take.
1. For God’s sake, proofread! I have been horrified at the number of cover letters I’ve received that were riddled with typos, misspellings, and poor grammar. This is probably the most “duh” piece of advice that anyone can give to job seekers, but apparently plenty of people still aren’t hearing it. To repeat: proofread. Really, have someone else proofread your work whenever possible–they’re less likely to miss stuff that you’ve been staring at for too long. And don’t just rely on a spellchecker or other word processing tools–proofread with your own eyes, or a friend’s eyes. I tossed at least five applications in the bin before even looking at the resumes, simply based on the fact that the cover letters were so sloppy.
2. Get to the point. Academics, especially those of us in the humanities, have a tendency to ramble. This does not go over well in the private sector. It’s likely that the person reviewing your resume is someone like me, who is not a professional resume-reviewer and has maybe 15-20 minutes a day to devote to reading resumes and cover letters. I received one application from someone who had excellent qualifications but had written a five-page cover letter, much of it containing irrelevant information. This immediately gave me a bad impression of the person–simply put, I don’t want to be working long hours with someone who takes forever to get to the point. Your cover letter shouldn’t be longer than a page.
3. If the job is clearly not a good fit for you, please don’t apply. Our list of qualifications is pretty long, so I have no problem receiving applications from people who fit, say, 60% of the requirements. But when they fit 10% or less, I’m inclined to wonder if they even read the job listing. Job hunting is an exhausting and demoralizing process, and there’s no reason to waste your valuable time and energy applying for jobs that don’t suit you at all. Yes, I know that in desperate times people want to cast a wide net, but before you go to the trouble of applying for a job, really ask yourself if you’re a good fit for it.
4. Get to the point, part 2. Don’t pad your resume. Leave out the stuff that’s irrelevant to the job you’re seeking, especially if it’s making your resume excessively long. One woman’s resume was twenty-five pages, and most of that was a list of publications dating back to the 1990s. Unless the job listing specifically asks for them, it’s not necessary to include all of your publications. In an academic job search, you’re expected to submit a whole dossier of material. In plenty of private sector jobs, you need to keep it simple and to the point. Education, work experience (don’t go all the way back to high school), relevant publications and research, relevant volunteer experience, references, contact info. That’s really all you need.
5. Don’t be a robot, but don’t overshare. Some cover letters and resumes made me feel as if I was reading a secret diary. If your very personal story is relevant to the job, then share it (an abridged version of it). But remember, again, that the person reading your resume is probably someone like me–someone who really doesn’t have time to read a lengthy narrative of overcoming personal struggles.
6. Be patient (up to a point). For anyone who’s gone through the maddeningly time-consuming process of an academic job search, this one shouldn’t be too hard. We posted our job listing about a month ago, but because various people on the hiring committee have been so busy with their regular jobs, we probably won’t be contacting anyone on our shortlist for at least another week. And we’re actually going to contact every person who sent us a resume, even if it’s just to say “Thank you, we’ve decided to go with someone else” (which is more than I can say for a lot of universities, who often don’t bother to let candidates know they haven’t been chosen). So if you’ve applied for a non-academic job but haven’t heard anything for several weeks, it might just be that the folks in charge are busy with other things. Of course, you shouldn’t put your life on hold–keep applying for other jobs. But don’t cross yourself off a list just because you haven’t gotten a timely response.
So there’s my advice, for what it’s worth. Overall, I’d say the theme here is cut anything superfluous and remember that your resume-reader is likely pressed for time. Not so different from an academic job search, but still worth repeating.
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