By Rudy Bellani, PhD and Zach Marks
Co-founders of Oystir
This is the second in a series of posts by former recruiters and co-founders of Oystir, a new free service helping STEM PhDs find non-academic jobs.
In our last post, we laid out the basics of how to write a winning resume. Today, we discuss what we have found to be the most impactful part of a resume, and the one most PhDs leave off: the executive summary.
An executive summary is a short statement at the top of your resume that quickly summarizes what makes you the right candidate for the job. We recommend 3-5 punchy sentences (more on what they should say later) that emphasize your most relevant strengths and experiences and make the best case for why you are uniquely qualified for the job. In this post, we’ll cover why you need an executive summary and how to get started writing one.
Why do you need an executive summary?
1) Quickly articulates your value – “the elevator pitch”
Imagine you were in an elevator for 30 seconds with the hiring manager. What would you say to convince them to hire you? That is your “elevator pitch.” This is the purpose of your executive summary. We recruiters love it. As a hiring manager, I can read 3-5 sentences and know if you’re qualified. You save me time and effort. The great benefit for candidates is that you control your story and get to make the case why you’re a great candidate, instead of relying on my interpretation of your history of experiences.
The first thing recruiters see is what is up-front and center. This is also the section they will spend the most time on. So it is crucial you put the most important information they need to see up front in an executive summary.
From the beginning, list the most important pieces of information that demonstrate how you are uniquely qualified for the job. This will hook the hiring manager and make them want to read more about you.
Consider the two example resumes below (name and institutions have been changed). They are both the same person – a postdoc applying for a scientist job that requires experience with CRISPR/Cas9 technology, leadership and management. In the version with an executive summary, the candidate quickly summarizes his background as an accomplished molecular biologist with major publications, then highlights his experience CRISPR/Cas9, and emphasizes evidence of his ability to manage (mentoring students) and lead (co-founding a program). In the version without an executive summary, the recruiter doesn’t get any of that color. Worse still, by leading with education instead of experience, the recruiter has to get past the first third of the page to see if the person has any gene editing experience or has demonstrated leadership or management. You took 2 of the 7 seconds I was going to spend on your resume and wasted it with low-value information.
2) Makes you stand out from the crowd: Emphasizes strengths and highlights transferable skills
When you apply for a job, your resume will likely be one of a long stack under review. It is essential that you stand out from others and don’t blend into the crowd. By leading with your education or your postdoc, you make it difficult for the recruiter to identify how you are different than anyone else – there are a lot of PhDs. Make that job easier for them by making your relevant skills and experiences pop out at them up front in an executive summary. Recruiters will thank you for not making them go digging through your resume to figure out what makes you qualified and different from other PhDs.
This is especially important if you are applying to an industry job from academia. Many jobs list industry experience but recruiters ultimately consider applicants without it. Leading with an executive summary gives you have time to persuade a recruiter you’re worth considering, rather than emphasizing the fact you are fresh out of academia. Executive summaries are also helpful if you are applying for a role that doesn’t traditionally get filled by PhDs; you get a few lines to emphasize your transferable skills and convince the hiring manager why you should be the exception.
In addition to highlighting your skills, an executive summary conveys the important message to recruiters that you are a strong communicator. Most industry jobs will require you to synthesize complex concepts into a few key takeaways and communicate them clearly and concisely. By crystallizing your experiences into several punchy bullet points, you will demonstrate you have the communication skills to craft a narrative. If you can sell yourself, you can sell a company’s product.
3) Targets a specific job and aligns you with employer needs
Traditionally, people kicked off their resumes with an “objective statement,” in which they wrote what they were looking for. You may have seen objective statements like this before:
“Seeking to obtain a research scientist position at a leading biopharmaceutical company.”
“OBJECTIVE: To apply expertise in molecular biology and bioinformatics in a fast-paced challenging environment.”
Objective statements are essentially useless – you’re telling me you want to apply for the job you have applied for. I know that. Ditch the objective statement for an executive summary.
The major problem with objective statements is they tell hiring managers what they already know. If you’re applying for a research scientist job, the employer knows your objective. That’s why you sent them your resume. Don’t waste precious space in your resume telling them what they know.
Additionally, objective statements are written with your goals in mind, not the hiring manager’s. Hiring managers are looking for what you will bring to the job, not what you want to get out of it. You wouldn’t try to sell your house by saying you need the money; you’d take the buyer’s perspective and show off what they’d get by purchasing the house. On your resume, take the employer’s perspective, understand their needs and demonstrate how you would fulfill them.
So how do you get started writing your executive summary?
1) Identify the employer’s needs and how you fulfill them
Just as your resume should be tailored to the job for which you are applying, so should your executive summary. In fact, it is even more crucial to tailor your summary since that is the one part the recruiter is guaranteed to read.
Read the job description to determine what is most important: If it’s a research scientist role, what lab techniques are they looking for? If it’s a data analyst role, what scripting languages are they looking for? If it’s a consulting role, are they looking for entrepreneurial experiences? Is it important to emphasize your experience managing others or should you emphasize your written communications skills?
Once you’ve identified what skills the job needs, go through your resume to identify which of those skills you have. List the most relevant experiences that pertain to each skill set. Of the scientific research techniques listed in the job description, which have you mastered? If the position requires you to lead a team, when have you managed others? If the job requires you to be part of a new unit, have you started an organization to prove you’re a leader who can shape it? If it requires communication skills, have you written articles for popular consumption or given presentations to wide audiences?
2) Understand it’s YOUR story
In addition to tailoring your summary to jobs you apply for, make sure your summary is tailored to YOU. We realize that sounds a bit obvious, but often we read resumes whose opening sentence is something like:
“Highly motivated scientist with strong problem-solving skills, tireless work ethic and detail-oriented mindset.”
That could describe just about any PhD applying to any job. Throughout your executive summary and resume, try to emphasize skills, experiences and attributes unique to you. When you write a bullet point, ask yourself, “Could just about anyone say this?” If the answer is yes, rewrite.
3) Write the bullet points
Now that you’ve done some initial thinking about what skills and experiences you have that are relevant to the job and make you stand out, it’s time to put them on paper.
Your executive summary should appear right below your contact information and be about 4-8 lines. We prefer bullet points to paragraph form: a big block of text is intimidating to read and difficult to skim, which frustrates hiring managers. This is more important for bullet points under your experience section, which we will cover more in another post, but the rule applies to the executive summary as well.
Here’s a rough outline for your executive summary:
Bullet 1 – The Pitch
Summarize yourself in a sentence (e.g., “Creative biochemist with demonstrated leadership skills and 7 years experience in immunology and cancer biology research”)
Bullets 2-3 – The Skills
Emphasize the most relevant skills you have tailored to the job description (e.g., “Deep expertise in mathematical modeling in monte carlo simulations, performing numerical analysis on large data sets and data visualization”)
Bullets 4-5 – The Fit
Highlight your soft skills and anything else impressive that defines you (e.g., “Former professional poker player well-prepared for an environment of rapid decision-making and financial risk”)
To get started on your executive summary, here are some questions to ask yourself to help flesh out each bullet point:
For inspiration, here are a few executive summaries of real PhDs we have helped get jobs (names changed of course). Notice how the emphasis changes depending on the job they apply for!
This was one of a series of posts on winning resume strategies for PhDs. Stay tuned to Scizzle for future pieces including 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. To begin exploring what jobs match your skills, sign up at www.oystir.com.