Getting Ahead on the Job Front

For some time now there has been a relatively ongoing discussion about the job prospects for PhD’s both in academia and beyond the ivory towers. This discussion has surfaced in the media, on blogs and in the twittersphere. For example, The Globe and Mail has had a number of pieces over the last several months (here, here & here) speaking to this issue with Brent Herbert-Copley, vice-president Research Capacity at SSHRC proclaiming most recently that while there were indeed few academic jobs, Canada needed more PhDs. Yet around the same time, Macleans’ published a recent article where Charlie Gillis questions whether a PhD is an academic dead zone! Similarly, not too long ago, Alex Bond, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Saskatchewan, provided a really honest reflection on the post PhD prospects for an ecologist in Canada over at The Lab and Field. On twitter, one only have to take a look at #altac or #phdchat to quickly see various musings, appeals and interweaving discussions concerning current and future job prospects.

No matter what your outlook, you will be applying for jobs soon, if you haven’t already. Every so often I come across a nugget of advice that I tuck away knowing that it could help me down the road. A while back I stumbled upon a post by Doug Kalish titled 7 Ways To Stand Out From the Crowd, which was part of the Graduate Student Advice Series. In the piece, Kalish provides a suite of tips to help make ones self known.

1)   The Four P’s: Publications, Posters, Presentations and Patents
2)   Start an ‘achievements’ file right now
3)   Scrub your online presence
4)   Join professional organizations in your field
5)   Set up professional social media accounts
6)   Build an online reputation
7)   Get business cards

The majority of these seemed quite common sense. However, the one that stood out to me as being especially useful was number two: Start an ‘achievements’ file right now. It stood out enough so that I continued to reflect upon it for some time realizing, or perhaps believing, it had even more potential than what Kalish had initially shared.

This is what Kalish had to say:

No one updates their CV or resume as often as they should. And I find that it can be hard to remember everything I’ve done when I finally get around to it. Start a paper or electronic file to hold evidence of your achievements. Any success or recognition, new skill or achievement goes into the file. Did you present your research to another lab? Write it down. Did you attend a lecture series on starting a company? Make note of it. Two years from now you may be crafting a cover letter and some obscure class you took or skill you have may make a difference. Not everything in the file needs to go into your resume, but you’ll appreciate having the documentation when you do get around to the updates.

Why start and maintain an achievements file?
Such a file provides a rich source of material that can be drawn upon for:

Cover Letters
Kalish notes above how invaluable such a file can be when composing a cover letter. Specific examples certainly strengthen cover letters.

CV/ Resume
Kalish couldn’t be more spot on with regards to the frequency, or lack there of, with which one updates their CV. I’m certainly guilty of this. Having all of that extra “source material” may also come in handy tailoring your CV and/or resume, especially for those considering jobs outside of academia!

Reviewing your file, or parts of your file could help refresh your memory as to what you have done and in turn arm you with numerous tangible examples that can be drawn upon while interviewing for a job.

There is no lack of applications to be filled out including scholarships, fellowships, grants, and jobs to name a few. As above, specific examples will help to strengthen your application and you never know when some of that extra “source material” may be just what you needed for a particular section or question! Even once you have a job, you might find it useful for grant applications (part of the continuous search for funding) or perhaps when going up for a promotion (e.g. tenure).

What to include:

Various activities that you might note include: service, teaching, presentations, guest lectures, workshops, mini courses, seminars, outreach, etc. I would argue that it is important to include not only what you did, but how you were involved. Furthermore, wherever possible, note specific impacts or outcomes. For example, note what occurred during your tenure as a graduate student representative to your department’s curriculum committee and how you personally contributed. Or perhaps you organized a workshop that not only had strong attendance but also inspired a secondary workshop. These are important details to record while they are still fresh in your mind.

Not only include the award, but note the criteria that are used. In other words, what does the award recognize or look for (i.e. service, leadership, innovation, merit).

It is never too early to start scoping out and noting altmetrics (which has seen a recent rise) to document the wider impact of your various activities. Jason Priem and Heather Piwowar even recently published a paper in the Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science and Technology entitled The Power of Altmetrics on a CV (sorry behind a paywall).

Annotated Resume
A few years ago, as part of one particular graduate school application, I was required to include an annotated resume that was not to exceed nine pages in length. This was by far, one of the most challenging, yet beneficial exercises I had encountered. Turning a resume into an essay where one not only includes various educational experiences and seminal jobs, but also notes how those have contributed to your personal, academic, or professional growth requires significant reflection. I believe this same idea of an annotated resume, though perhaps only requiring bullet points, serves as a useful model to think about maintaining an achievements/ activities file.

The key is that the file should not just be a laundry list. Rather, strive to include as many pertinent details as possible. Looks like I’ve got some work ahead of me!