What you know that you don’t know that you know: Our training as researchers makes us better writers of resumes.
Support your claims! We know that you do not make any claim without supporting it. This is no less true of a resume than it is of a research paper. Make sure that you support any claim that you make with supportable evidence. So if your resume says that you are a skilled communicator, give examples of situations in which you effectively communicated (and not to be meta, but your resume best sing if this is one of the claims that you are making for yourself). Any piece of writing will be evaluated for its style, clarity and effectiveness, especially a resume, and especially if you claim to be a good writer, effective communicator, or design specialist!
Quantify! As social scientists, we may be ready, willing and able to tackle both the quantitative and qualitative realms, but resumes exist firmly within the quantitative. Put yourself in that mindset when you are creating your resume and ask yourself when you make any statement: “can that be quantified?” Rather than say “Taught English” how many students did you teach, and how often? How were they evaluated? Were there any measurable outcomes that resulted from your work? Not all of these questions can or should be answered of course, but detail is always a good thing.
Verbify! While we know there is much more in the toolkit to draw from, resume experts continue to be very excited about VERBS!! They have convinced all of us that we need and want to hear active verbs in this genre, and there is probably great reason for this. A verb like “helped with social media campaign” doesn’t tell us HOW you helped or WHY. It obfuscates and hides your contribution and basically only communicates to your reader that you were present while such activities were taking place. Even if you were a low-ranked person on the team, there probably were contributions that you made which are indicative of your knowledge, skills and abilities. Thus “conducted social media research to support social media strategy” or “advised on website design based on principles of visual communication” or “edited messaging content for persuasive effectiveness” all work much more powerfully than “helped” does.
Then when it comes to writing your cover letter, don’t forget the things that you know about people and about language, which may have become so natural over the course of study that you may have forgotten that you know them!
We are aware of audience design. If we spend the time listening to our audience, we can learn how they communicate and model our speech accordingly. Probably the very best way to do this initially is to go through a job description reading like a discourse analyst. What can we learn about what they value by WHAT they talk about, HOW and WHY? What presuppositions do they make? What positionings do they take up? What do they NOT talk about? With more time, if you have it, conduct a more through “communications audit” as it is called in the business world or participant observation as we might call it in ethnography. Read anything and everything that you can get your hands on that has to do with this company. Talk to anyone and everyone you can who has knowledge of or contact with the organization. Let all of your friends and family know that you are interested in this organization, you never know who might know someone who knows someone who knows….but I get ahead of myself. We are not talking about networking right now, we are talking about writing a cover letter to accompany your resume. We are talking about reading and listening.
Listen for Style. If you want both your resume and cover letter to be heard by your audience, use your reading and listening to learn about the organization’s style of writing. Mirror this style in your materials. One thing that you may choose to listen for in particular might be the stories that they tell. What do they talk about, how are stories framed? What positions are taken up?
We are aware of the power of narrative. Use your cover letter to tell the story of your resume (the goal is not to encapsulate your life story, but tell your reader how to read this one representation of it). We know that in storytelling, we cannot say anything and everything. We must choose. And such choices carry meaning. Just as Schiffrin (1996) tells us “Our transformation of experience into stories, and the way we carry it out, is thus a way to show our interlocutors the salience of particular aspects of our identities “ (199). We can only chose some aspects of our professional identities to showcase in a resume and cover letter. The task is to choose the best ones for the job, and showcase them well. One piece of advice that I heard from a career expert which I thought was very useful was to think about your resume as a wish list. Of course you perform many duties as part of your current job, and you have performed many at your past jobs as well. Given that you cannot tell the stories about them all, select the ones that you would most like to do again (careful of course not to misrepresent your duties). When you talk about things that you enjoyed doing, you are more likely to strike the right tone and communicate enthusiasm as well, which brings me to my last point:
We are aware of voice, which is notoriously difficult to quantify, but luckily we are also qualitative researchers. So, how can we tackle this? First, I would try to step back and ask yourself “what assumptions am I making here?” something that I see a great deal is a clear articulation of exactly how this opportunity will benefit you. The person to whom you are applying will assume that, and for you to state it showcases to your peril that you are not putting yourself into the mindset of your audience. Try to put yourself into the mindset communicated by their job description: what do they need? From your communications audit / participant observation: what are their organizational goals? Communicate your understanding of these as embedded assumptions in your materials.
As ever, remember to pay it forward! These skills are useful in writing resumes, and they are also extremely valuable when you are asked to evaluate a resume. I am a firm believer in paying it forward when it comes to the job search. Offer to read and provide feedback on someone else’s resume and cover letter. I promise you that you will learn something about your own in the process.