Need resume help? The Job Queen is in…

Following my last blog on getting freelance work, I got this email from a friend:

Dear Val,
I got your latest installment as I was just having a conversation with my husband. He is often approached by head hunters and feels he should begin to respond just to network. But first, he needs to update his resume….which is, in my opinion, a mess. 
Can tell me a little about resumes…particularly I am wondering how far back do you really need to go in job experience? How many pages is too many? I’ve always thought it should be one page and that is it? Any tips you’d be willing to share would be most welcomed. Many thanks, L.

Well, you’ve come to the right place. Boy, am I an experienced resume builder! I must have rewritten my resume a thousand different times, since hunting for a post-college job in 199x (do I really need to give that last number? Ha!). Since my hard-luck with jobs near the start of the Great Recession, which for many people started in 2008, I’ve reread and tweaked my resume so many times, it’s very difficult to see any mistakes that I might be introducing when I change it. I know my resume works, because it has gotten my foot in the door many, many times. And as I said in a previous blog, to have been laid off so many times, I had to get that many jobs in the first place. I’ve had enough consultations with life coaches and resume “experts” to know that, sure enough, I sometimes know more than they do (although I almost always pick up something new). I’ve helped many friends and colleagues with their resumes.

So I’m glad you asked.

Do dip thy toe

About your husband’s networking: indeed, respond to those headhunters if the job they’re touting seems to be a fit. I usually ignore headhunters because what I do (writing and editing in physics, astronomy, optics, and the like) is so niche-y. I’ve never gotten a decent lead through a headhunter. They often contact me with terribly mismatched opportunities. As my generic resume is posted on several online job sites, sometimes they contact me based on a single keyword that appears once or twice in my resume (like marketing). Recruiters for insurance companies (MET Life, NY Life, Liberty) seem to have no aim at all, just casting about wherever they see a resume, so feel free to ignore them unless you’re interested in commission-based sales.

Keep thy resume updated

Chances are over a lifetime of working, you will need numerous versions of your resume. You may get a lifelong job with one version of your resume and never need to unearth it again. But the chances are vanishingly less today that you will stay in the same job (or even the same career) as long as your parents or grandparents did. I sometimes joke that if you’ve been in the same position with the same job for two years, you’re in a rut!

If you’re like me, with a long, diverse career in many areas, you need to consider your resume a living, breathing, evolving document. My career has been in education, academia, publishing, marketing, manufacturing…and often it’s been a mix of those areas at the same time. I might be applying for a jobs as diverse as a science educator, writer, editor, marketing communications manager, PR professional, information officer, or a Starbucks coffee barrista…so how I tailor my resume depends on what job I’m applying for.

To track of all your best qualities, maintain one, extra-long master copy of your resume. Print it out every now and then in case you accidentally save changes at a bad time or your computer crashes. When you accomplish a goal, obtain training or certification, or complete a project, be sure to add it to your master resume while it’s still fresh in your mind. As you gain accomplishments, this master resume will grow to be much too long to actually share or submit for a job opening. It’s just for you to cull from when you need it.

Be thy own tailor

You will likely need to create a generic resume to post on job sites or send to a headhunter. Pare down your master resume to highlight your shiniest, most salient points for general purposes. However, when replying to job posts, it’s much better to consider each job description and customize your resume as if you were tailor made for just that position. Use the same language in the job ad. For example, if I see a position for science editor, I describe myself as a science editor rather than science writer (because I am both and they are often interchangeable). If the job cites that the candidate must have “intellectual curiosity” early in the posting, use “intellectually curious” in either your cover letter or your summary paragraph on top of your resume. I mean, make sure it’s true. If you are not intellectually curious by nature, don’t lie. Highlight something else.

What length, thy resume?

The best resume length is the shortest length in which you can precisely describe your skills and experience. One page is ideal. But I started working when black eyeliner and mullets were big. Mind you, I was a teenager. My first job was as a staff planetarium operator at Fleischmann Planetarium in my hometown of Reno, NV. I was 17, and today I am still very nostalgic for those summer days when I set the stars drifting across the dome-shaped theater, pointed out where the audience could see Halley’s Comet tonight, and threaded the film, “The Space Shuttle: An American Adventure,” into the giant Cinema-360™ projector. I also staffed the gift shop, sold tickets, and manned telescopes on public viewing nights. It was the beginning of a huge passion for astronomy education, and the start of my career.

If, like me, your career touches (HOLY pantload, can it be so?) four decades, it’s okay to include two pages of relevant information on your resume. My resume is two pages, because I have had so many jobs, and diverse ones. I can barely fit everything into two pages! I recommend Calibri font, which I feel is more modern, and use a font no larger than 12 points. If one’s experience, education, accomplishments, awards, and skills almost fit onto one page, but you can’t justify two, try using a smaller font, but no smaller than 10.5.

When my father was looking for a job at an age when a lot of folks would rather be retiring, his resume was three pages, because he has had an amazingly long and lustrous career as a geologist, touching (sorry Dad, but it’s true) seven decades. With that resume, he found a job.

Watch thy dates

That said, if you’re in your 40s or older, it may behoove one to reduce the appearance of age, i.e, shave off some years by leaving off your graduation date, or skip your first decade of jobs. When I see a promising job opening that specifies fewer years of experience than I have, I might start my resume with the first job I had after grad school. That leaves off fifteen years of experience! This is very unfortunate, but nowadays, often what companies want is a young college grad with little experience because that’s all they can afford. They will get what they pay for, and it’s maddening. But not often does a job listing specify twenty years of experience, or even ten. An overqualified candidate might get a call or an interview, but when it comes to discussing salary, they won’t hire someone they will have to pay more for. Neither will they want an employee who would be underpaid for their experience (and perhaps unhappy). So unless you’ve had only a few jobs, consider lopping off your first job or two or three. At the worst, it will look like you started in a higher position than you actually did.

How much experience to include also depends on the job you are applying for. If I’m applying for a job related to astronomy where experience matters, I might include on my resume my first job in 198x at the planetarium to show I’ve had a long career in astronomy. I might also list the subject of my masters thesis in astronomy. If I’m applying for a publishing position, I leave off the thesis details and start with my first job in publishing in 2000. If I’m applying for a teaching position, I de-emphasize publishing and highlight my brief stint tutoring math for Sylvan Learning Center, my experience as a sub, and semester teaching astronomy at Bentley.

Get thee an editor

Something I’ve failed to do more often than not is get a friend to look over my resume before I submit it to a job. You will never know whether an inconsistency or slight typo in your resume has caused a picky reviewer to pass you by. I recommend everyone hire a professional to give you feedback, especially if you’re new to the job hunt. I happen to know an awesome editor with stellar credentials who might be available. 😉 Although you can find a lot of valuable information on the web, nothing replaces a professional editor to review the copy, content, and format of your resume and cover letter. ♦

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More related links:

How to avoid the resume black hole

Resume tips to stand out

Resume examples by job title