I’ve spent a lot of time in the past few years reading resumés and interviewing people. A really surprising fraction of those resumés have been really lousy; either uninformative, or full of meaningless junk, or just plain illegible. I tend to throw those out. On the other hand, good interviews with competent people leave me in a better mood all day… so in the interest of getting more of those in the future, I’m going to post a couple of notes on good versus bad resumés. (OK, to be honest: In the interest of not having to slog through any more piles of really bad resumés. It makes me feel like my brains are going to leak out of my ears.)
- Format: Stick your name and contact info at the top. Then have major categories going down, sorted in descending order by what you’re applying on the strength of. (For instance, if you’re a new grad, you probably want to put “education” as the top category. If you have professional experience, or internships, or research experience, that’s way up there too. You almost certainly want to put a list of your other job-related skills way at the bottom, and other skills below that. Don’t skip the other skills; sometimes there are interesting ones there. Fluency in four languages is actually pretty interesting no matter what job you’re applying for, for example.)
- If you’re wondering if something is worth putting on your resume: Semi-relevant job experience can be reduced to a bullet point or two under skills. Completely irrelevant job experience, if there’s a lot of it, is also a bullet point.
- This document is meant to be read by humans. It doesn’t need world-class page layout, but it should be reasonably easy-to-read; that means well-spaced text, clear fonts, etc. Avoid things like tables with grid lines unless you’re a proficient graphic designer and know how to make them legible; 95% of tables aren’t, and they do more harm than good. Also, a resumé is an excellent place to demonstrate that you have full command of the language that you’re applying in. If you don’t speak like a native, run your text by someone who does.
- Bullet points versus paragraphs: Either is fine, so long as it’s informative. A long list of papers you’ve published is surprisingly uninformative, although I know some resume readers like it. A few lines explaining what you’ve been working on for the past couple of years is completely critical; no matter how many paper titles you give, I won’t be able to fathom anything useful without that.
- The person reading your resumé is not necessarily a specialist in your obscure sub-field. Telling me that you implemented the G87 patch to the GRU echoing transformer1 is kind of meaningless unless you give me some hint of what the hell those are.
- Those objective statements… I don’t read them. I don’t know anyone who does. I suppose they’re traditional, but unless they say “To crush my enemies, see them driven before me, and hear the lamentations of their women,” they’re pretty much just visual decoration. Do not stress about getting them perfect.
- People say your resumé needs to fit on one page. Damned if I know why; I’m perfectly able to turn a page. Although if there isn’t something on the first page that makes me care, I probably won’t bother.
- Really, unless someone is hiring on the “anyone who’s at least marginally competent and/or has a pulse” rule, whoever is reading your resumé is looking for one good thing, not a critical mass of so-so things. So padding with a lot of boring stuff doesn’t really help; one good explanation paragraph of something cool – even if it’s nontraditional, even if it’s just some wacky project you’ve been doing in your spare time – can.
1 This is gibberish, not CS, in case you were wondering. At least, I think it’s just gibberish.
Here’s a sample of a decent resume, with comments interspersed.
Joe R. Hominid
100 W. Aardvark Dr., Buggersville, CA 94043
|Objective||A research-oriented position with a practical bent|
|Tells me: This guy is a fresh Ph.D., applying on the strength of that. I’ve never heard of Prof. Zuchmir, but that may just mean that I don’t know him. Maybe one of my colleagues does. There’s a time gap between his BS and his MS – I’ll check the rest of the doc to see what he was doing then.|
|Publications||A big list goes here, I don’t feel like making up a bunch of entries|
|I’m not going to read this in detail, but if he has a range of publications that’s interesting to know, especially if they’re not all with the exact same list of authors. (That would just tell me that the principal investigator of the group is the kind of guy who publishes everything) If he has conference papers, invited talks, etc., those should get top billing and maybe their own subsection.|
Sysadminning is one of those “partially relevant” jobs. It’s evidence of some real-world experience, which is good, but for a research-type position it doesn’t get top billing.
Massively relevant? No. Shows that he’s got a range of interests, can probably think about things other than the narrowest details of his field, and is generally kind of neat? Yes.
Disclaimer: This is not the official position of my employer, or anyone else except me. I offer no guarantee whatsoever that if you follow this, you will get interviewed, hired, even noticed by a potential or current employer, or even not be shot at by them. Nor is any warranty, express or inferred, offered in conjunction with the reliability or usefulness of this advice.