How to Transition A Nontraditional Background into A Professional Business Role
During grad school, I thought I had a crystal-clear path laid out before me safely within the ivory tower of academia. If you’re like me and found out the hard way how few and far between tenure-track professorships really are, you might be facing a similar conundrum:
How do you articulate the valuable strengths and skills you acquired in a non-professional graduate — or even undergraduate — program when you’re applying to a more traditional professional position?
The short answer is that it takes more than a little tweaking, but it’s not impossible!
The first version of the resume I used to apply to non-academic jobs after graduating with my Masters’ Degree had a solid half of a page describing the ins and outs of a nuanced academic program that employees simply didn’t have the time or interest in reading.
Fast forward two years to my second professional role in 2019:
Right now, the only reference to the two years I spent in an incredibly challenging, fulfilling, and exciting interdisciplinary field working with the leading minds in disability studies is limited to one line in a box labeled “education.”
As heartbreaking as this felt, I quickly learned a major life hack: brand your abilities using business-friendly buzzwords. What things did you do every day that demonstrated critical thinking, efficiency, productivity, or innovation?
Pull out all the specific soft and hard skills you learned to excel at in school that could plausibly translate into the day-to-day demands of the job you’re applying to, and put them into a bulleted list. Here’s an example:
Employers might not want to read a synopsis of your 96 page thesis on applying neuroaesthetic theory to modernist literature…. but if you can quantify the output of writing you produced at a rate of pages or words per hour, they might be much more interested.
In the professional world, it’s extremely rare that you will be your own boss, especially in the beginning of your career. If you’re expecting a steady salary with benefits like healthcare and a 401k, you’re going to have to work for “The Man” (or woman; it’s 2019!).
This is where the tradeoff comes in. In exchange for financial stability of this sort, most of the work you do will be for other peoples’ needs and goals. That’s why you’re being fiscally compensated, rather than paying for a program or being funded to complete it.
As much as it broke my heart to admit, I quickly learned that I did, in fact, have valuable skills beyond parsing out the nuances of obscure passages by William Faulkner. Just a few examples are listed below:
Being collaborative and easy to manage
Diligence, worth ethic, and commitment
Responsibility, reliability, and attentiveness
Efficiency, productivity, and flexibility
Learning how to express that I am a great teammate and useful resource who employers can depend on required swallowing a bit of my pride, but it was a valuable realization in the long run that has served me well.
On to the first step of the job application process, and absolutely nobody’s favorite: now you’ve decided to apply to professional roles, it’s time to get your resume together!
Resumes should be a living document, and your professional career is an ongoing journey. Here are the lessons I’ve learned along the way.
Six Seconds to Success:
Grab HR’s Attention Before You Can Keep It
A recent Forbes article contributed by The Muse highlights the largest obstacle to the hours of work you’ve put into endlessly revising, iterating on, expanding, and improving what ultimate amounts to one page, roughly 500 words, and two minutes worth of content (if you were to read it out loud at the standard rate of speech):
“... from the perspective of a six-second recruiter… professionals have bosses, hiring managers, and senior leaders relying on them to find the best talent… they’re competing with other recruiters… compensation may even be tied to… the candidate they present. That’s a lot of pressure.”
This is a critical consideration. As much as you might want to describe every single accomplishment you’ve made in detail, stick to mission-critical and relevant information that applies to the role at hand.
You Only Have One Page:
Max it Out by Leveraging These Resume Formatting Tips!
Every other person you ask will have a different (and strong) opinion about whether or not your resume can — or should — exceed the standard one-page rule. This will really depend on the nature of your position, background, and experience level.
If you go for the classic one-pager, fitting all the points you want to include within one tiny white rectangle can feel like trying to wrangle a raging bull, solely equipped with a single red flag and a lasso. It’s honestly a major pain, especially when you save it and someone opens it in an older version of Word only to see a massacre of what used to be a finely-tuned document.
Before you send a resume to anyone in an official capacity, save it as a PDF. Even if they ask for a Word document, include a PDF as a backup. I promise; just trust me. :)
Resume formatting is exceptionally tedious and frustrating when you don’t know where to start. Here are some quick and easy tips to make your life a little easier.
Full disclosure: I learned most of these the hard way!
Game the System By Maximizing Available Space With Custom Margins
Recruiters might hate me for this, but if you’ve been grappling with the confines of the standard templatized layout, this might be your saving grace. Tweak the margins of your document to get just a little more room to show off what makes you shine.
Ideally, “narrow” margins should do the trick.
..but if you’re absolutely at your wits’ end trying to get an errant line to fit in, you can really max out the bandwidth by customizing the margin size. Being extra in all that I do, here was my first gut response:
Luckily, the Microsoft Word gods were there to keep me in check:
Microsoft Word: “Please relax.”
Me: “I cannot.”
Microsoft Word: “You gotta tho.”
Me: “Ok, I will do quarter-inch margins. And maybe .15 at the top. Sigh... you win again!”
2. Strategically Vary Font Size to Your Advantage
🚨Spoiler Alert!!! 🚨
You don’t have to use the same font size on every line- or even all the words in the same line!
Just because you’re using 12 (or even 11-, 11.5-, 10-, etc) -point font for the written words on the page doesn’t mean the size of the line breaks have to be the same!
I make my headers for positions and companies 1.5 points bigger than the 10.5 font for the description, BUT the lines in between are all 5 point font. Here’s how visually different this looks in Microsoft Word.
Check it out!
This is Times New Roman (boring) with all the same font styling/size/ etc:
Look how much better this 5-point spacing looks than the full 12-point line break!
Trial and error taught me that you can left and right align words and you even use different font sizes and styles within the same line. I drove myself crazy trying to figure out what looked best. Hopefully, this template can save you from experiencing the same hassle :)
3. Boring Fonts Are Canceled! Get Creative With Your Look and Feel
Just say no to Times New Roman, Cambria, and Calibri!
As a traditionalist slash nerd, I’m partial to Garamond- it feels a bit more unique than the standard times new roman or Cambria options. Georgia strikes a similarly classy yet unique balance.
If you’re in more of a design than writing field, you can’t go wrong with a fresh, clean san-serif font like Century Gothic, Roboto, or Lato (the latter two being the font of choice for half the websites on the internet!)
4. Unicode is Your New Best Friend!
For bulleted lists, I always use Unicode bullets or the smallest hyphens because they don’t warp when you save a Word document as a PDF. Word’s formatting for bulleted lists includes code that can get messy in other programs.
Beyond bulleted lists, Unicode also includes icons and emojis. I tried not to get too wild with it by sticking to a basic phone and mail icon for my personal number and email address, but I’ve seen some creative and impactful uses, like a bird for Twitter.
Traditional Icon: ✉
Emoji Options: 📧, 📨, 📩
Traditional Icons:✆ ☏ ℡
Emoji Options: 📞 ☎ 📱 📲
Feel out what fits your needs and the nature of the roles and companies you’re considering, and tweak as needed.
5. Text Boxes and Headers Are Here to Save the Day
Especially if your resume exceeds one page, putting your name and contact information in the header section rather than the normal body is non-negotiable. Double or right-click at the top to open this option:
This one’s simple. Text boxes simply give you more control than columns.
6. SAVE. AS. A. PDF. FILE.
This one bears repeating- that’s it. Just do it!
Insights from the Inside:
What I Learned on the Other Side of the Table
At my last job, I supported our team-specific recruiting process by screening applications that came in that met our basic criteria, assessing writing and editing assessments and samples, and conducting phone screens and in-person formal and informal interviews.
Here’s the biggest red flag I most consistently saw weed out otherwise qualified candidates:
A generic cover letter, or even worse, no cover letter at all.
Customized applications with a cover letter that actually applied to the role we were hiring for quickly became our baseline criteria.
-DO NOT use one-click apply on LinkedIn.
-Don’t use the similar option on Indeed, either.
-….or any other platform. FOR REAL!
In fact, doing the bare minimum by sending in a generic resume without even a personalized email is a huge red flag to the person who will be reviewing your application. Doing so shows you haven’t done your due diligence and are applying en-masse based on what you have to offer. Show, instead, that you have the skills to fulfill the needs of what the position actually entails.
Beyond the worst case scenario of sending in a cover letter with the wrong company name on it, it’s easy to tell if you’ve been using the same exact one and just swapping out the company name if you don’t speak to the role at hand in the body.
Don’t Feel Guilty For Polling Friends, Mentors, and Loved Ones!
….They like you for a reason- make them proud! It’s going to be tempting to want to apply every single piece of advice you get within your resume. Try to resist, because it won’t be possible and will eventually start to feel extremely overwhelming.
Important Reminder: At the end of the day, you know yourself the best.
As I asked more and more people (I think I am up to 20 requests for advice; everyone from my lawyer dad and former English professors to a diplomat, several consultants, and everything in between), I started realizing I was getting diametrically opposed answers to the same questions, such as:
“Can I make it more colorful/ fun/ unique looking?
“Can it be more than one page?”
“What pieces should go where?”
“Do I need a bio/summary at the top?”
How many skills should I list?
Do soft skills even count?
The best advice I’ve gotten has been from the ethos perspective; thinking in terms of a paradigm shift. Rather than listing activities you’ve completed, put your experience into the context of what you’ve accomplished.
A friend who works at a Big 4 consulting firm gave me this excellent piece of advice that really helped me re-strategize:
“Make sure anything you mention is specific enough to tie to your resume, expose your true passion, and hit at the job description. Tie every last inch back to the job description to show you are PERFECT for the role. This will push you over the edge as someone who lives and breathes the nature of work they’re looking for.”
Lastly, here’s a series of truly strategic and thought-provoking questions a friend instructed me to answer in my resume that I’m still working on accounting for:
“Employers are looking for difference makers and people who can come in, hit the ground running, and make good changes that will benefit the company. Meeting the expectation is fine, but it's better to exceed it.
Ask yourself questions like these:
How was I exceptional in this role?
·How did I stand out?
What did I do that made a lasting difference?
If you can answer these types of questions, and then reflect that in your bullets, employers will start throwing offers at you.”
Ultimately, all these friends, mentors, and loved ones are coming from different places in their life and work in different fields. I have to make the best judgment calls for me, and the roles I’ve held or aimed for. For the big questions that determine whether you will excel in a specific role, the only person who has the answer is you!
I’ll leave you with an empowering concept that’s surprisingly simple:
Job Interviews Are a Two-Way Street.
Throughout any application process, push back on the thought that they’re assessing you and solely determining the outcome. This is how you will spend the majority of hours in your day, five days a week.
Remember that you’re interviewing them just as much as they’re interviewing you! Doing your due diligence to make sure you will thrive in the work environment at hand is the key to excelling in your role and finding a fulfilling position that makes you excited to wake up in the morning.