Resume & Cover Letter Tips for Alt-Acs and Other Career Changers

This is part of my Transferable Skills Talk: An ongoing series in which we identify and discuss your transferable skills as an alt-ac. Today’s edition: how to talk about your current work AND how to talk about what you’d like to do in your resume and cover letter.

When you are trying for a career change, as an alt-ac does, one thing that can hold you back is how you describe what you do.

When you change careers, one thing you have to do is clearly connect the dots between what you do now and what you want to do. Let’s look at some strategies for rebranding your already awesome self so that you don’t leave hiring managers scratching their heads on why you’re interested or a good fit.

For Your Resume Rewrite, Focus on Skills & Abilities

When you write your resume, you’re steeped in the mindset of selling what you do. Present tense. Now. That’s nothing against you – all of us do it! But for career changers, your resume needs to zoom out a bit, to help paint a broader picture of the *kinds of things* you can do.

When I do resume reviews, I find that my clients often under-report their transferable knowledge, skills, and abilities. Why? Because they’re academics! We’re trained to be subject matter experts. And when I look at the resumes, all I see is how esoteric and niche someone is. For career changers, your resume needs to make a strong case for your skills and abilities over your knowledge. Unless you’re applying for an alt-ac job in your niche, you are never going to win a job over an applicant because of knowledge. You’ll be up against applicants who have a degree in that area. So you need to play up your skills and abilities.

What are your Skills & Abilities? Head to O*Net

It’s not hard to see why alt-acs aren’t sure what our skills and abilities are. As academics, we spent a LOT of time focusing exclusively on building specialized knowledge and not much else. But don’t discount that you DID spend time in grad school building other, easily understandable skills and abilities. Research, writing, and teaching all gave you marketable skills and abilities. And I usually see that my clients have made some attempt to address that on their resumes.

But here’s the thing. You can get even more granular and specific than “research, writing, and teaching.” And doing so will make your career changing resume stronger.

Here’s a good way to fill in the gaps. I use O*Net Online all the time. It’s a giant database of occupations, and the summary reports are a wealth of information. Here’s the O*Net Summary Report for Graduate Teaching Assistants. Expand each section and you’ll see what I mean (click the + sign under Tasks, Technology Skills, etc.).

It’s not just “teaching” it’s also evaluation and grading, leading discussions, developing materials, demonstrating equipment, enforcing laboratory safety requirements, etc. It’s not just “writing,” it’s also rhetorical writing, long-form writing, argumentative or persuasive writing. You get the idea. I strongly suggest career changers head to O*Net for a keyword search for your occupation or one that’s close enough to find additional skills and abilities to include.

Looking at O*Net helps clients see that their forest – the higher level, broader skill sets.

Restate your Skills & Abilities

Another common issue I see with alt-ac career changer resumes is unintentionally using the terminology of your field. AKA: Jargon. Because that’s how it reads to anyone outside your field. (Yes, even me!) When you’re changing careers, your resume needs to speak in more general terms to your abilities. So as you revise your master resume, keep a watchful eye for where you say something that won’t be easily understood to an all-purpose professional in a totally unrelated industry. And remember how FAST they scan a resume: supposedly 6 seconds. If you’re a client of mine, and I have to stop and think as I read your resume “SOPs…” what does that, “oh yeah, standard operating procedures” in order to keep going? Fine. But if a hiring professional encounters that type of alphabet soup or jargon? NEXT!

When it comes time to submit an application, you don’t submit your master resume; you tailor each resume to the position advertised. I like the way this post on The Professor Is In states it best: “What skills should I list? This should come directly from the job posting.

Leverage the Cover Letter to Convey Your Genuine Interest

As your resume gets less academic, you’ll need to turn your attention to the cover letter. (And you ARE tailoring it to each and every application, right?) For career changers, the cover letter is where you make a compelling case for why you as an “outsider” (because that’s how you’ll be perceived already since you don’t have a degree in X) are genuinely interested in working in X. If you’ve done your research, you’ll be able to say something about why working at EMPLOYER is appealing to you because you support their mission. Or how you are eager to apply your own experience in using technology when you were teaching to helping faculty adopt educational technology as an instructional designer. Whatever it is, be sure to convey your enthusiasm in that role and industry, and it’ll show.

In your cover letter you might also choose to play up your ability to learn things quickly, your communications skills, you know – your other broad skills (managing multiple tasks, keeping to deadlines, working on teams, working with little supervision).