I receive a lot of resumes at SRT, especially so in the last several months…typically a few a week even when I don’t have an active post and about 20 a week when I do. As a service to those seeking jobs in this economy, in particular those seeking highly technical positions I thought I’d write down a few thoughts, ideas and recommendations.
As a general procedure, I review a pile of resumes, choose about 10% for Skype interviews and winnow that bunch down to less than five to bring in for a site visit. At the final stage I will ask for references and code or writing samples.
Resume and Cover Letter
The resume and sometimes an accompanying cover letter is the gateway to further consideration at any company. Anyone reviewing a stack of resumes must read through one or two pages of text that summarize a career and try to make a snap determination as to whether this person is worth investigating further. Its important to get this part right and present yourself in a complete and accurate way.
Send only PDF files
PDF is the most universal of file formats. PDF files can be viewed on PC’s, Macs, Linux boxes, tablets and phones. MS Word files cannot and Word takes longer to launch. MS Word is an editor so unless you are expecting the recipient to edit your resume it makes no sense to send files this way. As a secondary note you should never send a generically named file like resume.pdf or cover_letter.pdf. Instead include your name in the file such as john_smith_resume.pdf and john_smith_coverletter.pdf. The latter makes it easier for me to find your resume and saves me the step of renaming your file.
Its 2012, no need to limit your resume to one page anymore!
When I was looking for a job after graduating there was a hard and fast rule that your resume should be no more than one page. I believe this was because resumes were physically mailed in to companies and there was a chance the second or third page would get separated from the first. Most companies would take the resume and scan it so if you lost one or two pages you’d be out of luck. This scenario is completely archaic these days as all correspondence is electronic from the start. Be concise but don’t feel constrained to one page. If you go over one page make sure you fill at least 50% of the subsequent page otherwise the formatting looks messy. A resume with one or two lines on the second page violates my sense of aesthetics.
Format your resume
At the resume screen stage I look for an organized and well formatted document. The thinking is that if you can’t organize your thoughts and create a clean document to get a job you want then you likely won’t do so when you have one. Besides, it’s pretty easy these days to find a template. I suggest looking at the resumes of as many colleagues and friends as will send you copies and taking the best features from all of them.
Include your picture
This may be contended by experts but you want to stand out in any way possible from the pile of other resumes.The first thing I’m going to do if I’m remotely interested in your resume is to search your name. With LinkedIn, Facebook, university directories and personal pages its likely a photo will pop up anyway. Make it a professional photo obviously and black and white.
Manage your digital footprint
As mentioned above, employers will search your name on the web so you want to make sure that the first thing they see is not photos that your friend posted of your senior year spring break trip. All job seekers should be on LinkedIn. LinkedIn is the greatest gift to job seekers and employers since the invention of the resume. Join and start building out your professional network. Its facebook for adults. I think it’s a good idea for technical folks to always have a personal web page where you post information on your professional interests, in particular hobby projects. You should post papers, code, photos even videos if it’s appropriate. It’s nice to see a little bit of your personal interests as well to get a well rounded view of a candidate. Put your web address in your resume. The point here is that you have a fantastic opportunity to add supplemental information to your resume through a simple web link. You want to feed an employer the information he or she is looking for rather than leave it up to chance through a random search. Personally I like to see a history of interesting side projects. To me this says that this person is so into their subject area they do it in their free time. Here is someone who I don’t think I’ll have trouble motivating.
Keep your correspondence short
Cover letters should be short. One or two short paragraphs. The same goes for emails if you have correspondence with an employer. Most are very busy and will appreciate succinct, direct correspondence. The cover letter is not all that important in my opinion and I don’t weight it very heavily. It should mainly be used to express your interest and explain any unusual items in the resume.
Resume red flags
There are a few red flags that sometimes leap out to me on a resume. The first is a lot of short engagements. There can be many legitimate reasons for short engagements but it could also mean you are difficult to work with or unable to focus and commit to a position. One mistake I see a lot is where a candidate has multiple positions at the same company and they are listed separately as short engagements. A quick perusal by an employer may lead him or her to believe you are a job hopper. Make it clear through your formatting that these are all promotions and advancements within the same company. If you do have a lot of short stints this is something you might want to explain in the cover letter. Another red flag for me is an extended stay in grad school. If I see a grad school stay of more than about 6 years I get a little worried. I’m wondering if you have the drive you’ll need to get things done or if you are a procrastinator. Again there are many reasons your grad school tenure may be long. You might have switched advisors for example or your advisor may have left the university. I’ve seen both. There are compensating factors also. For example if you spent 7 years in grad school but have an excellent publication record I can see that you have been productive in those years.
For fresh PhD candidates I like to see 3 or more first author publications. Publications show that the candidate can do peer–reviewed quality work. Presentations and talks are also a good sign. It shows the candidate is active in the professional community. List them all and put PDF copies on your personal website so they are easily accessible.
GPA is important but its not everything. I’d rather see a few out of class projects or undergraduate work with a professor in your area of interest than a perfect 4.0.
Don’t include MS Office as a skill
Unless you expect that MS Office is going to be a big part of your future job duties, don’t include it in your skillset. You can code in C and C++, you use STL and Boost and have developed a parallel code that implements the Navier-Stokes equation…. I’m going to assume you can learn Word and Excel if you have somehow escaped contact with them so far.
The Skype/Phone Interview
The phone interview is your chance to add some color and texture to your resume. You should take the opportunity to add detail to what you’ve listed, explain gaps in the resume or short stays at jobs or a long tenure in grad school or anything else that might raise concern in an employer.
What you tell me in the interview should be consistent with your resume. For example if you tell me you love high performance computing and you want to make a career there but you don’t know anything about parallel programming and its not listed on your resume, that is inconsistent. At the undergrad level, I understand that classes dominate your time but have you contributed to an open source project or have you started work with a professor in your area of interest, did you compete in the ACM programming competition, did you receive a prestigious scholarship? The latter are impressive and gets my attention.
You should take no more than 1 to 2 minutes to answer any single question. I have a list of questions I want to ask you and if you take 10 minutes to answer the first with digressions into how you chose your major and your roommate’s pets and the politics in your department etc., I have very little time to get the information I need. Be concise. Answer questions directly with some embellishment but stay within the 1 to 2 minute rule.
Test your technology
I strongly prefer to use Skype for my interview calls for the simple reason that it provides the clearest connection when used computer to computer. If you are using Skype make sure it works on your computer and make sure you have sufficient bandwidth to do a call. Test your technology the day before to debug it. The same is true if you are using a cell phone. Are you calling from a place with sufficient coverage?
Casual to business casual dress is sufficient
Interviewers for technical positions don’t put a lot of weight on dress as is appropriate however you want a clean professional look. A suit is not necessary for a Skype call nor is a jacket.
The Site Visit
If you are at the site visit stage you are close to the end of the process. You’ve made it further than probably 95% of applicants.
Meeting with people 101
Because of lack of experience and opportunity many students don’t know a few simple rules about how to set up business meetings. This is basic stuff but getting it right leads to a good impression of someone who has it together. i) Make sure you know the time-space coordinates of your meeting. Be sure you are talking about the same time zone by the way especially if this is a phone meeting. ii) Show up early and expect something to go wrong (e.g. traffic, car problem, you get lost). If you have the opportunity it’s a good idea to do a dry run sometime before your actual meeting. iii) Exchange cell phone numbers with the people you are meeting so you can call them if you will be late. iv) Don’t be late.
The site visit is as much for you as it is for the employer. It’s your chance to figure out how this company works and does business. You need to figure out if the work is what you want to do and what you’re good at and if you can do it with these people. Do as much background research on the company as you can. If it’s a big company you can ask about opportunities to advance, ability to publish and attend conferences, opportunities for training and remote assignment. In a small company you can ask about the opportunity to share in company’s success, the strategy for growth, how it deals with setbacks, is it VC funded or bootstrapped etc. Most of all find out what they want you to do and what they expect from you.
Business and business casual attire is appropriate
Since this is a face to face visit a suit or jacket and tie or just jacket is recommended. For women, stick with modest professional attire probably dark colors. Again the bar for dress is very low for technical interviews but you want to make a good impression and if you are giving a talk it’s a sign of respect to the audience to dress well. I don’t weight dress very highly but I’d probably question a candidate’s social IQ if he or she came in with shorts and T-shirt with flip-flops.
Give a talk
I always ask candidates to give a talk. I can learn a lot about someone by the way they present information. If you are not asked to give a talk I’d recommend that you volunteer to do so. It’s a good way to set the topic of conversation on something that you know very well….your work. Pitch the talk to an audience that is very smart but may not know your field in detail. I prefer a talk that doesn’t use a lot of obscure jargon but makes connections in your field to basic principles that are widely understood. You may have to throw out some of the details to enhance the clarity of your presentation. That’s ok. I don’t have to see every experiment or calculation that you’ve done. Just present one or two very well.
This should not be confused with waterboarding although some candidates may find it equally unpleasant. I like to whiteboard. By that I mean I like to see how you explain things to me on the whiteboard. I typically ask you to explain the basic governing equations of whatever your field is…I ask questions and we go from there. My premise is that if you just finished a PhD on this subject you should know it in your sleep. Whiteboarding helps me see how you think under a little pressure as well and how you react to that pressure. Cool under pressure is an essential skill.
Don’t wait for someone to offer you a job to start your career
This may be the most important advice I have for students and those looking for jobs. If you have a passion for X, then to the extent you can…start doing X now. Drop that game controller and cut back on your facebooking time and do something constructive in your field. Find an interesting problem and explore it. Publish it to your website. Learn a new coding language. Buy some interesting cheap hardware (e.g arduino, raspberry pi) and do something useful with it. Participate in a LinkedIn group. Its never been easier or less expensive to get started in all sorts of interesting technical hobbies.
Finally…relax. Try to enjoy the adventure of the search. Learn from each engagement. Continually improve your resume, your talk and your list of questions. Stay engaged in your field through projects, group discussions, white papers etc. and good luck!