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Make Your Résumé Work For You

A good résumé is a marketing tool that gets you noticed, even in a weak job market

by Corinne A. Marasco
February 23, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 8

Credit: Shutterstock
Credit: Shutterstock

DAILY HEADLINES about the poor state of the economy are impossible to avoid. Chemical and related manufacturers are cutting chemical production, capital spending, and jobs in response to the dramatic decrease in demand for their products and services (C&EN, Feb. 16, page 24).

If you are one of many people looking for a job right now, you may be tempted to hit the panic button. However, it's important to recognize that opportunities still exist. Although sales are declining for some companies, others continue to grow their businesses. Rather than become distracted by factors that you can't control, such as the economy, focus on things that are within your control, such as your résumé.

Your résumé is your calling card. It is also a powerful tool that can land you interviews that can lead to job offers. For that to happen, your résumé must be found and read by potential employers, persuading them to contact you. That's a lot for one document to accomplish.

A 2007 survey by reported that 25% of human resources managers received more than 50 résumés for each open position, a number that has likely increased since then. Those numbers mean that employers are spending less than a minute to assess each candidate's résumé. Here are five tips to help you craft a résumé that will rise to the top of the candidate pool.

1. Put the spotlight on you.
In a competitive job market, especially in an economic downturn, you want to set yourself apart from other, equally qualified, candidates. Your résumé must clearly communicate the value you can bring to a potential employer.

Rather than simply highlight job-related skills or the length of time you've spent in particular positions, your résumé should specify how you can help a prospective employer with specific challenges. "Employers hire people because they have a problem to be solved or a need to get something done," says Louise Kursmark, a master résumé writer in Reading, Mass., and author of "30-Minute Résumé Makeover."

In addition, job seekers are wise to tailor their résumé for a specific position, according to Lisa M. Balbes, an American Chemical Society member who volunteers as a career consultant. "Word processors are a blessing in that they make it easier to create targeted résumés—something that companies have come to expect," she says. She recommends keeping a "library copy" résumé that is a complete list of your experience and accomplishments. Then, a targeted résumé can be crafted by drawing from that resource. It's important to match your skills and experience to a company's goals and objectives, which can be culled from annual reports, company websites, and company connections.

2. Focus on the basics.
Although there is no right way to create a résumé, outstanding résumés include four essential elements, according to experts.

The first is an objective, which should clearly identify the type of work you are seeking, according to Kursmark. For example: "To obtain a research and development position in the pharmaceutical industry that takes advantage of extensive experience in synthetic organic chemistry."

It's important to use the objective statement to define your expertise and skills and demonstrate how you might fit within a company, says Joel Shulman, a former Ph.D. recruiter for Procter & Gamble, adjunct professor at the University of Cincinnati, and consultant who conducts workshops on résumé writing and interviewing for ACS. A well-written objective also helps human resources staff direct the résumé to the right hiring manager, he adds.

A second critical element is a summary statement, which should establish the benefits you bring to a company. It should explain why you are the best candidate for the job. Shulman encourages people to include a few highlights of their key skills and accomplishments and a brief description of their knowledge and experience. This is better than trying to pack everything into the objective, he says.

A third element is a keyword list, which will increase the chances that the résumé will be flagged in a computerized keyword search. This list is a capsule of your relevant skills and competencies, including experience with specific software, instruments, and techniques. Keywords for soft skills such as leadership and communication are also frequently searched, Balbes says.

In addition, résumés should include all commonly used abbreviations of key terms because variations on terms may be searched, Balbes adds. For example, a résumé should include the abbreviations MS and mass spec, in addition to the words mass spectrometry.

Finally, your résumé should detail your achievements. Don't get bogged down in job titles and descriptions, Kursmark advises, and include action verbs. If you're in product development, for example, it's important to describe a product that you developed and how much revenue it brought in, she says. Explain how you made a difference. "Show that you understand why companies hire chemists," she says.

Experts say that every achievement on your résumé should have a corresponding metric, such as "helped produce revenues of $2.3 million," "increased customer base by 17%," or "reduced product reject rate by 33%." If you can't come up with a number, you can still describe the benefit you provided, such as "identified profitable new markets." Your achievements should help the employer answer the question, "What's in it for me?"

3. Less is more.
In addition to knowing what to include in your résumé, it is also good to be selective about what you include. You don't want information on your résumé that will inadvertently screen you out.

For example, limit details about positions you held in the distant past. "Your most recent positions should be the strongest, most positive, and relevant," Kursmark says. Although you need to be open and ready to discuss the details of your work history, your résumé is a selective presentation of your career highlights.

This is particularly important if you're a midcareer professional who hasn't been on the job market for a while. In that case, Kursmark advises giving career highlights going back five to 10 years, followed by a summary section that describes progressive work experience.

4. Sweat the details.
Job seekers often overlook how simple mistakes can hurt their résumés. Balbes, who has been reviewing résumés for about 15 years, says she never fails to find typos in the résumés she is asked to critique.

Even if you think your résumé is perfect and error-free, read it again from the bottom to the top, last page to first. Then ask a colleague or someone who is familiar with your work to read it, too, for accuracy and completeness. Often, they ask important questions that you haven't considered. Asking someone to review your résumé is especially important if English is not your first language.

If you list awards on your résumé, be sure to describe the accomplishment behind each honor, Shulman recommends.

5. Ask for help when you need it.
Whether you're writing your first professional résumé or updating a previous one, help is available from many sources.

The ACS Department of Career Management & Development's online Career Consultant Program consists of more than 70 volunteer consultants, all ACS members, who are available to assist fellow members with various employment and career development matters, including résumé preparation. Résumé-writing workshops and face-to-face résumé reviews are also conducted at national and regional meetings. For more information, go to

Undergraduate and graduate students, as well as alumni, should investigate the resources available at their campus career centers, which offer services such as on-campus interviews, career days, e-fairs, information sessions, job postings, résumé databases, open houses, and special events.

Résumé-writing professionals like Kursmark are another resource. However, it's important to screen these writers before hiring one, Kursmark says. Ask how many years of experience they have, what their credentials are, and how they keep up with industry trends, she says. Ask to review samples of their work and ask for details about the consultation process, she advises. "Will the writer be gathering information from you by a questionnaire, a consultation, or both? How many opportunities will you have to revise your document?" she asks. Finally, ask whether you get both a hard copy and a file that you can edit, she recommends.

In a weak market, job seekers need to be strategic in their efforts. Take time to create a thoughtful and measured approach to your job hunt. Target specific positions and specific employers. If there is a surplus of professionals in your field who are looking for work, think creatively about how you can transfer your skills elsewhere, such as to smaller companies or another industry. Having a strong résumé will be a great first step toward finding a desirable position.


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