If you have read our article on transferable skills, you are probably aware of your own skills. If you are not so sure what you are capable of, besides talking about the mating behaviour of C57BL/6 mice, it is worthwhile reading it first. If you already know your strong points, read on.
Frame your experience based on your skills (and not your knowledge). Focus on the parts where you did something. As an example, rather than just stating the topic you worked on with someone, emphasise that you collaborated, coordinated, delegated, managed groups, provided performance feedback and supervised.
Other terms that are often relevant include identifying problems and analysing them, writing and editing, providing training and coaching, public speaking etc.… you get the point.
Any research position, contract or project you have done should be listed in your CV, with a proper title, duration, employer and responsibility. Stating “research assistant for Professor no-one-knows” is not enough: Think of a descriptive yet compelling title, and list the tasks that you performed, not the findings and outcomes you generated (this goes together with the specific terms mentioned above). You worked there, you didn’t play around with chemicals.
Also think about the job titles you mention. For example, ‘PhD student’ has a connotation of being still a student (and you know what people say about students… I have an uncle who still laughs about the joke: “Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, good morning dear students!”).
Once you have re-phrased your work in your CV, make sure the responsibilities and tasks you list are relevant. Use key words (I know, we have mentioned it many times, but it is still true)! It might require some effort at first, but usually job descriptions already give away a lot in terms of key terms. Make sure to use these key terms! Many application files go through software looking for these specific key words – if you don’t have them, you can be the next Einstein or Steve Jobs, and your application will be trashed anyway, because no-one will actually read what you wrote.
Be specific, result-orientated and emphasise your actions in the job interview. This is true for everyone in a job interview, but it can’t be emphasised enough. If asked a question, try to answer using the STAR method.
S – situation: describe the situation you faced
T – task: what was the task involved?
A – action: which action did you take?
R – result: what was the end result?
For example: If you are asked for a great, unforeseen challenge during your PhD, you could answer like this:
The machine I depended on broke down and couldn’t be repaired for two months (situation), so I had to find another way of performing my experiments (task). I spoke to several people from different departments with experiments in the same field (action) and found someone who had a similar machine. In the end I could continue with experiments the next day, and our own machine was repaired two months later (result).
Being good and having great grades is not enough when submitting an application. You have to show where your strengths lie, why you are a good fit and that you are prepared for the tasks that come with a certain role. Besides the hard-fact knowledge, everyone possesses a variety of transferable skills that can be used in your favour. Try to put yourself into the shoes of the hiring person and prove that you are the right fit!