I just got off a plane to attend my first in-person ACS meeting since the pandemic began. Traveling is different nowadays, and so are ACS meetings. Everyone wears masks. In order to eat with or meet with colleagues and friends, you might have to show proof of vaccination. Over the coming years, it is likely that regular jabs into your arm and updates to your vaccination record will be necessary so you can mingle and enjoy social gatherings safely. But at least we’ve reached the point where we can come together face-to-face to do what we love: talk about our science, connect with like-minded people, and find opportunities to grow.
At the ACS meeting, I will talk to a large group of masked graduate students and postdocs about building careers. In general, when I give an address, I try to have one main take-home message. For this workshop, the message will be, “Know yourself, document all you have done, recognize opportunities, and apply for the position.” I often see graduate students and postdocs focus on the latter part of the message while ignoring self-awareness and the importance of documenting essential details of their life experiences that will enable them to do well during the job and career-path search.
You may not realize it, but do you know that your career started many years ago? Do you remember every detail of how you got to the point where you are right now? I do not mean the high-level academic things such as earning your BS degree, coauthoring a published research article, or presenting a poster at an ACS meeting. I mean the quantifiable and meaningful experiences that shaped the person, the professional, and the team member you are today.
Often, experiences that are not directly associated with our formal education impact how we perform as students, postdocs, or professionals. In my own life, I have worked as a musician since I was 17. I was a trumpet player in a German Air Force band and freelanced in large orchestras and small bands in Germany and the US. Through those experiences, I learned to work in teams, listen, lead, communicate, resolve conflict, celebrate successes, and embrace diversity and inclusion. For example, after the Berlin Wall fell, I served as the first musician from West Germany in an Air Force band that had been East German before East and West Germany came together. I worked with musicians who all grew up and studied music at superb conservatories in East Germany.
I was the outsider! I was someone from the Western culture and had to prove I was trustworthy. I listened to others’ concerns. I listened to others’ suggestions. I listened to the music. Our respectful conversations helped us discover how we were similar to one another despite cultural differences. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss this time in my life, although I did not realize then how much it would help my future career.
Back then, I documented every single performance. My notebook included a log of venue names and locations, the approximate number of people in the audience every time, payment information, and a sleeve for thank-you notes from organizers and fans. This notebook certainly helped me pay my taxes. More importantly, it was treasure for my mind. Every line in it triggered colorful memories and wrapped my soul in a blanket of emotions. I wish I still had that notebook.
My early-established habit of keeping notes as a musician helped me excel later as a researcher. I felt comfortable keeping my Kladde (conversational German for “lab notebook”) updated and then presenting directly from it during lab meetings. However, I am not sure whether I would experience the same emotional response from looking at the old Kladde as I would if I could see the musical performance archive.
Other experiences that shaped my identity are my love for football (known as soccer in the US) and my love for community. As a postdoc, I co-organized a soccer world championship among 10 teams held at my college. Each team strove to include as many representatives as possible from the country they represented. I still have some digital pictures from that weekend; however, I wish I had captured the details that go beyond its purpose and the name of the charity. I am sure I would smile and feel proud of an archived statement like, “Raised $1,780 for the TEAK Fellowship program by co-organizing a soccer tournament for 75 medical and graduate students, 29 postdocs, 12 faculty, and 19 staff to celebrate academic diversity and build community.”
Specifying goals, outcomes, and successes carries tremendous weight in a CV or an interview. For instance, I could use such a bullet point in a job application asking for evidence of fundraising and community-building experience.
What’s the difference between a CV and a résumé?
Coming from Europe, I had no idea what the difference was between a curriculum vitae (CV) and a résumé. Let me quickly summarize what I have learned.
In the US, a CV is typically used to present a full academic history that includes contributions to teaching, research, service, and awards. A CV has no page limit and includes a list of publications and references.
A résumé is used when applying for jobs that hire for a wide variety of positions. It is a tailored document that responds to the job announcement and shows that the applicant has the skills and experiences necessary to succeed. A résumé is a one-page document that includes experiences—job-related, extracurricular, and volunteer—as well as the skills that were gained from these. References are not included.
Documenting the details of your experiences matters! You need access to this type of information to describe precisely how you became who you are now and to indicate how you might contribute to a work environment or to society in the future. The things you learn from activities that simply seemed like fun at the time or in service to your community hold tremendous value when it comes time for you to talk about your accomplishments. They have a place among the information in the archive that captures your educational, professional, and volunteer experiences and accomplishments.
That is why it's important to reflect regularly on your activities, even the ones you are doing just for fun. Think about the things you’ve done and the lessons you’ve learned. What abilities would they demonstrate to someone recruiting you for employment? Your comprehensive archive of your accomplishments should be updated in real time and be readily available throughout your life.
Although it can be tempting to put off updating your archive, it's better to do it regularly. You will capture more information when it's fresh in your mind, and you will scarcely notice the effort. You can be proactive by capturing and organizing the details in an evolving document on a computer. Not only can your comprehensive archive be used as a precursor for a CV or résumé as required for job applications in academia, industry, government, or the nonprofit world, but it can also be revisited any time you need an ego boost, to battle imposter syndrome, or to get excited about upcoming chapters in your life.
I hope you will do better than I did as a graduate student or postdoc and find a way to keep an updated, comprehensive career development document at your fingertips. One very helpful tool in ACS’s ChemIDP suite is My Vitae—where you can document your accomplishments to craft a comprehensive CV.
As chemists, we may move quite a bit to align our lives with our careers. We may move from continent to continent, from country to country, from city to city, or from apartment to apartment. Every physical move comes with tough choices regarding what moves our hearts and what does not. I hope you will draw on all of your experiences—not just the ones you gained in academia—and use them to refine your CV as well as remember how they have inspired your journey, wherever you move.
Introducing ChemIDP’s My Vitae
ChemIDP features a new tool that allows graduate students, postdocs, and chemists at all levels to track and update their career progress. Now as you create your individual development plan, you can keep record of all your experiences, skills, education, distinguished honors, and volunteer achievements. Users can choose specific pieces from their vitae to craft and format a job application document. This functionality is versatile in crafting résumés, CVs, bio-sketches, and more.