How to Illustrate Your Career Readiness Competencies

Dr. Joseph Barber

In a previous post, I highlighted examples of career readiness competencies that are being integrated into approaches to improve the career and professional development of students. While the original NACE competencies may have been developed primarily with undergraduates in mind, they are equally applicable to graduate students. Indeed, they may actually be far more important to graduate students because of the tendency of those students, as they approach the end of their academic programs, to suddenly realize they’ve totally forgotten how to talk about their strengths, skills and abilities to different types of audiences.

Some of the students I meet with at the University of Pennsylvania readily explain that the last application materials they created were for their entry into graduate school — sometimes five or more years ago — and that they have not applied or interviewed for anything that resembles a job or an internship since then. The consequence of this lack of practice is a great deal of verbal rustiness when it comes to presenting clear, illustrative narratives that describe skills and experiences — academic or otherwise.

Even in the most ideal situations, graduate students can feel a little awkward talking about their research to other academics. Describing the transferable skills that explain how they actually approached and completed their research can feel even more awkward, given the fact that they rarely discuss such skills in conversations with their advisers or other faculty members.

Are you, in fact, one such graduate student? If so, not to worry. There are many ways to practice and become more fluent in professionally appropriate, skills-based talking through networking. You can read about them in this post and this one.

You can also become more fluent in this language by thinking about career readiness competencies and using them as a starting point for illustrating your skills in action. And, yes, if you are wondering, focusing on career readiness competencies is just as appropriate for those seeking faculty positions as it is for those who are not.

Here are some suggestions for ways to think about such competencies in order to tell better stories to future employers and networking contacts about your research. Those competencies — and I’m using those that we are developing at Penn, adapted from the NACE ones – cover some of these areas.

Self-management and personal wellness. Interestingly, most job descriptions don’t list skills like resiliency or emotional empathy in the lists of skills employers often seek in ideal candidates. But everyone needs them. While you might not write about them in your application materials, they certainly pop up in interview questions such as “What has been your greatest mistake?” “How do you deal with failure?” or “How do you address conflict in a group situation?”

As researchers, the ability to provide examples that highlight resiliency should be easy. Research frequently doesn’t yield positive results, grant applications are not always successful, manuscripts are often turned away at first and so on. Your job is clearly not to bring up a long list of failures in interviews. But using these as context to explain how you responded to these setbacks, what you learned from the experiences and how you have used this knowledge in more recent situations can nicely demonstrate this competency in action. No one is perfect, and being able to talk positively and confidently about how you have looked failure in the eyes and moved on can be a narrative that appeals to employers looking for candidates with emotional maturity and strength.

Active listening and effective communication. Attending a conference where you are giving a presentation (or, in the case of some disciplines, where you are strangely reading word for word a research paper that the audience members could just read for themselves — come on, you must admit that this is a bizarre activity!), provides an opportunity to demonstrate public speaking skills. That’s great, until you see how students and postdocs often refer to such experiences in their application materials:

  • Barber, J. C. E., 2016. “Chickens are fab — a metaphysical analysis of the philosophical surrogating of domestic fowl.” The Third International Conference of Poultry Philosophy. Denver [Oral Presentation]

While it might be standard to list talks in this way in an academic CV, outside a faculty search committee no one is likely to find this an effective illustration of any sort of communication skills. And, in fact, one of the key attributes of the “Active Listening and Effective Communication” competency is to adapt communication approaches to different audiences.

The résumé and cover letter should illustrate this. In other words, you can’t just talk about other experiences where you adapted communication styles. The entire way you write and talk about yourself has to be one giant representation of this skill set in action. The language you use should be the language of the employer who will be reading the résumé. The skills you talk about should be the skills that are relevant to the job. Thus, I might reframe my oral presentation reference above to say, “Analyzed three fields of research on chickens and gave a multimedia presentation to an interdisciplinary audience of 300 that included philosophers, agriculture researchers and federal policy makers.”

It is helpful if you can describe your experiences by telling stories rather than just listing task after task. A good story describes some of the challenges and obstacles that your distinct set of skills, experiences and knowledge helped you to overcome, and it explains why you embarked on whatever experience you are talking about. People will remember your stories more than they remember the tasks you completed. In fact, people will understand your ideas better and will feel more connected to you and your work if you tell stories.

Need some help telling stories? Try integrating these six words, adapted from a presentation given by Dave Evans, a lecturer in the design program at Stanford University, at the 2016 Graduate Career Consortium annual meeting, into your next attempt to describe some of your research experiences:

  • Initiative: Why did you take on the research project in the way you did? What did you have to do to even get started?
  • Innovation: What was new about the questions you have been asking and the approaches you have been taking?
  • Implementation: How did you get your research going? What were the resources you found, and who were some of the people you connected with to help you? What obstacles were in your way?
  • Insight: What have you learned from doing it?
  • Iteration: What did you change along the way? How have you changed by doing it?
  • Impact: What did you find? Why is this important to your field and to the person you are talking to?

Critical thinking and problem solving. No one is going to doubt your ability, as a Ph.D. researcher, to think deep thoughts. Instead, many people may believe that you can only think deep thoughts, and they will wonder whether you are able to take your thinking and turn it into actions. To address that, you should consider and articulate some of the research-relevant decisions you have made along the way as you talk about aspects of your academic experience.

For example, don’t just say that your research focuses on X. Be ready to talk about why you chose this research topic in the first place. Given the infinite multitude of research projects that can exist, why did you pick this one?

Remember, the topic of the research itself is usually not going to be relevant to most audiences, so your particular story has to be more about the decision-making process than the research. You made the choice to ask certain questions — why? You chose the methodology and the approach to getting answers — why? And remember, while your research may not have solved any global problems, you definitely had to deal with challenges to conduct it. These could be challenges with methodologies, gaining access to resources, acquiring funding, getting along with your adviser or collaborators, and so on.

I have focused on reframing research experiences using these career readiness competencies, but most Ph.D. students and postdocs have done much more than just their research during their academic programs and training. All of these other experiences can also be used as the basis of skill-focused descriptions, narratives and stories. In my next post, I will focus on the other competencies from the list we are using at Penn: teamwork and collaboration, leadership and project management, professionalism and work ethic, and career management.

How to Write a Cover Letter Recruiters Will Read

Tiffany J. Franklin M.S.Ed, Associate Director


Cover letters are one piece of the job search many job seekers would rather skip. In fact, some will only apply to positions that don’t require them. Omitting the cover letter is a mistake. After all, a cover letter is really a marketing piece that allows you to make a strong case (backed up by examples) for why this company should hire you. Why would you miss out on an opportunity to show a recruiter why you are qualified for a position?

As a former recruiter, I would sometimes receive well over 100 resumes for one job posting. When evaluating which ones to interview, the applications with cover letters stood out because it demonstrated that the candidate took extra time and went a step further than other applicants. Cover letters provided insights into how well the candidate could communicate, their attention to detail, and made a case for why I should hire them. The best cover letters were customized. I gained a clear sense of why the candidate wanted that particular job and company. It was apparent the applicant took the time to think about why they wanted that company and role. Conversely, it’s easy to tell when a candidate uses the same generic letter and applies to 50 jobs.

When writing cover letters, you want to show that everything you have done so far has lead you to this job. It’s up to you to craft a story and pull out all your transferrable skills you gained during your academic and internship journey. Your goal is to inspire confidence in the recruiter that you have the skills and motivation to do this job and you have researched the company culture.

Some writers feel the need to list everything they have ever done and hope the recruiter will find something relevant. That strategy backfires because recruiters don’t have that kind of time to sift through extraneous information. Like the opening arguments in a court case, you need to provide the hiring manager the lens through which to view your experience in the first paragraph of your letter. Explain how your unique combination of education, experience, and skills has qualified you to make contributions to their team. Then, use the middle paragraphs to provide evidentiary support through relevant examples. Be sure that the cover letter is not simply restating your resume. Instead, it’s an opportunity to bring your resume to life and tell your story in a compelling way.

Here are a few tips for how to tackle that first cover letter.

1) At the top, include your address and the date

2) Address the letter to an actual person, not a generic “Dear Hiring Manager.” If you can’t find the contact name, Google “LinkedIn Company Name Recruiter” for ideas. Include contact name, title, company name, and address.

3) Opening Paragraph (I LOVE YOU) – Mention position title, requisition number if listed, why you want the company (see mission statement, About Us page), and a sentence stating why you are qualified to contribute to their team.

4) Middle Paragraphs (YOU LOVE ME) – This is the part where you pick 3-4 examples from your experience and bring your resume to life. Through success stories, you demonstrate your ability to do this job and highlight your transferrable skills. These examples should speak to the key skills mentioned in the job description. That job description may list 50 different qualifiers, but usually these can be grouped into a few primary categories.

5) Closing Paragraph (LET’S TALK) – Restate your interest and summarize key qualifiers, how to reach you (contact info), that you’ll be available for an interview, and thank them for the consideration.

The first letter may take a little longer to complete, but it’s worth the time investment. Writing subsequent letters should be easier as you get used to the format. Be sure to have different letters for each industry and job type to which you apply. From there, customize each one to each company and specific position.

There are great samples at The samples are a helpful guide, but be sure to make the letters your own and that they are not too close to the samples. This is your chance to shine and you need to make it unique to your skills. Proofread your cover letter and have someone else read it before applying to any positions. One grammatical or spelling error will reflect poorly upon you, so editing is a must.

Career Services is here to help! We have walk-ins throughout the week and you can schedule an appointment to have an advisor review your resume and cover letter.





How to Use Sample Resumes and CVs

Dianne Hull, Associate Director

One of the primary components of your job search tool kit is your resume or CV. But where to start if you have never written a resume or CV before or have not updated these documents in many years? The internet has thousands of samples to choose from, but where to start?

Career Services’ website has multiple samples of job search documents to help you get started on your written materials. The samples we have on our website are from real Penn students and alumni who have agreed to share their resume or CV with other Penn students. Spend time looking at the samples on our website that match your educational background. A resume for an undergraduate from one academic discipline will not look the same as a CV from a PhD student. We offer not only samples to help you get started, but also general advice about the types of information you want to include.

You want your resume or CV to speak about you as an individual, so use the samples as a guide and not a template. Look at multiple documents to help generate ideas about what types of information you might include on your resume or CV given both your educational background and your career focus.

Once you’ve written a rough draft of your resume or CV, bring it to Career Services for a critique. You can either make an appointment or come to walk-ins. See our schedule for the appointment and walk-in hours that apply to you. And once you have used your resume or CV to secure an internship or job, send it to us and we will add it to our samples!

Change your feet…, and other useful career advice

Dr. Joseph Barber

Those of you who have watched Disney’s “Brave” will probably have taken away some of the following points from watching the film:

  1. Your fate is in your own hands – be proactive and stand up for what you believe in
  2. Some witches believe that turning people into bears is the answer to any problem
  3. Don’t buy gammy spells from scaffy witches!

There is all sorts of important career-related advice one could probably take from this film – I’ll leave you to extract most of this. It is pretty direct in terms of the message it tries to get across…, unless you are four-year-old who isn’t very familiar with Scottish accents. If you happen to be one of these people, then the film makes no sense at all. With that nice Scottish accent, the key message of the film, “change your fate”, ends up sounding more like “change your feet”. I know this because when I asked my four-year-old what she thought “Brave” was all about, she said it had to do with taking your shoes off and getting new ones. From her perspective, Brave was all about finding the right shoes – a process involving:

  • Magical sprites
  • Terrifying bears
  • Limb loss
  • Suitors competing with one another
  • Mother-daughter arguments
  • Witches
  • Spells
  • Regret, resentment, and guilt
  • More terrifying bears
  • Mother-daughter bonding
  • Self-discovery
  • Did I mention the terrifying bears?

It is perhaps not surprising that my daughter is not so keen on going shoe-shopping when given the choice. From her perspective, the high likelihood that some of these situations may arise must certainly be a trifle off-putting. Actually, changing your shoes is still not a bad analogy for all sorts of good career-related advice in terms of the process of changing your fate. In fact, it is a much more practical approach that is easier to visualize and implement. I might be wary of messing with the cosmos by playing with my fate…, but I am much less scared by the notion of trying on a different pair of shoes for a while to see if they fit, or if I like the way they look, or the direction they are taking me.

The advice I am going to extract from this film for you, however, is focused on how you talk about your experiences in your application materials. Accents don’t interfere with what you write in your cover letter or CV/resume, although poor English certainly does, but there can be accent-like issues. If you describe your experiences and skills by talking solely about your academic research in a very academic research kind of way, then you will have a “research accent” or an “academic accent” to your resume. People who read this resume who are not researchers (perhaps they are program administrators, HR staff, or business executives) may not understand what skill you are trying to demonstrate when they read your descriptions because of these accents. They may take away a completely different meaning from what you have written, even though it sounds like it makes perfect sense to you. As you apply for jobs in a broad range of career fields, you will need to become familiar with the different accents you can use to translate your experiences in different ways. It can be hard to first understand and then learn new accents if all you do is read about them online, so the best approach is to immerse yourself in environments where those around you are using these accents all the time. In other words, network with people working in different career fields and find opportunities to interact with them (e.g., volunteer opportunities, informational interviews, internships). You’ll pick up some of the accent in no time at all, and it will be very helpful in your applications and interviews within that career field.

Whether you hope to change your fate or your feet, you will find that the fantastic network of Penn alumni you can connect with through QuakerNet and LinkedIn will be invaluable. Like the wisps, they can point you in the right direction…, unlike the wisps, they probably won’t lead you down a path that ends with terrifying bears (probably). Listen to what they say and use what you hear to help you refine the way you talk about your own experiences.

Next time, perhaps I will talk about the career advice you can glean from Disney’s “Frozen”. Here’s a hint, I think it will be along the lines of “Let it go…, Let it go…”

The question is, what is “it”?


Do you have spellcheck blindness?

Dr. Joseph Barber

We have all experienced the phenomenon of working so hard on a particular document that it becomes almost impossible to proofread it effectively. Your brain is so good at figuring out what you are trying to say, that it doesn’t bother to alert you to some minor spelling mistake – you get “spellcheck blindness”. You will spend an awfully long time looking at your resume/CV and cover letter, or at least at a large number of very similar versions of these documents, and the risk of spellcheck blindness becomes quite significant. If there is one type of document that you really want to be perfect, then it will definitely be the one you are sending to an employer where you are highlighting your “attention to detail”. So, stop by Career Services to get a fresh look at your materials, and we’ll be happy to do some proofreading for you.

You definitely want an error-free set of job application materials. However, while we are talking about spellcheck blindness, you might be interested in just how effective your brain is at processing meaning from text – even if that text is somewhat chaotic. You can find a good example of this below, where I have provided two versions of the same poem (which is actually not a bad career advice type of poem). Try getting through the first version, but you can always skip down to the bottom to see the original.

‘if’ by rrdayud kipilng

If you can keep yuor haed wehn all aobut you
Are lnsiog thiers and bianmlg it on you,
If you can turst yusrleof wehn all men dbout you,
But mkae alanowlce for tehir duontbig too;
If you can wiat and not be tierd by wntiaig,
Or bineg leid auobt, don’t dael in leis,
Or benig htead, don’t gvie way to hiatng,
And yet don’t look too good, nor tlak too wsie:

If you can darem – and not mkae dmaers yuor msater,
If you can tihnk – and not mkae ttghhous yuor aim;
If you can meet wtih Tpumirh and Dtseasir
And traet thsoe two iortmspos jsut the smae;
If you can baer to haer the trtuh you’ve spoekn
Tesiwtd by kevnas to mkae a tarp for floos,
Or wtcah the tinhgs you gvae yuor lfie to, breokn,
And sotop and bluid ’em up wtih wron-out tolos:

If you can mkae one haep of all yuor wininngs
And rsik it all on one trun of ptich-and-tsos,
And lsoe, and sratt aiagn at yuor bniiggnens
And nveer baerth a wrod aoubt yuor lsos;
If you can froce yuor hraet and nrvee and sniew
To svree yuor trun lnog afetr tehy are gnoe,
And so hlod on wehn trehe is nhontig in you
Epxcet the Wlil whcih syas to tehm: “Hlod on!”

If you can tlak wtih crdwos and keep yuor vturie,
Or wlak wtih kngis – nor lsoe the cmmoon tcuoh,
If nheeitr feos nor liovng fdriens can hrut you,
If all men cunot wtih you, but nnoe too mcuh;
If you can flil the uigrnonvfig mnuite
Wtih stxiy snceods’ wotrh of dinstace run,
Yuros is the Etrah and envyeirthg taht’s in it,
And – whcih is mroe – you’ll be a Man, my son!

And here is the unscrambled version:

‘if’ by rudyard kipling

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master,
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)