How do you convince an employer to take a chance on you if you haven’t worked in that field before?
If you want to change career direction, should you ignore your previous experience and start again from scratch?
The key to a great CV or application is to make sense of your story – from the point of view of the person reading it. It’s also the way to create a compelling answer to that tricky interview question, “Tell me a bit about yourself”.
Your CV probably makes perfect sense to you. Most CVs have chunks of content, organised by themes (education, work history, interests/extra-curricular activities, publications etc). They are normally arranged chronologically within those themes, and being postgrads, you’ll have spotted that it’s smarter to start with your most recent activities, rather than leading off with your school qualifications.
That’s a conventional way to tell your life story, which means it’s easy to create and easy for employers to navigate their way around.
On the other hand, a “first I did … and then I did … and then I did …” CV isn’t the only way to tell your story.
What if you don’t want to follow the obvious path, or you’ve done all sorts of things but they’re not all related to what you want to do next?
The trick is to comb through your life to pick out the threads and strands which do relate to your chosen next step – and knit a new CV.
First up, find the threads you want to use.
If you already have significant work experience but are trying to change direction:
Look for achievements where you have used transferable skills.
- This could be managing a large project or budgets, leading a team through a tricky period, dealing with a difficult client and persuading them to your point of view.
- Even if the context is different, you have compelling evidence that you have applied skills which could be of use in many new roles.
Do you have knowledge of groups of people or a particular sector which might come in handy in your preferred new role?
- If you’ve worked in the public sector, you may have knowledge of health, education or social work professionals and the challenges they face – could be very useful, particularly if you’re looking at consultancy or providing services into those fields?
- If you’ve worked in industry, what about your understanding of other functions you may have worked with – manufacturing, marketing, health and safety, training providers? Being able to understand how businesses fit together could be valuable in a new role.
- Alternatively, if you’re aiming at research, maybe your contacts might be useful for recruiting research subjects – or be potential collaborators (or even better for academia – funders!).
If you have lots and lots of experience, whether work, voluntary or extra-curricular, you can afford to pick and choose:
- Amongst all the activities you’ve done, which are the ones which relate most to the job you’re aiming for? If you’ve currently got a 4 page CV, unless you’re aiming at academia, it’s time to prioritise and edit! I know you can probably make the case that everything’s useful, but which ones would be most obvious to a future employer?
- For example, if you’re aiming at a communications professional role, a two week internship at a magazine, the time you spent writing and laying out newsletters for a charity as a favour to your mum and the summer you spent promoting products at trade fairs are probably more useful (and distinctive) than having written loads of essays or even a dissertation, no matter how good your marks were.
- Don’t be scared to start to drop things from your CV, particularly any activities which relate to school days (these are generally long past their sell-by date). The only items which should be included are qualifications, if you’re still young enough for these to be relevant.
If you think you have nothing in your previous experience which relates to your preferred role, dig deeper:
- Don’t discount voluntary roles and social or extra-curricular activities.
- Pick out relevant modules or projects within your degree(s).
- Focus on achievements which show you using your transferable skills, rather than listing training courses which you’ve attended – and try to avoid those which relate to simply completing a degree (everyone’s had to manage their time to get assignments in on time).
- Think laterally, rather than going back to school-days. As a rough rule of thumb, anything more than 3 years old is generally a bit long in the tooth, unless it’s a significant achievement, part of your work history, or forms part of a consistent theme running through your life.
Knit your threads together to make a new story
Now you’ve identified the relevant threads, find ways to make it easy for the reader to find.
- Think about a “Key skills and achievements” section at the start of your CV (just under your contact details). You could start with a short introductory sentence, like a career/personal profile (for some good advice on writing a good personal profile, see Sarah Blackford’s recent blog post – recommended). Then add 3 to 5 bullet points highlighting the threads you’ve found which you know will be of interest to the employer. This avoids them having to search all over your CV to pick out the stuff which will get you the interview.
- If some of your previous jobs are relevant to the role you want, but not others, you can always have a heading on your first page of eg. “Project management employment” with your other non-project management jobs relegated to the 2nd page, under “Other employment”.
- Instead of using a key skills and achievements section, you could lump together different sorts of experience relevant to your preferred role, not just work, and use the same sort of tactic as above. For example, a heading of “Environmental experience” on the first page could include paid work, volunteer activities, university field work and writing articles for a student publication on environmental issues. Your 2nd page could include “Other employment” and “Other interests and activities” to capture the non-environmental parts of your life.
- Where you’ve had multiple jobs, particularly non-relevant or temp jobs, you can lump these together as well. For example, “2006-2008 Various temporary roles, including silver service waiter, call centre assistant, labourer and club promoter.” This is probably better than missing them off all together as it accounts for the time on your CV – better than making the employer wonder what you were doing for 2 unexplained years!
Suddenly, having unravelled the threads of your life you’ve managed to knit them into a whole new garment, which is more likely to capture the imagination of a future employer.