Job Search Basics

Whether you’re looking for positions in for-profit, non-profit, government, or as an administrator in higher education, our job search basics guide will get you started.

If you’d like to meet with a career advisor in person, here’s how to schedule an appointment.

  • Although graduate school asks students to develop a near-obsessive focus on one specialized field of study, many of the general skills developed during this time are also quite useful in non-academic contexts and can help you make the leap into a new career. You might begin to think about the transferable skills you’ve gained by first making a list of everything you’ve done as a graduate student — from researching, teaching, and applying to grants to organizing panels and presenting at conferences — and then describing the work more specifically using active verbs and adjectives.

    The goal of getting you to think about your transferable skills is not to make you feel like a commodity. Rather, it is to encourage you to think more broadly about what your career possibilities might be and to give you confidence as you move through the job search process.

    To articulate how your academic experiences are transferable to other careers, you might decide to emphasize some of the following skill sets:

    • Written communication
      • Developing effective grant proposals
      • Writing clearly
      • Communicating ideas in a variety of ways that consider different audiences
    • Oral communication
      • Presenting research in clear and concise ways
      • Conveying complex ideas to undergraduate students (i.e. non-specialists) using clear and understandable language
      • Speaking before groups both large (for example, a lecture hall of 150 students) and small (an upper-level seminar)
    • Research and analysis experience
      • Rapidly synthesizing new information and understanding complex content
      • Developing theoretical concepts based on research
      • Designing experiments and studies and evaluating their effectiveness
      • Identifying problems and proposing solutions
    • Leadership skills
      • Teaching concepts to others
      • Facilitating group discussion
      • Conducting meetings effectively
      • Mentoring undergraduate students in the classroom or the lab
    • Self management and work habits
      • Demonstrating initiative and working independently
      • Demonstrating organization and time management skills
      • Successfully bringing a large-scale project from inception to completion (i.e. your dissertation)
    • Interpersonal skills
      • Taking criticism constructively
      • Demonstrating consensus-building skills through working with your committee
      • Persuading dissertation committee members, as well as grant and fellowship committees
      • Working with a diverse population of individuals



  • If a CV is your autobiography, a resume is a photographic snapshot of you. A resume is not meant to be comprehensive; it is a marketing tool that should focus on the experience you have that is most relevant to the job or types of jobs to which you’re applying. A resume should be about 1-2 pages. It is likely that the person who reads it will only glance at it for 10-15 seconds on her first pass. So, your qualifications should really stand out.

    A resume is composed of several sections. “Education” will likely be the first section for those who are current students (though there are exceptions to this rule). “Experience” will likely come next. Your “Experience” section can include a wide range of experience, including internships. Do not feel that you have to limit it to only paid positions. In addition, sometimes job searchers use qualifiers to highlight different types of experience: “Managerial Experience,” “Research Experience,” or “Teaching Experience,” for example.

    The way you describe your experience on a resume is very important. Use bullet points and action verbs to describe the work you’ve done. You can find a great list of action verbs right here, via Boston College’s career site. When writing your bullet points, don’t simply describe your work–think about your work in terms of accomplishments. Quantify when you can. For example, don’t write “Awarded fellowship” as a bullet point. Write “Researched and wrote grant proposals, receiving $50,000 in funding for individual research.” Think carefully about the requirements of the job(s) to which you are applying. Give detailed examples of when you’ve done similar work.

    Additional Categories

    There are additional categories that job candidates sometimes include on their resume. The first comes at the top of a resume and is often called a “Summary,” “Profile,” or “Objective.” This is entirely optional. It is most useful for those who are changing careers and those who have experience in several different fields and need a way to connect the dots of this experience for employers. Sometimes people include a skills section, which most often includes technical skills, but is sometimes more broad. Though it can be tempting to include a long skills section at the beginning of your resume in order to highlight your transferable skills and/or cover some gaps in employment (what is called a “functional” resume), avoid overdoing this. Most employers will want to see clearly where you’ve worked, when, and what you’ve done there (what is called a “chronological” resume). Finally, sometimes people include information about their interests at the end of their resume. This is useful if your interest in something is unique and sustained (“textile artist with a focus on hand-dyeing materials with plant-based dyes”). Enjoying “travel” or “reading extensively” is not unique.

    Considerations for Ph.D. Students and Alumni

    If you are a Ph.D. student or alumnus/a with an academic CV, it is likely that you will have to make some serious cuts in the content of your CV to get it to 1-2 pages. Sometimes it is hard to know what to cut and what to keep. If you are applying for a particular job, let the job announcement be your guide–stress the points of connection between your background and what the employer is looking for. You may find that some of the things you’ve spent a lot of time on (your publications, for example) do not need to be listed on a resume or can be summarized in one bullet point (“Published 5 healthcare-related articles in competitive, peer-reviewed journals”). Do not let this worry you. Remember that your resume is just a marketing tool, and as such only focuses on the things that make you most attractive for a particular position.


    Your resume’s formatting should be simple and consistent. Take a look at some of the samples linked below to get some ideas.

    Articles and Other Resources


  • Most job positions will ask candidates to send a cover letter and a resume–both of these are important documents in your job search. Many employers will read your cover letters carefully, particularly if they are looking to hire someone with good writing skills. A cover letter is your chance to make an argument as to why you are the best person for a particular job.

    It’s important to write individual cover letters for each job to which you apply. It’s true that writing good cover letters is time consuming. Employers, however, can easily recognize a form letter that has been sent out blindly to many employers.

    Before writing your letter, take a close look at the job posting. What is this employer looking for? Where are the points of connection between you and this job? What can you do for this employer? Be specific about your experience and your interest in the position. Think carefully about your audience.

    A cover letter for a non-academic position should be succinct–just one page. The first paragraph of your letter should state which position you are applying for and how you heard about the job. It should also set up the rest of the letter by outlining why your background makes you a good fit. The second paragraph gives more details about your qualifications and achievements, while the final paragraph should again emphasize your interest in and enthusiasm for the organization.


    • Samples from the University of Illinois Career Center
    • Samples from the University of Pennsylvania



  • Your research skills will serve you well in your job search, as conducting research on employers, industries, and job functions is a big part of any job search. 

    Many graduate students wonder–what can I do with my PhD or MA–and want to see what types of fields others with their degree have moved into.  The Versatile PhD’s Career Finder is a wonderful tool for this. 

    Vault’s Career Insider Guides cover a range of industries and topics and are available to GC students for free.  You can register for the service here. 

    Our job search resources page is a good starting place for looking for open positions.

    And, for those researching for profit organizations, our neighbors at the Science, Industry and Business Library provide access to research tools such as Bloomberg and First Research. 


  • What is an informational interview? An informational interview is when you get in touch with someone because you want to learn more about their career path or industry–not to talk to them about a specific job or internship posting. This is a great way to learn about different types of organizations and opportunities as you make decisions about the direction you’d like to take in your career.

    Sometimes the idea of informational interviewing is strange to students and alumni. They wonder why anyone would want to take the time to talk with them. They look at their career counselor like he or she is crazy when they receive this advice. On the contrary, it is common practice for professionals to share what they’ve learned with those who are just starting out. And, many people enjoy talking about their work and their career to others.

    Where to Find Contacts and How to Approach Them

    Where might you find people to talk with? There are lots of places you can look for contacts–they may be part of your friends and family, they maybe alumni of institutions you’ve attended, they may be people you’ve met at conferences (yes, even academic ones), or they may be people who you only know in passing. What matters is they do work that seems of interest to you. LinkedIn is a great source of contacts–and you can see who your connections might know. From there, you can ask someone who’s already your connection to introduce you to someone new. This may sound intimidating, but you will find that most people are willing to talk to you.

    When you approach a contact for an informational interview, simply send a brief email with the following information (and here’s another sample):

    • A sentence or two about who you are and why you are interested in them (For example, “I am completing a graduate degree in history and am exploring career options in museums.” )
    • A sentence or two about how you found the contact (For example, “my cousin James suggested that I get in touch with you” or “I’ve been interested in organization XYZ’s work for a long time, and saw on the website that you are the program director.”)
    • A request to meet (For example, “I wonder if you would have a bit of time to have coffee with me so that I can learn more about your work and your organization.

    Informational interviewing is a means to gather information that will empower you to make good career choices. It will also help you to learn how hiring is done in a given field, what employers look for, and how you might best increase your chances of finding employment in the field. Sometimes, but not always, it leads directly to a job. So, it does require a little bit of patience on the part of the job seeker, but it is worth it.

    Some Additional Dos and Don’ts

    • Do set some goals for yourself. Talk to one new person a month (or more if you are actively searching for a position).
    • Do prepare for your informational interview. Think carefully about what you want to learn from this person.
    • Do make sure you have a list of questions prepared. Here are some good suggestions from the University of Pennsylvania.
    • Do dress professionally.
    • Do offer to pay (for coffee, for lunch). You may be a poor graduate student, but this person is helping you out.
    • Do follow up with a thank-you note.
    • Do keep track of your contacts and update them on your progress as appropriate.
    • Do bring your resume. Don’t get it out unless the person you are speaking with ask to see it.
    • Don’t ask for a job. This is the biggest “no” in informational interviews. If this person knows of an opportunity that he or she thinks might be appropriate for you, he or she will likely volunteer this information.



  • Whatever your career goals may be, you should make networking an important part of your professional life. By networking with colleagues in your field, you can often gain information about jobs and other opportunities, plus receive feedback and career advice.

    Networking is a word that intimidates many, as many associate it with a “what can you do for me” type of connecting with people. This is not the case. Networking simply means regularly seeking out connections with people in the career field(s) of interest to you. Many of you probably do this already when you attend talks or conferences, or plan speaker series and other events here on campus. If you’re exploring a wide range of career options, networking also means reaching out to new people and talking to them about their work, or “informational interviewing.”

    For some of you, networking is something that comes naturally. For others, it may take a conscious effort. If networking makes you nervous try to remember two things:

    • It is a normal part of being a professional, whatever your field.
    • Networking is a given and take. You have something to offer as well–your expertise, skills, knowledge, insights, and connections.

    Easy, no-stress ways to start networking:

    • When someone comes to speak in your department, talk with that person afterwards about their work. (We’ve known a lot of scientists who find postdocs this way.)
    • Ask your advisor to introduce you to people at an upcoming academic conference.
    • Does your undergraduate institution have an alumni network? Use that to contact people for informational interviews. You will be surprised how receptive people are to fellow alumni. (Don’t worry, we are working to build an alumni database for the Graduate Center.)
    • Get on LinkedIn or (or both). Complete your profile(s). Start connecting. Here’s more on social media.
    • Reach out to someone for an informational interview.

    Finally, it’s helpful to have business cards on hand when you attend conferences, talks, or networking events. The GC will provide PhD students with official cards for a small fee once they advance to level III; a department’s assistant program officer should have more information. You also can use a service like VistaPrint to order free or inexpensive business cards.



  • There are two reasons to use social media in your job search:

    • To develop a professional web presence.
    • To build your professional network.

    Many people learn about job openings through the people they already know, and gain an extra advantage in the application process through their personal connections. Sometimes having someone put in a good word for you can really help to advance your candidacy for a particular position. Savvy use of social media can help you build your own professional relationships and meet new contacts. Social media sites can also be a useful too for researching employers. (Here are a few additional tips for those planning a career in academe.)


    LinkedIn is a powerful networking tool and career resource, allowing you to post a professional profile and connect to individuals, organizations and discussion groups. For example, you can connect with the Graduate Center page.

    Because it’s devoted entirely to professional networking, LinkedIn doesn’t present the risks of blurring the line between your professional and private lives. And if you’re concerned about what might pop up when potential employers google your name, a LinkedIn profile will give you a more professional online presence. You can push your profile higher in google’s search results by adding more content to your profile and by interacting with others on the site (for example by writing recommendations or adding updates).

    We’ve hosted several webinars on using LinkedIn in your job search. You can access those recordings here:


    Twitter can also help you land a job by allowing you to interact with recruiters and organization representatives and to gain more information about an industry you are interesting in entering. The TweetMyJobs page, for example, allows you to search directly for positions. And the use of hashtags –words with a # prefix — help you search for information and relevant discussions more specifically; conversations with hastags like #careerchat or #jobhuntchat, for example, will likely be more useful than viewing a tweet that simply states “I just got a new job!”

    Twitter has several advantages over other social networking platforms, according to this article from Recruiters are using twitter more and more frequently, because the site also allows them to easily gain a sense of who you are and what your talents are — and because replying to job seekers on twitter is much quicker than using the telephone.

    This article from MediaBistro explains how to join a hashtag chat, while this one from Forbes magazine offers some more general advice.


    Don’t be afraid to use facebook during your job hunt, this article from U.S.News urges. Friends who know you well have a stake in helping you, so alerting them that you’re looking for a position can work to your advantage.

    Make sure, however, that your profile is set to “friends only” under the privacy settings, so that potential employers can’t browse your photos or personal updates.


  • A job interview is a chance for an employer to evaluate you–your skills, your experience, and whether you would be a good fit for the organization. It is also your chance to evaluate a potential employer: Is this the type of position that is a good next step for you? Do these people seem like people you would like to have as colleagues?

    Your goal in an interview is to articulate to a potential employer why you are the best person for the job. So, think carefully about this. What makes combination of knowledge, skills, and personal attributes make you the best person for the job?

    Preparing for an Interview

    You should begin your interview preparation with research on the company or organization with which you will be interviewing (you probably started this while writing your resume and cover letter). How does the position for which you are interested fit in the organization? Has the employer been in the news lately? Take the time to find out all you can about the employer. Doing so will help you develop ideas for how you can contribute to the employer’s mission and goals.

    It can help to prepare 3 or 4 points that you absolutely want to get across to an employer. This is your message. Then, think of examples from your past that illustrate these points.

    If your interview will be in person, be sure you know where you are going and arrange your schedule that day so that you can arrive early. If your interview will take place via phone or Skype, be sure you will have a quiet place to speak, and make sure all of your technology is working.

    Preparing for an interview should involve practicing aloud talking about yourself, your previous experience, and where you see in the future. This is particularly true if you don’t have a lot of interviewing experience.

    Finally, before your interview, the organization should be able to give you a schedule and the names of those you’ll be meeting with. If you do not receive this information–ask for it.

    What to Expect

    Most interviews will begin with introductions. If you are meeting in person, shake hands. Smile. These may sound like obvious points. It is important, however, to shake hands firmly, to look your interviewer(s) in the eye, and to project confidence. Make a good first impression (and here are a few hints for doing so). Try your best to remember the names of your interviewer(s)–doing so can make a good impression throughout the process.

    Most interviews will begin with a question that is something along the lines of “tell us about yourself.” This is not a time to give your listeners a full autobiography (“well, I was born in Akron, Ohio”). Rather, it is your chance to make a focused statement about the things that make you the best candidate for this job. This is a great time to use those 3-4 points you prepared about your candidacy before the interview.

    Types of interview questions that tend to challenge job-seeking graduate students:

    • Behavioral questions (the dreaded “tell me about a time when…” questions): These are best answered with the STAR method, in which you describe the situation, the task, the action, and the result. This will enable you to provide your listener with a short narrative describing a similar situation–and what you learned from it.
    • Case interview questions: In this type of interview question, you will be asked by your interviewer to analyze a business-related case. He or she will present you with a situation (Campbell’s chicken noodle soup is losing market share. Why?) and some data points. You will be expected to ask further questions and come up with an answer to the question posed by your interviewer. Strategy consulting firms are well know for asking these types of questions–in fact, the Boston Consulting Group has some samples on its website.
    • Technical questions and brainteasers: Some industries will ask you very technical questions about your programming and related skills. Here are a few examples. In interviews in the finance industry, it is not uncommon to get some very challenging brainteaser questions, particularly if you are interviewing for quantitative analyst positions. It’s very important to practice some of these beforehand. Here is a good starting points: A Practical Guide to Quantitative Finance Interviews.

    You can’t anticipate every interview question that you will be asked. Practicing (see above) will very much help to improve your performance and we are happy to help you with this. To set up a practice interview, just send an email to



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