Having decided to go back to school after working for five years, I am sometimes amazed at my fellow students’ lack of knowledge in terms of job searching, interviewing, and preparing resumés. Both Masters and PhD students alike seem to need a fair amount of guidance on these topics, and there are certainly a lot of graduate workshops covering them. This indicates two things to me: first of all, these people have never worked, and this fact is acknowledged by the university and faculties. Secondly, these people have never had to work for financial reasons. This is staggering, considering the average age in the Masters degree at our school is mid-20s, while it’s more like low-30s in the PhD. I mean, I know BC hasn’t seen a recession since 1981, but still…I have met several people who never worked a day in their lives and were in their mid-20s, and many others who want to “enjoy their summer” rather than work.  [Note: The last time I “enjoyed a summer” was 1990].

A few of my disturbing realizations:

  1. There is information available online [seemingly underused] on all these topics.
  2. There is a great deal of discussion about CVs versus resumés, for no apparent reason.
  3. Most people have no idea how to write a cover letter because they’ve written very few of them, if any.
  4. Most grad students actually need little tips like “You must ask your references for permission if you plan to use them as a reference” and “you should tailor the resumé and cover letter to the job”. This is equivalent to the masters student who still doesn’t know how to write an academic paper.

Most of my friends back in Ontario have had active resumés since high school. Most of my classmates in my undergraduate degree worked in the summers, if they were lucky.  Then again, I started school in 1995 during one of the worst recessions in recent history, and people were practically begging for jobs. This meant sending out thirty or forty or resumés, and making follow-up calls to at least ten of them before you got any response. So let’s just say we were all fairly proficient at resumé writing.

We also didn’t limit ourselves to posted jobs. Since it was the recession, we had to knock on a lot of doors, some of which remained closed. We sought out jobs through our social contacts, by writing to companies we wanted to work for, and by any other method possible. Naturally this doesn’t work in every industry; landscape architecture is populated by small firms that typically don’t post job openings because they’d be inundated with calls and resumés. Obviously municipalities, provincial governments, and major corporations don’t accept resumés if they aren’t hiring; you usually have to cite a competition number to apply for a job. However, we were fairly aggressive about job searching and networking (some were a little too aggressive in my opinion!) because it was necessary in that economic environment. You do need to know what’s out there: what are the places you’d most like to work? How many people work there? What projects do they work on? Social events, lectures in our areas of expertise, and workshops offered by the licensing body [for us it was the Ontario Association of Landscape Architects] also worked for meeting people in the field. I was recently at a social event at University of Toronto that included planning firms and planning students, and given the low rate of job vacancies, the students were pretty strident and focused even though the evening was billed as the “spring social.” We have a Women in Planning social event in Vancouver where people meet over drinks and chat about what’s going on in the field.

Back in the ’90s, we didn’t trouble ourselves with little details like the difference between a CV and a resumé. It’s a pretty simple difference anyway: a resumé is used for jobs in practical settings like planning firms, while a CV is used for academic positions. And we stuck to one rule: highlight your strengths in two pages or less. This is easy if you have very little job experience…it’s going to be a pretty brief CV even if you include everything you’ve ever done. If you have a little more experience, it takes some clever skill and editing to summarize what you did at each job. Good editing is the key to a strong resumé: I have seen many examples of too much information squeezed onto the page. Clever use of white space makes for an impressive resumé. And for God’s sake, pay attention to your fonts! Use two at the most, and be consistent about how they are used.

Cover letters are difficult. There are some great examples online these days, but basically you want to introduce yourself, talk about the skills and experience that relate to the job, and summarize the reasons you would be perfect for the job. Pretty simple. A lot of people are not used to “selling themselves”, but it’s part of the process: you’re trying to convince the employer to interview you, and eventually hire you. Read the letter over and ask yourself: would you hire yourself? Why would you choose yourself over the other applicants out there? Keep the letter to build on the next time. And there will be a next time.

The decision of who to use as a reference was, and still is, rather simple: if you’re still at school or recently graduated, it’s going to be a professor. Your favourite, the one you wrote a fantastic paper for, or the one you worked for as a research assistant are obvious choices. If you’ve got any job experience at all, it’s your employer. Check with them first. That’s it.

There’s more than enough information out there on writing resumés and cover letters. So much, in fact, that not knowing how to achieve these basic job search tasks makes you look lazy. Why would an employer choose to hire someone who couldn’t do a little basic research?

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