Organization of Resumes: When versus What

Should I use a chronological or skills-based (functional) format for my resume?

It depends.

Actually, the answer to almost all resume questions is “it depends”. There are very few firm rules when creating a resume, mainly because each person’s professional experience is so different.  (About the only firm rule is that you have to have your name on your resume – though I’ve even seen that one violated.)

However, when deciding how to organize the information on your resume, there really are two choices – chronologically or functionally.

The easiest, and most common way to do it, is to list each of your jobs in reverse chronological order, with brief descriptions of the major accomplishments under each position. This makes it easy for the reader to skim through your career history, and see the progression of your professional responsibilities.  This works well when you’ve had a fairly traditional career path, staying in the same field and just increasing responsibility with each step on your personal career ladder.

But it doesn’t work quite so well if you’ve shifted your career focus, moved into a new field, or had an extended period of un- or under-employment.  In that case, you’re probably better off with a functional format resume, where you group your accomplishments by what they are, not by when you did them.

For example, suppose you started out in a traditional laboratory career, but after a significant length of time at the bench, you become concerned about the future of your company.  You start thinking, and realize your favorite part of your current job is not working at the lab bench, but evaluating test methods, making processes more efficient, and disposing of waste products properly.  Upon further reflection, you realize that others come to you for advice on these topics, and your proudest moment was when you passed your first OSHA/EPA audit with no citations.

In thinking back over your career, you realize that at your previous job, you really enjoyed preparing the lab for EPA audits, and tracking all the MSDSs and other paperwork required for proper certification.   And at the job before that one, you identified a problem with the fume hoods that was not only causing a safety hazard for laboratory workers, but actually saved the company significant amounts of money when it was fixed.

Using a traditional chronological format, each of these items would appear under a different job, and the common theme would be lost. A better organizational scheme would be to group them under a functional category, such as “Laboratory Safety”.  You’ll probably have about three functional categories, which could include things like “Analytical Chemistry”, “Organic Synthesis”, and “Business Management”.  Under each category will be your top four to six most significant accomplishments, which demonstrate your mastery of these categories.

In resumes, the most important information is always listed first, so give some thought as to what order to list the categories, and what order to list the accomplishments in each category.  You want to make sure to use parallel construction, and start each accomplishment with a verb. An example is below.

Environmental Health and Safety:

  • Identified and fixed fume hood malfunction that improved air flow 75% and reduced heating/cooling costs significantly
  • Prepared lab for over 20 OSHA/EPA audits, with no citations in any audit
  • Maintained MSDS database for 15,000 chemicals and transitioned from paper to electronic version, reducing costs and increasing use 300%
  • Streamlined waste disposal processes, saving company $150K annually

Even if you use a functional format, you still need to have a list of all your jobs. However, it will be near the end of your resume, and will just list job title, company name and location (city and state), and dates of employment.

So give some thought to where you want to go, and what experiences have prepared you for your goal.  Then, present your information in the best way possible for the reader, and there’s no limit to where you can go.

For more information, see Resume Preparation – Tips for Chemical Professionals and Preparing a Resume.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press.

3 Responses to Organization of Resumes: When versus What

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Lisa Balbes, Chemjobber. Chemjobber said: RT @balbes: Organization of Resumes: When vs What on the #ACSCareers blog. […]

  2. […] happened to see an ACS Careers Blog post on functional (skills-based) resumes and the light bulb went off. When I structured my resume by skills rather than chronologically, I […]

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