April 1, 2019

The Secret to Being Special

Posted by AGU Career Center

Recently, I was helping out in the Resume Clinic at the annual GSA Meeting in Seattle.  I saw several incredible students, but no extraordinary resumes.  The resumes weren’t bad.  Most used the Resume4 template from MS Word; and a few used the Resume5 template.  They contained the same list of courses, the same lists of skills, and the same lists of degrees and qualifications.  Only the names had been changed to protect the innocent.

Towards the end of the afternoon of sitting in a cold conference room, I found myself frozen to the seat of my wobbly metal chair while I visited with a student who was graduating from Cal Tech.  She yawned as she handed me a copy of the same resume that I had been dissecting all day, and apologized.  She said that she had been up all night driving the Mars Rover, and hadn’t had a chance to sleep.  I scanned her resume for details about her role on the Mars mission, but couldn’t find anything.  Sure, she had the title of her thesis listed.  It was a three-lines-long string of archaic tech terms and acronyms strung together with words like “a”, “the” and “and”.  I was so surprised that she chose to exclude that she drove the Mars Rover on her resume.  I mean, this is an important unique detail about her experience.

My shock lead to a to rush of emotions about my own childhood because I’ve been struggling to identify what makes me special my whole life.  My oldest brother was an Airborne Ranger, my oldest sister was into social justice and owned a wardrobe decorated with four-letter words, my other sister ran off to join the circus, and my other brother ran marathons on the U.S. Olympic Track Team.  By the time I came along, my parents were over it.  My dad referred to me as “The Boy”, and my mom referred to me as “Greg, Kris, Peggy, Larry, ugh…David.”  While my siblings blazed their own trails, I spent my summers riding around the West Texas countryside, in the bed of my Dad’s 4X4 truck, while he inventoried and mapped the brine lines and pumping stations, of the Permian Basin.  As the fifth kid born to a relatively large family, I was just a sidekick in the back of a pick-up while my brothers and sisters had their own names, their own lives, their own identities; they were special.

Being the last of five, at an early age, I was challenged to differentiate myself, to overcome what is now called “Imposter Syndrome.”  Because I had to conquer my own insecurities to prove to my parents (or at least to myself) that I was “special,” I occasionally have to take a step back and a deep breath when I see others struggling with the same problems I did.

After regaining my senses, even though I could no longer feel my fingers or toes, I explained to this student that I had personal issues.  (Why are those meeting rooms so cold?)  She apologized again and explained that she only “drove” the Rover.  A team of talented scientists told her where to drive it and it was the team that determined which experiments to do.  Struggling to get my thoughts together, I asked her to clarify, “So let me get this straight, you are part of an interdisciplinary, international team of scientists working on a mission to explore Mars, and you are concerned that your role is insignificant because your primary role is to “drive” the Rover?”  She said, “Yes.”

I tried my best to temporarily overcome my hypothermia so I could explain as her career mentor that if I had driven the Mars Rover, my parents would have loved me more, and I would have had the opportunity to have my own name.  It would have made me special.  I longed for her life.

We spent the last five minutes of her resume review session reformatting her resume, removing the long lists of traditional accomplishments and replacing them with statements defining her role as an interplanetary explorer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Labs.  In the end, she understood a new world of possibilities to highlight her unique qualifications, and I made my way out of the Convention Center to find a warm spot in the sun.

The challenge of the resume is to objectively step outside of how you see yourself and step into the person that your prospective employer wants to hire.  The trick is realizing that the two are the same.  Advancing your career is not a matter of figuring out how to be special, but instead, realizing that you are.  This isn’t a realization that is going to happen overnight, and it may not happen without help either.  To that end, we at AGU offer a Resume Workshop and Application Packet designed to help you construct your resume.  Our goal is that these resources will make it easier for you to successfully market yourself to potential employers.

I am hopeful that by providing this information, you will be better able to understand what makes you uniquely qualified for a career in the Earth and space sciences.  I also hope that you will realize that driving the Mars Rover is really special!

David E Harwell, Ph.D., Director of Talent Pool, American Geophysical Union