Industry - The Background Section of the Resume

The background section is the “body” of your résumé and should be the longest section. The most important information in the background section is your education and your previous professional (school and work) experience. You always lead with your strongest material, so lead with education is your recent education is your strongest selling point, but switch to leading with work experience after  you've been in the work force for a for awhile.

When you're ready to write your résumé, start by listing and classifying all your skills and achievements. Group these items under functional headings that reflect the skills you used to accomplish them, for example:

  • Technical
  • Business
  • Teamwork
  • Communications
  • Management

This valuable exercise can be time-consuming. In fact, it's best if you start a list and jot down each item as you think of it, over several days or weeks. Share your list with a former colleague or a friend, and ask if they can add accomplishments you might have overlooked.

Once you have a list of all your skills and accomplishments, think about which skills (for example, in technology, communication, leadership, or special kinds of instruments/equipment) were used in achieving accomplishment. Then assign each accomplishment to one or more skill categories.  You will use this data to populate your résumé.

Every achievement on your résumé should have a corresponding metric, such as "helped produce revenues of $2.3 million," "increased customer base by 17%," or "reduced product reject rate by 33%." If you can't come up with a number, you can still describe the benefit you provided, such as "identified profitable new markets." Your achievements should help the employer answer the question, "What's in it for me?"

You want to emphasize your transferable skills - what you can and want to do for the new employer. Nothing proves that you can do something as well as showing that you have done it in the past. Technical skills are most important, but non-technical skills (oral and written communication, leadership, teamwork, and so on) are also important.

Avoid using the first person pronoun (“I,” “me,” “my”) since the résumé is obviously about you. Use the active voice wherever possible in framing your skills and accomplishments:

  • “Broad knowledge of . . .”
  • “Experienced in . . .”
  • “Proficient in . . .”
  • “Adept at . . .”
  • “Proven track record in . . .”

Here are a few examples of skills, and the specific accomplishments that validate those skills:

Project Management Skills

  • Led a staff of 10 technical personnel in reviewing, evaluating, and validating analytical data for more than 30 new product development programs.
  • Designed efficient databases for organic and inorganic analytical test results, reducing annual IT costs by 12%.
  • Analysis/R&D Skills
  • Prepared and analyzed over 100 volatile and semi-volatile compounds using GC/MS.
  • Developed an efficient synthesis (85% overall yield) of sucrose derivatives.

Modify the list until you believe it best reflects your experience. When you're finished, you will have a list of your skills, backed up with concrete examples of your accomplishments, to help you compose your résumé, write cover letters, and prepare for interviews. Be as specific and quantitative as possible in identifying your accomplishments. Vague statements will not hold up to scrutiny.

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Work History

When you present your skills and accomplishments in your résumé, list your positions in reverse chronological order. Each entry should have the name and locations of your employers, your dates of employment, your position title, and a bulleted list of key accomplishments. (If the company has changed names, you may need to include “formerly known as” or “currently known as” names as well).

You can list the dates of employment as months and years or years only. Using years only is cleaner and disguises any gaps in employment, but it may look as if you are trying to hide a gap in employment. If you are asked to fill out a job application, you may be asked for months and years for each position, so keep that information at hand.

If you are a recent graduate, you can include the information about your research and dissertation as work experience. Don't just copy your thesis abstract, but convey the main points in short descriptive phrases.

Explain why your research is unique, and try to illustrate how you can contribute to the organization. If you are graduating with a bachelor's degree, present an outline of your coursework and laboratory work, including a discussion of any independent study or research.

For recent graduates, it is definitely to your advantage to highlight any industrial experience (summer internships or co-op programs).

Here is a sample format for a chronological résumé:

Associate Scientist, Lockheed Environmental Systems and Technologies, Las Vegas, NV, 1994-1997 

  • Applied US EPA, DOD, DOE, ASTM, and other standards and methods to quantify pesticides and PCBs using gas chromatography.
  • Maintained laboratory equipment, reducing the number of service calls from equipment vendors by 15% and decreasing equipment maintenance costs by 6%.
  • Verified inventory of lab chemicals and assured storage of volatile compounds, meeting all OSHA guidelines.
  • Recorded and field tested 65 freshwater samples per day, with an analysis accuracy of 99.9%.

If you held several jobs within one company, show the time spent in each job as well as your total tenure with the company. As you go further back into your career, or less related to the position for which you are applying, you can reduce the amount of space for each job; for example, listing two accomplishments instead of four.   

If you are trying to switch career paths, you may decide to use a functional résumé format.  In this format, your accomplishments are grouped by type, instead of by where you were working when you did them.  To create a functional resume, look at the core competencies required for the vacancy for which you are applying. Then, group your relevant accomplishments under each competency area using keywords from the job ad that the employer will recognize. For example, the functional résumé for someone applying for a position as a principal scientist might include the following headings:

  • Project Management
  • Technical Leadership
  • Product Design & Development
  • Analysis/R&D


Formatting your education information is pretty straightforward. For each entry, include the degree(s) awarded, major(s), school name and location, and year of graduation. For an advanced degree, include the title of your dissertation and your adviser's name. Unless you are a recent graduate, this information goes toward the end of your résumé.

If you are a recent graduate with a bachelor's degree, you can include a grade point average (if above 3.0 our of 4.0), the grade point average in your major if that's higher, whether your bachelor's degree is ACS-approved, and any academic honors and notable activities. If you have an advanced degree or are a more experienced chemist, it is not necessary to mention your grade point average.

Here is a sample education section format:

Ph.D., Medicinal Chemistry & Pharmacognosy, Random State University, Mobius, CO   2003

Advisor: Tony Osterwise
Thesis: 1. Synthesis of (R)-glycine-d-15N. 2. Synthesis of carbon-linked analogs of retinoid glycoside conjugates

B.S., Chemistry, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, NV  1995

Advisor: Arthur Connor
Senior project: Colorimetric-based field analysis of benzene in water or soil
3.6/4.0 GPA; Dean's List all semesters

Other Relevant Skills

Toward the end of the background section, include any other skills you have that are relevant to your job objective. For chemistry professionals, those skills might include things like special techniques, instrumentation, unusual computer programs, or foreign language skills. Use keywords that are relevant to the position you are applying for, such as technical keywords and communication keywords.

Some organizations use software to search for keywords of interest, so be sure to include those terms that are mentioned in the job advertisement. For example, if your specialization is “novel applications of asymmetric intramolecular Diels-Alder reactions,” use “synthesis” and “natural products” as well. If possible, list the keywords in sentence fragments, as the searching algorithms give more weight to words in sentences than to words in lists.  If your résumé is scanned, it might not be selected for a human to view if it does not include relevant keywords.

Volunteer Work

List volunteer work that exhibits leadership, management skills, or the ability to work on a team - anything related to the job. This is especially important for new graduates, who may have limited experience in the workplace.

Military Service

Include military service if the experience is relevant to the job. If you gained leadership and management experience while in the military, you can list these points as acquired skills.