Thinking about your CV

There are many different ways of writing one’s CV, and hitting the right spot is not always straightforward. Speaking personally, the postdoc applicant who writes that they are ‘a highly motivated and aspirational individual, with a strong sense of self-worth and drive who is looking for swift advancement in academia‘ merely makes me think that they have been given advice appropriate to another sector (possibly even another planet). I would much prefer to work with someone who doesn’t need to describe themselves by motivational words but prefers to dwell on what they’ve actually accomplished on their research path so far and the demonstrable skills they have acquired en route. For me this means practical skills like electron microscopy or Monte Carlo simulations rather than excelling in Powerpoint or more general presentation skills learned at a one day transferable skills’ workshop. Important though transferable skills are, I don’t think they should be headlines on a CV.  But that, as I say, is speaking personally. Maybe not everyone wants to get first and foremost a sense of accomplishment, curiosity and love of the subject from a CV, I don’t know (though I could hazard a guess).

Nevertheless, first impressions may matter more than one would like to believe. If the opening sentence of the CV puts me off I may feel jaundiced as I read the rest, but my personal prejudices may not be yours. Spelling mistakes and these vague aspirational statements I refer to above are both included in mine. Spelling mistakes matter because they imply a degree of sloppiness. For all I recognize that some people may be dyslexic and obviously do not want instantly to disclose this, nevertheless there are perfectly good spell checkers available if you put in the time to use them (or your friends for something as important as this).  Cover letters that tell me how much the applicant wants to come to work with me in Oxford don’t go down too well with me either, since I’m Cambridge-based, but are surprisingly common. I try not to object to being addressed as Dear Sir because I know my name is odd, even for an Anglophone, so perhaps the applicant was confused rather than just irritatingly blind to the possibility a professor could be female.  After all, I am not infrequently referred to by the ill-informed as Donald Athene and Donald would indeed suggest a man.

Recently I have had occasion to read a bunch of CVs from people across a whole range of degrees of seniority for several different purposes that just happen to have coincided. It made me realise how much something that seems very important at a junior level may seem inappropriate and out of place at a subsequent stage. In an undergraduate application, being a Grade 8-with-distinction violinist is a sign of talent and determination, but in a postdoc’s CV anything more than a passing reference to hobbies such as playing in an orchestra would seem irrelevant. Winning a poster prize at a major conference last year is very much a positive for a graduate student but incongruous for a new lecturer, for whom listing an invited talk or two would seem more appropriate.

Perhaps you are not presenting an itemised list but are asked to provide a textual discussion of your research, something more common at the later stages. Just as with letters of reference, I believe these can end up gendered in the words used, but now you have only yourself to blame. I have read such resumes from outstanding people (and specifically women) who stress the collaborative nature of their work and their enjoyment of helping to bring something to fruition. All that may be true, but it will be read by committees who are looking for words like leadership and innovation to convince themselves that the person is indeed excellent. If you write a nice gentle story you may end up shooting yourself in the foot.  It is a question of style as much as substance and comes back to issues relating to the ‘self-promotion stakes‘, as also discussed elsewhere recently. Recently, a woman responded to my comments on her draft CV by saying she’d try to bring out her ‘inner man’.  It may be unfortunate – and again, as in my last post reflecting mere crude gender stereotyping – but as shorthand for ‘get rid of emphasising the team-player aspect and bring out the actual leadership skills I have‘ the phrase conveys the right message.

If you write an arrogant, over the top CV that will be just as bad. Believe me, I’ve seen it done. Claim to have done more than you genuinely have and someone on the panel who is also an expert in the field will say so, pointing out it was done by Professor X in some totally different lab and you just made a minor contribution to one paper that came 2 years after the major discovery. Truth and integrity are closely linked and (almost) no one wants to risk someone without good ethical principles in their department. I’ve seen that style of CV go wrong when achievements have been misleadingly presented.

There are, however, grey areas regarding how much to write on a CV/summary of achievements document. I would say public engagement/outreach/blogging is one quite large unknown in this category.  I’d like to think it would always be seen as a plus, but for many academic jobs it must play second fiddle to the research itself. The Royal Society awards prizes for this sort of work – for instance I heard Brian Cox deliver his Michael Faraday Prize Lecture earlier this year at the Royal Society as he was being celebrated for his amazing contribution to public engagement. That there are a couple of prizes (the Kohn Award is the other one) in the Royal Society’s lexicon of awards specifically for public engagement work is testament to the importance they attach to it. Nevertheless for Professor Y applying for election to the Royal Society, how much emphasis should be placed on non-research activities of this sort? Again I would like to think quite a lot, a way of distinguishing between two otherwise equally brilliant individuals, but maybe not everyone thinks so, despite the Royal Society’s Foreign Secretary Martyn Poliakoff having an enviable reputation as a U-tube star in his Periodic Table series.

How you write your CV, as well as what you’ve actually got to say, does matter. It pays to consider who your intended audience is and what is likely to matter most to them. If simultaneously applying for jobs inside and outside academia, don’t use the same CV for both. More examples of how not to write a CV (with an American flavour) can be found at Female Science Professor’s blog, where she ran her annual writing competition on the subject last year receiving an interesting selection of fake CVs. There are obvious no-no’s and there are more subtle areas of uncertainty. There is also no uniquely right way of doing things, but finding the right middle ground between overweening pride and excessive humility is something worth striving for.

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One Response to Thinking about your CV

  1. cromercrox says:

    Cover letters that tell me how much the applicant wants to come to work with me in Oxford don’t go down too well with me either, since I’m Cambridge-based

    I get this with manuscripts, for which cover letters express the wish to have the attached published in Science.