Over the past 6 years in my role as Careers Adviser for Postgraduate Researchers, it’s safe to say that I’ve checked my fair share of CVs. In the spirit of sharing, here are 5 key tips to help you avoid the most common academic CV mistakes that I come across day-to-day in my work with PhD researchers.
1. Check that the job you’re applying for is actually asking for a CV
I know, I know… it sounds obvious, but I’ve seen many doctoral researchers put painstaking effort into crafting a CV, only to start an online application and realise that the employer isn’t asking for one.
Academic institutions nowadays use a variety of online application processes and systems. Some might ask you to submit a CV and cover letter by email, some want you to fill in an online form detailing your experience, others may ask you very specific questions that prompt you to share examples of when you have demonstrated skills and knowledge relevant to the position.
Therefore, before you start your application, create an account for the online system and check what’s being asked of you.
2. Understand what kind of academic CV is expected.
An academic CV is an academic CV is an academic CV… right?
Not all academic jobs or opportunities are the same, so pay attention to what type of academic CV is most appropriate for the job in question. For example, is it a teaching-heavy position? If so, give them a teaching-heavy CV: ‘front load’ your teaching experience onto the first page of your CV and outline what you taught, who you taught, which innovative teaching methods you used, and anything else that the employer is seeking.
Are you applying for a fellowship or postdoc from a specific funder? If so, they may want to see your CV in a specific format, so make sure you check. One example currently promoted by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI – the national funding agency investing in science and research in the UK) is the ‘narrative CV’: a CV that reflects a broader and more diverse range of skills and experiences rather than ‘traditional’ metrics-based research CVs which prioritise publications: https://www.imperial.ac.uk/research-and-innovation/support-for-staff/scholarly-communication/bibliometrics/narrative-cvs/
3. Watch your terminology.
Back in my own academic days, I took compulsory teaching courses ILT001 & ILT003 with HEFi to support my delivery of module ELT101 within EDACS.
Know what I mean?
Of course not!
However, I see this all the time in academic CVs: people using institution-specific terminology and references that mean very little (if anything) to anyone ‘on the outside.’ Not only is this confusing; it could even impede your chances of being shortlisted because you aren’t being explicit about your knowledge and experience, and their relevance to the role(s) for which you’re applying.
Take my example above. Let’s say someone is reviewing my CV for their Teaching Fellow vacancy in Contemporary English Literature, in which I’ll be expected to have sound knowledge of the subject area, and to lead small-group seminar teaching. If my CV says things like:
• Undertook teaching courses ILT001 & ILT003 with HEFi
• Supported delivery of module ELT101 within EDACS
The person reviewing my CV has no idea what this means, or how any of this is relevant to them. If, however, I say things like:
• Designed and delivered seminars to small groups of between 8-14 undergraduates on module ‘Literature from 1790 to the Present Day’
• Completed one-day professional development course in developing and practising a range of practical small-group teaching techniques
Then straight away:
Relevant subject knowledge… TICK.
Small group teaching experience… TICK.
Commitment to developing small-group teaching practice… TICK.
The bottom line: cut the institution-specific jargon and use the employer’s terminology to describe your experience instead.
4. Don’t ‘hide’ relevant experience.
Staying on the point of highlighting your relevance to the position, here’s another academic CV trap that sounds obvious, but is so easy to fall into. This time, let’s use the example of a PhD graduate applying for a postdoc on a research project that involves interviewing vulnerable young participants. The hiring Principal Investigator is ideally looking for someone with the skills to be able to do this with relevant knowledge of ethical practice and safeguarding participants.
I do a quick scan of this person’s CV and can’t find any references to skills in interviewing, safeguarding, or working with young people. I start to wonder if this is a relevant postdoc for them. However, in our discussion of feedback on their CV, this person then tells me that their PhD involved conducting semi-structured interviews with a range of vulnerable young people, plus safeguarding training! However, they hadn’t thought to highlight this in their CV because they thought:
a) Their thesis title (‘Examining inequalities in educational outcomes in care leavers from X country’) would ‘speak for itself’. They assumed that the person screening the CV would be able to ‘read into’ this title and ‘just know’ that these kinds of methods were involved;
b) They’d save those details for the cover letter.
Yes, the cover letter is important, but if the person reading your CV doesn’t see enough relevant details from a quick first glance, they may not get as far as reading your cover letter. So, make sure you don’t ‘hide’ relevant skills and experience by assuming that your audience will ‘just know’ what was involved in your research, teaching, and other experience. Tell them!
5. Take ownership of your academic CV.
I’d like to end with a point inspired by the indomitable Karen Kelsky, author of the well-known academic how-to guide The Professor is In (2016). In the book, Kelsky notes that “CVs are not just passive records of things that you happen to do. […] You watch your CV, you think about it, you develop it. You ask, ‘Is it where it should be right now, this month, related to the goals I want to achieve?’ The [academic] CV is a document that you grow with intention and deliberate effort” (p.94).
I couldn’t have put it better. Your academic CV isn’t just a list of everything you’ve done in your academic life: it’s a curated document that you build strategically over time, making sure that it includes evidence that ‘ticks off’ the things that you know academic employers in your field are seeking.
My final piece of advice is to keep a ‘master’ academic CV from early on in your PhD, adding in points as you go. Use ‘person specifications’ (the section of a job advert that outlines the skills and experience that an employer is seeking) for academic jobs in your field as a guide to the kinds of opportunities that you need to seek out during your PhD to build a strong academic CV. Do this and your academic CV will grow, as Karen Kelsky puts it, with the best ‘intention.’