Writing an effective academic CV
How to create a curriculum vitae that is compelling, well-organized and easy to read
By Elsevier Biggerbrains Posted on 4 January 2013
Editor's note: Because this article is from a few years ago, some of the links may not work. We are working on updating it now. Please note that you can also find excellent career information on the Elsevier Publishing Campus.
A curriculum vitae allows you to showcase yourself and your academic and professional achievements in a concise, effective way. You want to have a compelling CV that is well-organized and easy to read, yet accurately represents your highest accomplishments.
[pullquote align="right"]Don't be shy about your achievements, but also remember to be honest about them. Do not exaggerate or lie![/pullquote]
Academic CVs differ from the CVs typically used by non-academics in industry, because you need to present your research, various publications and awarded funding in addition to the various other items contained in a non-academic CV.1
This guide provides advice and tips on how best to write a CV for the academic field. The advice and tips are organized into categories as could be used to structure a CV as well. You do not need to follow the format used here, but it is advised to address the categories covered here somewhere in your CV.
To start with some general advice first, you should consider length, structure and formatting of your CV.
Length: Since academic CVs must present so much information with regard to research and publications, it is generally acceptable if CVs are more than 2 pages long.2 It is best not to exceed 4 pages maximum.3
- Structure: Choose a structure for your CV with the main headings and sub-headings you will use. There are several sources and CV samples available and links are provided to these sources at the end of this document.In general, however, you should start with providing some brief personal details, then a brief career summary. Your education, publications and research should follow and be the focus for the first section of your CV. Other important categories to address include: funding, awards and prizes, teaching roles, administrative experience, technical and professional skills and qualifications, any professional affiliations or memberships, conference and seminar attendances and a list of references.
- Formatting: Your CV should be clear and easy to read. Use legible font types in a normal size (font size 11 or 12) with normal sized margins (such as 1 inch or 2.5 cm margins). Use bullet points to highlight important items and to concisely present your credentials. Keep a consistent style for headings and sub-headings and main text – do not use more than 2 font types in your CV. Make smart, but sparing use of bold, italics and underlining. Be aware of spelling and grammar and ensure it is perfect. Re-read a few times after writing the CV to ensure there are no errors and the CV is indeed.4
[note color="#f1f9fc" position="right" width=400 margin=10 align="alignright"]
Early Career Resources
This guide is from Early Career Resources, which provides career development resources for early-career researchers. The website has sections on search and discovery, writing and publishing, networking, funding and career planning. Read the original article and download a PDF here. [/note]
Personal Details Personal details include your name, address of residence, phone number(s) and professional e-mail address. You may also include your visa status, as relevant.
Career Summary The career summary is not a statement of your ambitions or objectives. It is a brief summary of approximately 5 -7 sentences summarizing your expertise in your discipline(s), years of expertise in the area(s), noteworthy research findings, key achievements and publications.
Education Provide an overview of your education starting from your first academic degree to the most recent degree obtained (reverse chronological order). Include the names of the institutions, thesis or dissertation topics and type of degree obtained.
The listing of publications is a key part of an academic's CV. It is advisable to list your most reputed publications in ranking of type, such as books, book chapters, peer-reviewed journal articles, non-peer-reviewed articles, articles presented as prestigious conferences, forthcoming publications, reports, patents, and so forth. Consider making an exhaustive list of all publications in an appendix.
Research As an academic, your research experiences, your findings, the methods you use and your general research interests, are critical to present in the first part of your CV. Highlight key research findings and accomplishments.
Honors and Recognitions Here is a section where you can allow yourself to shine. Share any prizes, awards, honors or other recognitions for your research and work with the year it occurred and by who/which body the award was granted.
Funding The funding you have attracted for your research and work is recognition of the value of your research and efforts. If applying for positions, institutions also like to see what kind of funding you can attract. As with the honors and recognitions, be forthcoming with what you have obtained in terms of grants, scholarships and funds.
Teaching This section is straightforward. List your teaching experiences, including the institutions, the years you taught, as well as the subject matters you taught and the level of the course(s).
Administrative experience Any administrative experience within a faculty or research institute should be noted on your CV. Do you facilitate (or have you in the past) a newsletter, an event(s), or anything else at your institution? If so, and particularly if relevant to your discipline, include it in your CV.
Professional experience If you have been employed in industry and it is relatively recent (approximately within the last 5-10 years) and relevant to your academic work, it is important to include it. If relevant, professional experience can explain any gap fills in your academic work and demonstrate the diversity in your capabilities.5
Other skills and qualifications As on every CV, academics should highlight key skills and qualifications relevant to your research and academic work. Technical and practical skills, certifications, languages, and more, are relevant to mention in this section.
Professional affiliations and memberships If you belong to any professional group or network related to your areas of expertise, you should mention them in this section. Only list affiliations or memberships with which you are active (within last 5 years, for example). This should not be a lengthy section.
Attendance at conferences and seminars List the most relevant conferences or seminars where you presented or participated in a panel within the last 5-7 years. In an appendix, you can add an exhaustive list of conferences and seminars where you participated by giving a speech, presented a paper or research, or participated in a discussion panel.
References It is advised to list at least three contact persons who can provide a reference for your research, work and character. Provide their names and complete contact information. Clearly, they should all be academics and all people you have worked with.6
Appendices As referenced already in some of the preceding categories, it is ok to include an appendix. Appendices enable you to keep the main content of your CV brief, while still providing relevant detail.7 Items to list in an appendix can include publications, short research statements or excerpts, conference or seminar participation, or something similar and relevant which you would like to provide more details about.8
CVs are not only for job searching As a presentation by Dr. Wendy Perry of the University of Virginia clearly indicates, CVs are not just for job-searching. This is important to keep in mind when preparing your CV. You will regularly need to update your CV and to adapt it for the various purposes. In Perry's presentation, she highlighted the other frequent uses of an academic CV, including9:
- Awards, fellowships
- Grant applications
- Public speaking
- Merit/tenure review
Outline example of academic CV
[note color="#f1f9fc" position="center" width=800] Also, if you are applying for a position with an academic institution, they may have their own preferred CV outline. Inquire to see if the institution does have a preference and use it.[/note]
Applications to academic jobs are notoriously convoluted, particularly to posts which combine teaching and research. Typically the CV will be one document among a groaning dossier that might well comprise a cover letter, a research statement, a teaching statement, sample courses or syllabi, and even (on occasion) a diversity statement. Where do you start? And with so many elements to worry about, how important is the CV?
The answer is that it is very important. Many selection committee members say that the first document they look at is the CV. It shows that you're fundamentally eligible to do the advertised job, and it offers a run-down of your career to date. It's the scaffolding on to which the selectors can hang all of the other information contained elsewhere in your application. Yet, for a host of varied reasons, many people persist in writing truly awful CVs.
What follows is my list of the top 10 most irritating mistakes – irritating because they can so easily be fixed. They are the fruit of more than 10 years' combined experience as a researcher, teacher, and academic careers adviser at the University of Cambridge. I have seen literally hundreds of academic applications and, hence, the myriad ways to shoot yourself in the foot with a poor CV. But if I had to sum up my advice in just one line, it would be this: don't go on about the achievements you're most proud of; prioritise the ones that are most relevant to your intended employer.
1) Not scannable
Be realistic: your CV will almost certainly not be read in detail, line by line, word by word, until you have made it at least on to a longlist and very probably not until you have made it all the way to the shortlist. Before that point, the person reviewing your application may spend no more than 90 seconds scanning through the CV, skimming for key highlights – such as your list of publications, places you've worked, grants won, and so on. You have to make sure that the important stuff, which will not necessarily be the same from one application to the next, leaps off the page.
There's no singular 'correct' way to format a CV so that it can be scanned effectively, but here are two tips. First, you have to keep seeing it on the page, so don't spend too long editing your CV on the screen before you print it out to take a look. Secondly, the best test of whether it's scannable is – drum roll, please – whether someone can scan it.
So, give a hard copy of your CV to a willing friend, ideally someone who owes you a favour but doesn't know your career history inside out. Put a stopwatch on them for 90 seconds and ask them to read through the CV. What did they pick up in that time? What didn't stand out? Did they identify the achievements you most want the selection committee to notice?
2) Sections split across pages
This is part of the logic of scanning. Someone reading fast will turn the page and jump straight to the next heading, which means that whatever content has been 'held over' from the previous page could well go entirely unread. Break up sections by using subheadings, e.g. divide your teaching into undergraduate and postgraduate, or separate it according to the elements of the teaching process such as lecturing, examining, curriculum design, and so on.
3) Structured in chronological order
I never thought to have to negotiate this, but, recently, a surprising number of early career academics have tried to argue this point with me. Let me therefore say very clearly: reverse chronological order is the norm; it is reasonable; it is absolutely de rigueur. CV writing is not about what's logical or preferable to you; it's about anticipating your selectors' needs and trying to make their lives as easy as possible.
If that argument doesn't convince you, here's another angle. Remember that I'm going to be skimming your CV, not reading it in detail. If I cast a quick glance over your publications and see at the top of the list a paper dated 2007, then I may well conclude that you haven't published anything since and decide not to waste more time on reading this section of your CV.
4) Content not tailored to the specific application
In many cases, this is simply a question of structure. If you're applying for a teaching role at a less research-intensive university, then do I really want to wade through seven or eight pages of information about your research experience before I get to a meagre section on your teaching? Bring the teaching section forward and expand it. If you've taught modules or topics relevant to the new post, then say so. If they want somebody with experience of supervising research students, then be sure that I can read about your experience of supervising research students without the need to pause, ponder, or decrypt.
5) Using language that's unclear to the reader
Avoid like the plague all institution-specific arcana. My own university has more than its fair share of authentic and faux medieval terminology that is utterly opaque to outsiders (and to many insiders), eg Tripos, Part II, prelims, JRF, DoS. This is by no means an exclusively Cambridge phenomenon. You must be ruthless in purging your CV of language that doesn't make sense to readers outside your current institution because you run the genuine risk of offending. You will look like a snob who can't be bothered to translate his or her experience into generally comprehensible language. Think undergraduate exams, third year, postdoctoral fellowship, and so on.
And here's a related tip: know the differences in preferred language between your current and future institutions. Paper, module, unit, or course? Tutorials, supervisions, office hours, or something else? Show that you have done your homework, because it says something about how seriously you want the job.
6) Including course codes for everything you've taught
To my mind, it's baffling to want to list all course codes and other administrative technicalities on your CV, but I see this done alarmingly often. Yes, I do want to know what you have taught, in what format, and to what learners. I'm also happy, in most cases, to know the exact titles of those courses or lectures. However, I don't want to know whether your university also labelled that teaching as 'Paper Ge21', 'Module AS100305', or 'Unit H3946'. This is administrative information – for internal use only. Unless you are an internal applicant, how does this kind of pedantry help the selectors decide to put you on their shortlist? Extraneous information on a CV may not be as heinous a mistake as incomprehensible information (see number 5), but it clutters up the skim-reading process, potentially confuses the reader, and does you no discernible favours.
7) Inconsistent style of referencing
Why it is that professional scholars who have to prepare references and bibliographies for publication can't put a list together for their CVs, using a consistent style and with proper attention to detail, is a perennial mystery to me. And, yes, it does matter. Is slapdash what you want me to think of you before I've even met you?
8) Using 'Curriculum Vitae' as a heading
I can recognise a CV when I see one, and I trust that others can, too. Your heading should be your name. And don't be pretentious: no titles or postnominal letters. Just your name.
9) No page numbers
Put your name as a header on every page after the first. Put page numbers on every single page. This might seem a little too 'belt and braces' for some, but the rationale is sound. First, it looks professional. (Need I say more?) Secondly, it serves a practical purpose. What happens if I accidentally drop the twelve pages of your CV on the floor? What happens if, in reading your 15-page magnum opus, I inadvertently mix up the sequence of pages? What happens if your CV gets unintentionally jumbled up with the CVs of 11 other applicants? These things can, and do, happen.
10) Overusing bold and italics
Overuse bold or italics on your CV and nothing stands out; avoid the use of bold or italics and, likewise, nothing stands out. The former often smacks of desperation ('Look! Look at all these important things! Look at them all!'), whereas the latter has a terrible whiff of disinclination ('Yeah, whatever. Read it, don't read it. I don't mind'). But the best way to mitigate over or under-formatting your document is simply to print it out and show it to people.
When push comes to shove, the best approach to CV writing is the simplest: seek multiple opinions at every stage. And in so doing, dare to be honest. What impression do you really have of me on paper?
Steve Joy is careers adviser for research staff in the arts, humanities, and social sciences at the University of Cambridge – follow him on Twitter @EarlyCareerBlog
Do you have any tips to add? Share your thoughts in the comments below
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