Vital statistics (a guide to preparing CVs for academia)

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TIR offers a few pointers for young scientists on how to brush up their curriculum vitae…

– Science requires CVs in the same way as any other profession, and a suboptimal CV will handicap your chances in any application. Don’t forget too that it’s important that your CV is appropriate for the position you’re applying for – you will need to change the things you’re listing and shift the emphasis depending on the type of job you’re applying for, and the career stage you’re at. This guide assumes that you are a young scientist applying for a PhD or postdoc position, or similar. CVs for faculty positions may be covered in a future posting…

– Note that this is not about how to write a cover letter/approach e-mail. If you would like advice on that part of the application, check out our previous posting on that topic (HERE). 

– As with anything, there are very few absolute rules and this should be taken as a guide rather than a set of commandments. Use your own judgement as to what works best for you.

Layout of a CV:
A young scientist’s CV when applying for positions in academia should contain the following:

1.Personal details
2.Education / academic achievements
3.Employment / laboratory experience
4.Research skills
7.Professional activities
8.Regular activities
9.Circumstances that may have hampered academic work

– Note that relative positions of those items will shift over time. Once you have two or more years of postdoctoral experience, section 3 (Employment / laboratory experience) should appear before section 2 (Education), as by then that’s the more relevant. Similarly, the CV of a more experienced scientist should probably list publications (section 5) and funding (section 6) before research skills (section 4). For undergraduates or newly-minted PhDs, those sections will be very short so it makes more sense to emphasise the research skills first. Again, use your own judgement as to what is most relevant and important, and make sure that comes early on.

– No crazy fonts! Stick to simple and reliable ones like Arial, Helvetica, or Times / Times New Roman. Use bold type and/or capitalisation to emphasise section headings, and adding horizontal lines to break up the sections is a nice way of arranging things in bitesize chunks. Bold type can also be used to highlight certain things like hosting institution, supervisor names, and so on.

We’ll deal with each section in turn…

1.Personal details
The point of this section is just to provide some biographical context so that an interview can go smoothly from the start.

The basics: 
– Name. Have this right over the top of the CV as a title.

– Nationality. Important for visa considerations etc.

– Date of birth. Again, important context – it’s useful for supervisors to gauge the age gap between them and the candidate as this will inevitably affect interpersonal dynamics.

– Gender. Useful if you have a unisex name. Alternatively, list your preferred pronoun (e.g. she/her) instead.

– E-mail address.

– Languages. List all of them, with a summary and a formal grade if you have one. Use native/advanced/good/intermediate/basic as summary terms to indicate proficiency, as not everyone is familiar with grading systems.

– Telephone number. Indicate mobile/landline. A Skype handle can potentially be included, although Skype interviews are usually organised by e-mail.

– Work address. List the address of the department where you are or where you worked most recently. A home address is of no use or interest – nobody is going to send you a letter. Your work address clues people as to where you’re applying from. If you have a personal page on the departmental website, provide the address here with an embedded hyperlink.

Other notes:
– In some countries (Germany and Austria, to name two) it is common to include a headshot. In countries where this is not common, it comes across as a bit weird. If you’re a German national applying to a German company, fine, do what seems natural, but if you’re applying to an international institute/university, it’s best to leave it out. It’s not a beauty contest after all.

– Social media profiles are probably best dealt with in the “Communication” section.

– If you have a personal website, you can (optionally) provide a link if it is work-relevant and work-appropriate. If it’s full of memes and cat pics, probably best to leave it out. 

2. Education / academic achievements
This is to let potential employers know what kind of theoretical and practical training you’ve received. Arrange items in chronological order with the most recent thing at the top, as that’s the most relevant. 

For each item, provide:
– years you were there.

– the degree(s) and the institution that awarded it/them (e.g. PhD, University of X). For PhDs, also name your supervisor, and provide a very short description (10 words or less) of the topic (“postgraduate research on membrane trafficking’)

– any awards you received during that time.

How far back in time you go will depend on what career stage you’re at. When you’re applying for a PhD, your school education is still recent enough to be relevant; after you’ve got a few postdoc years under your belt, your education section can start with your undergraduate degree.

3. Employment / lab experience
This is to indicate what kind of full-time benchwork/labwork experience you have. Chronological order, most recent first.

For each item, provide:
– duration (4-5 weeks minimum, as a benchmark).

– what and where the position was, and whose group you were in, if applicable (e.g. Postdoc at the University of Y in the Department of Z [town, country], in the group of Dr. B)

This section is one that will change the most as you get more years post-PhD. When you’re pre- or only just post-PhD, you won’t have much experience so you need to advertise everything you’ve got: internships, summer placements, Bachelor thesis, Master’s thesis, the lot. At this early stage too, you can provide 3-4 sentences describing what you did in each of those placements for more context. Once you are several years post-PhD, the “lab experience” part (i.e. internships, Bachelor/Master’s thesis etc) can be moved into your “Education” section) in order for the “Employment” part to stand alone as a record of your full-time labwork, and the summary sentences can be dropped to save space, if necessary.

4. Research skills
This is the really important part for younger scientists, as it lets you advertise exactly what you can bring to the group. Break up the skills into subgroups (e.g. Molecular Biology, Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Imaging, Computing etc), and then list everything that you can already do.

It is REALLY important that you only list techniques that you have first-hand experience of, and which you are already comfortable using. If you do not think you would be able to troubleshoot a problem, or are unsure how a technique works, then don’t list it. It is under no circumstances whatsoever acceptable to list techniques that you have only seen demonstrated in practical classes as research skills – this artificially inflates your CV and is going to create problems once the questions start flowing in an interview. It is far better to have a short list of things you’re sure of, than a long list of stuff you barely understand at a practical level.

5. Publications
Chronological order, most recent first. 

– Divide into preprints and peer-reviewed publications. Provide the full PubMed-style listing. Highlight your name in bold, and add an asterisk if there is anything else worth highlighting (e.g. co-first author, corresponding author).

– Do NOT under any circumstances change the ordering of the authors, even if you are a co-first author but the second name on the list.

– Where possible, embed hyperlinks to either the PubMed listings or the online versions of the articles (that’s what DOIs are for!). It’s tidier than attaching a bunch of bulky PDFs.

– Vague designations like “manuscript in preparation” and “under review” don’t really mean anything, and especially now that preprints are standard. If for whatever reasons you have a complete manuscript but it has not been posted as a preprint prior to peer review, then “submitted”/“under review”/“in revision” can be used, but be aware that these terms carry even less weight nowadays than they did before. “In press” is the only serious one.

6. Funding
The ability to raise funds only gets more important as your career progresses, so it’s worth noting any successes here.

– If you already have received Fellowships and the like, list the date, the funding body, the amount, and the project.

– If you haven’t had a Fellowship or similar, don’t be shy about listing smaller schemes – simply having secured funds for a summer studentship is worth noting.

7. Professional activities
This is the section in which you list all the career-relevant bits and bobs that haven’t been covered in the preceding paragraphs. Some standard subheadings in this sections are:

(1) Teaching/mentoring – any teaching experience you’ve gained, whether it’s direct mentoring in a lab, supervising theoretical work with undergraduates, or assisting in undergraduate practical classes. 

(2) Communication/outreach – this is the place to flex your social media muscles; if you’ve got a decent online following, publicise it here. List any public engagement events you’ve taken part in, and any other media you use (blog, vlog, videos, art, whatever.

(3) Other – this is a grab-bag category that lets you list any other work-related activities or positions of responsibility you may have had. If you helped organise student retreats, sat on committees, or took part in any other on-campus events, put it here.

8. Regular activities
This is primarily to provide some conversational ice-breakers, and you certainly don’t want to go overboard here and give the impression that you have little time left for work. Don’t leave it out though; it’s an important piece of personal detail that helps to round you out before people have had a chance to meet you in person.

9. Circumstances that may have hampered academic work
An optional category, but once that’s quite important if it applies. People looking at your CV will be alert to gaps in the timeline, or if certain stages of your career took significantly longer than average. If you have a good reason for this – starting a family, parental leave, part-time work, chronic illness, or being caught up in a lab relocation – this is a good place to pre-emptively answer any questions that may be in your assessors’ minds. It is of course up to you what you disclose, and there may be some things that you would prefer to disclose during the interview rather than committing to print, or prefer to keep to yourself entirely, so exercise judgement.

10. References
Provide the names of at least two and probably no more than three people who can provide a reference. For younger scientists, you’re going to be limited in your choices here – Bachelor and Master’s project supervisors, and maybe nothing more. For more experienced applicants, list people who’ve mentored the main steps in your career (i.e. PhD supervisor, PhD committee members, postdoc mentor); departmental heads and close collaborators are also options. Provide name, work address, and e-mail. Ensure that the e-mail addresses are correct at the time of writing.

Make sure that you get approval from the people you list that they are happy to provide a reference! Under no circumstances whatsoever list people as references without their knowledge. Seniority is not important – it is far more valuable to have an honest appraisal from someone who clearly knows you well and can assess you with first-hand knowledge, than a vague and generic reference from someone who appears to have had only fleeting contact with you.

– This posting was suggested by the Yudushkin lab (Max Perutz Lab, Vienna), based on an original tweet by @BenLehner. Many thanks! Input also came from Graham Warren (LMCB, London).

– There have been a couple of excellent recent postings by Quantixed/Royle Lab (they scooped us!) on this topic, which are strongly recommended as a counterpoint and an extension to this posting. They provide some alternative suggestions for layout, and have excellent recommendations for both curating/updating your CV and building an online presence. They can be found HERE and HERE.

Finally, if you have any comments/feedback on the above, or have any relevant experience you’d like to share – leave a comment!

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