Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Your CV says more than you think

I am in the midst of evaluating some applicants for a Post-doc position and have been fairly surprised at the CVs we have gotten in response to the advertisement. Almost all of the applicants are excellent, but the CVs are interesting in more than just their contents - the layouts vary widely. I don't know why this seems so odd to me, I guess that I assumed that most people know what potential employers are looking for when the open a CV, but clearly I am wrong on that count. But how you set up your CV also says something subtle about what you think are the important pieces of your history. With that in mind, I suggest the following to people applying for a postdoc.

Let's make a couple things clear.
1) Pretty much everyone does this, but it's worth mentioning that your training history should be the first thing in your CV.

2) The two things that should be next are either your awards (including grants) or your publications. I tend to put awards, then pubs, but it can go either way. If you have anything else above these two categories I would have to ask why. When it boils down to it, what does an employer want to see? What money or awards have you won and where have you published. This is what matters. DO NOT have other things above these because I don't want to have to sift through your hobbies and poster presentations to get to your pubs. Seriously.

3) It's fine to mention manuscripts "in prep", but don't bother putting journal titles with these, just to let me know where you plan on submitting them. It's useless information and I'm not going to take "Schmo, J. et al. in prep. All of the cool shit I do. Nature." very seriously, I'm sorry.

4) Everything you have after the sections mentioned above is fluff. Yeah, I might glance at it to see that you attend international meetings and you have some experience giving presentations, but if the training, awards and pubs are the steak, the rest is the broccoli. No one orders broccoli with some steak on the side.

5) If you're applying for a research post-doc, include your teaching experience, but it should not be front and center. Repeat after me: I'm not hiring a teacher, I want to know about your research acumen. Do you have the experience I am looking for and can you turn results into publications?

You might say "But layout shouldn't matter if everything is in there!" and you might be right in an ideal world. BUT, when you have a stack of CVs to get though and they have to be ranked, it is surprising what subtleties can make one CV get placed overtop another in the ranked stack. It's a competitive field, don't do yourself a disservice by not putting your best foot forward. If your publications are buried on page 3 of your CV (or worse, listed almost like an appendix) you are asking the employer to put in the effort you did not, in order to properly evaluate you. You are also suggesting that you don't understand what is important to emphasize to compete in academia.


  1. Really? I was always taught to put my publication section last, and a quick scan through the various CVs we got for our last (R1)faculty search suggests that is more common than not in my field (Molecular Biology). Most people seem to start with training and awards (not including grants) then sandwich in all the "other' stuff (teaching, trainees, invited seminars), then grants and publications.Is this one of those subfield specific things?

  2. I think this has to do with the mind set that references go at the end of the document. What people don't understand is that in the CV your publications are not references, the people writting your letters are. I don't think it is subfield specific, as I'm also in molecular biology/biochemistry.

    I've set up my CV a bit like you mentioned, but not quite. I started with education, then research experience, teaching (mainly all the students I supervised in the lab), pubs, oral presentations, posters, awards and professional organizations. I like the flow, but your point of having awards earlier might be worth noting...

  3. I don't think the structure I suggested is field-specific at all. It's important to tailor your CV to the position you are applying for and for any research position you want the most research-important thing front and center. Why should an employer read through your poster titles before getting to what they really want to know? Is the fact that you like to play chess in your spare time more important than your pubs?

  4. I've seen it broken up the anon and the way PLS mentions. My old mentors were firm believers of having your publications be not only 'last' but also an entirely separate page. Thankfully I won't need to hand out my CV for a while so I can ponder these philosophical academic questions.

  5. Good discussion question.

    When you are applying for a postdoc, you probably only have a handful of published papers. This is not too onerous of a list to include in the middle of the CV, as PLS suggests. However, later in your career, when you are past post-doc level and have a substantial publication record, the pub list in the middle of the CV totally breaks up the quick-look nature of the CV. At this point, I would simply state the number of publications and perhaps the number in each of the major journals in your field, with the full pub citation list at the end (or as a separate attachment).

    In short, your CV format will change over the years.

  6. Timely question for me, as I was helping a grad student with this today. I agree with Space Prof, this format will change - the pubs list gets too long (you hope - anyway) and will interrupt the flow.

    The main principle to keep in mind is the one you are emphasizing: what you want people to see for this job should be up top. I have four different CVs that I use. It's all the same information, but arranged differently depending on the audience.

    I will say that I was taught, and generally see in searches, pubs (and talks) last.

  7. Hello PLS,

    I really like the idea of bringing the publication section upfront. But, I would put the research experience (with emphasis on PhD research) between training and publications. The research experience section complements the publications by providing some ideas about the approach the candidate used etc. Does it make sense?

  8. Indeed, once you are established you could make your pubs section into a crossword puzzle if you want and it won't matter. I'm talking about people applying for a postdoc and I would include research-centric TT positions as well. Obviously there are different schools of thought, but I want what is going to sell a candidate right up front. Give me the meat first. *I* would never put my pubs last when applying for those positions.

    Anon, The research experience, depending on your layout, can easly be part of the training section. A CV is also meant to be concise, so I would not have a paragraph about experience in there, just a couple of lines of explanation (at most) following each position.

  9. I don't think it much matters about the pubs, in fact. I've 25 years experience reading these things and actually prefer them at the end (so I can flip to them easily), which is where they standardly appear in my field (chemistry). They are almost always the longest section and frankly, if I have to scan to find where the next sectionb begins, I'm annoyed.

    You can't please everyone, but ask someone whose been reading CVs in your field for a long time for advice.

    My beef, no long lists of HS or even UG minor honors. Again, as people have said, it's got to be short, sweet and focussed on what you've got that I want to know about for this position.