Is your CV working?

If not, then neither are you! No matter that you have excellent skills and experience, no matter that you are convinced this is the job for you. If you are not communicating your suitability and enthusiasm through the medium of your CV, you are likely to be de-selected from the application process at an early stage and will never even make it to the interview. Selling yourself in writing is much harder than in person, where you can use body language, explain more fully your talents and expertise, smile and be convincing.

So let’s look at 10 of the most important rules to follow to help you to promote yourself at your best in a CV and covering letter. You can refer to the two CVs below targeted for academia (left) and industry (right) while you read my advice:


  1. Choose your CV format: There are different styles of CV. Most people use a reverse chronological style where you list your employment and experiences in reverse order, which is fine if you are staying within the same field (your supervisor may use such a style of CV). However, you can emphasise your experiences more clearly if you consolidate them into sections within a CV which is targeted to the role. For example, you may have taken responsibility for some technical facilities, worked on a specific model system or done some science communication in your past three research positions. If you list them in chronological order and describe your experiences under each of these job titles, you will most likely be repeating yourself and scattering similar examples in different areas of your CV. Instead, by using a targeted CV you can bring similar activities together under one heading.
  2. Know yourself and what you have to offer: A useful way to ensure you include all aspects of your experiences, skills and abilities, is to list or mind-map everything you do. For example, within RESEARCH, write down all your techniques, the experiments you have designed, developed and undertaken, successes, results, problems solved etc; within COMMUNICATION, list the conference papers and posters delivered, outreach, supervision and mentoring; within ENTERPRISING AND INNOVATION list new collaborations forged, proposals for funding you have written, new ideas and ways of thinking you have employed to solve problems, and so on….
  3. Divide your CV into sections: Writing a CV is much like writing an exam. Look at the employer specifications, underline the most important requirements, create sections in your CV to match these key words and use bullet marks below them to list evidence to demonstrate your capabilities. Prioritise examples from your current work/education and use personal examples only if you don’t have enough professional evidence. For example, to demonstrate your teamwork ability you may be able to draw upon times when you’ve collaborated with others in a research project, been part of an organising committee to host an event in your department or a session at a conference, as well as being involved in sports or other outside interests. You can draw upon your mind-mapping exercise as explained above to find examples to use – these can be moved around into different sections to show evidence of different skills and competencies.
  4. Don’t be too personal: Place your name at the top of your CV as the title and add in contact details below. Don’t confuse the employer – only use one email address and one phone number. Add in appropriate social media links such as Researchgate, LinkedIn and Twitter depending on their relevance to the job for which you’re applying [make sure your profiles are up to date, complete and consistent with the profile you are portraying in your CV]. You don’t need to add in any other personal information such as your marital status, children, date of birth, nationality unless you think it’s relevant to the post. Think carefully about adding in a ‘Personal Profile’. Is it a strong statement? Is it adding anything to the CV which won’t be covered in your cover letter? If not, then leave it out as it’s taking up valuable space! For more information on personal profiles see a previous blog on this subject.
  5. Less is more: Generally speaking, the core of your CV should only be two pages long. If you wish you can add on appendices to list your publications, conferences attended, teaching experiences, funding etc: this may be how your supervisor has formatted their CV. If you are applying for a non-academic job, two pages will be enough and you can always add in hyperlinks to your social media profile in case more detail is required. A long list of publications in a CV being used to apply for a non-academic job might confuse the employer or make them think you’re not suited to their company, where publications are not an important output. Having said that you can always refer to them as a measure of your successes and achievements by saying, for example: “Ran a successful research project investigating ….., which resulted in some key international publications and an invitation to speak at an international conference.”
  6. Use the STAR technique: I’ve already mentioned this technique for use in job interviews (see my previous blog for more detail), but you can use it in your CV and other applications to record your experiences in a succinct and structured way. For example, to evidence your leadership skills, instead of saying, “Excellent leadership skills”, you might say something like: “During my PhD, I was responsible for supervising two vacation students. I mentored them closely and challenged them to think critically which increased their research confidence.” This only represents two lines on your CV, but by telling a short story with realistic information, it’s brought your experience to life and made it more interesting and believable for the employer*.
  7. Be conservative: People ask me how creative they can be with the presentation of their CVs, for example using colour and infographics. My answer to this is to err on the side of caution. The employer is looking for evidence of your suitability for the job and although layout and formatting can help to draw attention to important information and lead the eye down the page, too much colour and too many distracting images may divert attention from the message of your CV. The exception would be for jobs where creative visualisation of data or artistic imagery is part of the role, but I would still use colour sparingly especially since many CVs are printed out in black and white anyway.
  8. Cover letter: The cover letter introduces your CV, provoking interest in the employer, so you need to pick out three or four key aspects of your experiences to highlight your suitability for each particular post. You also need to show interest and enthusiasm for the company/research group by saying something about them and what you have to contribute to their operations. I have already written 12 tips on cover letters so I’ll leave you to refer to my blog on this subject.
  9. One rule does not fit all: As with all rules, there are always exceptions. For example, some countries like you to add in a photo at the top of your CV, others prefer a one page resumé rather than a longer CV. If the job advert is in a particular language then the likelihood is you will need to write your CV and cover letter in the same language (you can always contact the employer for clarification, but they may require applicants to speak the native language as part of the job). Not all employers or even people on the same selection panel feel the same way about CV layout and structure. Some prefer the traditional reverse chronological CV, whilst others appreciate targeted applications. This might be where your covering letter is crucial to identify key areas of your CV to signpost which are most relevant to the employer’s requirements for the post.
  10. If at first you don’t succeed: When I hear somone saying they’ve sent out dozens or 100s of CVs with no results, I don’t wonder whether they are unemployable, I wonder how they’re presenting themselves in their CV and covering letter. It’s likely they are using the same documents for every job application and not targeting each one specifically to each and every position. Even posts which are very similar require tiny changes, bringing the most important information to the fore. Quality is always better than quantity, so I suggest that you spend time and effort on a few applications and if you find they are not returning an invitation to interview you need to review and revise your strategy. Is your CV targeted? Are there gaps in your experience you need to fill to be eligible for these types of jobs? Are you trying too hard and over-writing your CV and cover letter, bombarding the employer with too much information? Seek advice from a professional careers adviser or professional colleague if you can, show them your CV and ask them what stands out to them.
    S. Never be tempted to remove your PhD from your CV.

For more CV examples and information on writing a CV and cover letter take a look at my blog page and slideshare.

Wishing you CV success!!

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