10 quick CV tips!

Looking for some quick advice on how to write an effective CV? Then you’re in luck! NatureCareers has published my rapid-fire CV talk, which I presented at their CareerExpo in London last year. At the start of the presentation, I mention that the slides are on Slideshare, which you can access here. I have also distilled out 10 key pieces of advice (!) to help you to make a start on, or refine, your CV:

  1. Making applications is a competition! You are in competition with others, so you need to show yourself at your best and to the correct audience. Much the same as when magazines compete for customers in a shop, you have to display yourself so that your target audience (the employer) will be impressed by what you have to offer them and choose you over and above others.
  2. Time is of the essence! The application process can be quite long and complex for employers who have to write the job description, advertise and then choose who to select for interview. They allocate time to peruse the submitted CVs and covering letters so if there are 100 or even 50 applicants, you can imagine they can’t spend much time on each one (perhaps 20 – 30 seconds). Remember, this is the first screen. If your CV makes it onto the “Yes” pile, they will spend longer reading for detail; again, much the same as when your eye is caught by the front cover of a magazine or newspaper, you’ll then take it off the shelf and skim read it first to make sure you’ve made the right choice.
  3. Put yourself in the shoes of the employer! You need to consider carefully the person reading (or even just glancing at) your CV. What will impress them? Imagine someone in a marketing department trying to sell a product – they need to know who their customers are and what they want, otherwise they may not hit the right audience. The same goes for your CV – academics advertising for a postdoc will be interested in research and technical abilities, evidence of successes (e.g. publications) and other academic-related information. Meanwhile, non-academic employers will look for particular skills and abilities relevant to their organisation, usually including personal competencies such as communication and team working.
  4. Target your application according to the job description! Think of the job description as you might an exam or essay question. You have limited space/time to provide impressive and targeted information so don’t feel you need to include everything; prioritise your evidence according to those of the employer, who will generally list their requirements in accordance with their importance to the job. And bear in mind, the employer’s requirements are a wish list, so don’t think you need to satisfy them 100% – focus on the ‘essentials’ and then ‘desirables’, aiming for around 60%, whilst reassuring the employer you will be able to grow and develop into the role (if you think you can, of course!).  
  5. Provide evidence! Examples are everything. Saying “I’m a great communicator” is not enough. Take time to review your experiences starting with the most recent and relevant. For example, if you have had experience of working in a team or setting up a collaboration during your postdoc, list this example first. Follow this with another maybe from your PhD and then perhaps include a research-related or more personal example. Lists of skills don’t have to be in chronological order as with lists of your job roles and education, so position the most impressive and relevant ones first. Note that if you can’t think of any examples, maybe you are not suited to the post or you need to increase your experiences to convince yourself and the employer that you are motivated by this type of role.
  6. Consider content and context! Keeping in mind, again, the employer’s needs and who will be reading your CV, make sure the content is as interesting and relevant as possible. Your content and its context demonstrate that you understand the job, what it involves and how you will be able to contribute to the organisation. Hiring is a risky business for employers, who not only want to feel confident about their new employee’s abilities, but also their commitment and understanding of the core business, whether it is academic research or a general managerial position. The order in which you place your information and the examples you use will show them how ‘tuned in’ you are to their work sector and culture. Usually, if you have had directly relevant experience this is likely to be a bonus. [Here are ways to improve on your employability depending on your career plans].
  7. Use their language! As with all effective presentations, oral or written, the golden rule is to speak a language which can be understood by your audience. If you use ‘club’ language, abbreviations and academic-speak, the employer may feel disconnected from you and sense you would not fit into their work environment. Reflect the words they use in their job description, on their website and social media platforms. Research the organisation, look at their profile and employees on LinkedIn and really try to get to know what is important to them. This will be time well spent, not only for writing your CV, but also later on during the interview.
  8. Targeted not chronological! Many people use a reverse chronological CV, where they list their experiences from the present back to the past. This can be appropriate when applying for posts very closely related to what you are doing currently – it demonstrates that you are developing into, and preparing for, an academic role, for example. However, even for academic CVs, I think it’s a good idea to divide your experiences into key sub-headings and then bring the information together from all of your roles within and associated with your research and other work experiences (paid and unpaid). By doing this, you are saving the reader from having to scan the CV to find all the relevant information. For example, you may have used a particular research technique during your master’s project and PhD in which case, rather than repeating yourself, you can bring this together under a single heading of, say, ‘Research and technical experience’. The same goes for teaching, outreach and other activities. In some cases, where you have all the relevant criteria, a research profile at the top of the page or, for non-academic applications, a ‘Key capabilities’ profile highlighting your skills and experiences will catch the eye of the reader immediately and, hopefully, impress them to place you swiftly into the “Yes” pile.
  9. One size does not fit all! I have given you a general list of advice here, but there are exceptions depending on particular countries and companies. For example, French businesses tend to require only a one-page CV, in Germany you should include a photograph and in Scandanavia it’s quite common to tell the employer about your personal circumstances, even the number and birth dates of your children.
  10. Don’t take it personally! If your CV is not selected for interview, it’s unlikely you will receive feedback at this stage as there are too many applicants to make this viable time-wise for the employer. Instead, review and reflect yourself on how you could improve your CV for the next time, seek help from a professional careers adviser and consider how to fill any gaps in your experiences to help build and strengthen your CV.

For more information and examples of CVs go to the following links:

More CV advice

CV examples

Covering letters

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