How to write your academic CV (and how not to)

When writing your academic CV, as with any kind of writing, it’s not just the information you put in.

How you present that information can make the difference between getting a job you love or finding yourself stuck in a job you hate. In other words, it can alter the course of your whole life.

Writing your academic CV: the 2 basic rules

1: Individual CVs for individual jobs

The absolute number 1 golden rule is that you shouldn’t just write one CV, but should tailor it to each individual job you apply for.

If you’re applying for academic jobs, the CV you send will be different to the one you send to work in a bank or bakery, but you should also tweak every CV you send to the specific job you apply for.

The facts don’t change, but you might choose to emphasise certain skills and experience over others.

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2: Not all content is equal

Just like in your thesis, not all potential content in is equally valuable.

Not everything you’ve done is equally interesting to an employer. You want them to read you CV and want to know more about you, rather than skimming sections looking for something interesting.

Once you’ve listed your PhD, master’s degree and undergraduate degree, there’s no need to say where you went to high school. If you have a ton of experience as a computer programmer, saying you can use Microsoft Office is pointless.

I’d say 2 pages is a maximum for a CV, but if you had to reduce your CV to one page (which is OK to do), what information would be indispensable?

Think about what information you want them to ask you in your interview, and what they might want to know and make those the focus of your CV

Structuring your academic CV

Part 1: Who are you?

What are you going to put first? Your name, obviously needs to be clear in large bold type at the top of the page. Put your contact information in small type underneath, like a sub-title. Contact information is only useful to the reader when they decide to contact you, so giving it a third of the space on the first page doesn’t make much sense.

What’s the next thing you want a potential employer to see?

Give them a quick summary (about 3 to 5 lines, probably no more) of what you do and what your experience is. For example;

“Recent PhD graduate* in (insert subject), specialising in (insert 1 or 2 skills or areas of expertise, relevant to the job your applying for). Also highly experienced in (something else), with practical experience in/ working knowledge of/ familiarity with (some area you might not be as confident in, but the employer may be looking for).”

In other words, if they only read the top half of the first page, they’ll know everything they need to to decide whether you’re at least worth talking to.

Tailor the statement to the job, or if it’s a speculative job enquiry, to the research group in question. Be brief, but anything you think makes you good for the job, include it here.

Everything else you put in your CV needs to support that opening statement.

Part 2: Can you do the job?

It’s safe to assume that everyone else going for that postdoc position has got good academic qualifications, so is that what you want them to see next? It won’t necessarily help you stand out from everyone else.

So thinking about what to put next… well what do academics care about most?

Publications, publications, publications.

If you’ve published papers or presented work at conferences, then it demonstrates professional competence and backs up your opening statement.

When you come to apply for your second research job or a lectureship, you might want to put your research experience in the form of an employment history, but fresh out of your PhD, demonstrating just that you’ve been published is the most important thing to highlight.

The big difference between an academic CV and non-academic CV is that if you’re applying for jobs outside academia, the specific publications might not be so important. To a  non-academic employer, they simply serve as proof that you were competent at what you were doing before.

Part 3: How did you get here?

Once you’ve shown your publications, you can give your qualifications. For your first “real” job, this will double up as an employment history as it accounts for your time over the last several years.

It’s good to structure this as a timeline, working backwards from the most recent, or what you’re doing now.

The bar job you took to pay your way through your masters probably isn’t relevant to the job you’re applying for, but if you had a job for a significant length of time then put it in. You want to avoid gaps in your history because these cause a bit of suspicion about what you were doing.

Wherever relevant, put some detail in about what you were doing at each place, again to reinforce what you said in part 1. Those things you said you have some knowledge of, this is where to say where you got that experience.

Part 4: Anything you’d like to add?

Finally, if there’s anything else interesting you want to say about yourself, then include a section about your other experience. You could list interests, but its way better to frame it as things you’ve done or achieved.

It’s not interesting that you like running or music, but it is interesting if you’ve run a marathon or played in an orchestra. Interviewers like these kind of things!

A few things to avoid…

DON’T: rush your application by sending a generic CV

DON’T: List everything you’ve ever done to try to make your CV look fuller, you’ll only dilute the good stuff

DON’T: send your CV without checking for errors at least twice. Get someone else to read over it if you have difficulty checking it yourself.

DON’T: use big, dense chunks of text

DON’T: include anything you wouldn’t want them to ask about in the interview (either because you think it’d be boring, or because it isn’t true)

*If you haven’t finished your thesis yet, just replace “recent graduate” with “PhD researcher in…” , and finish the paragraph with “Expected thesis submission date: (insert date)”. If you think you could do the job and can demonstrate that you have the right skills, the fact that you haven’t yet finished doesn’t rule you out.

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16 thoughts on “How to write your academic CV (and how not to)

  1. Thanks for this article! It was really helpful. Any chance you will write a similar one on how to compose a good cover letter for postdoc?

  2. I really appreciate this communication. I have been researching information pertaining to your very last paragraph of the blog. I am currently pursuing my PhD and currently instruct undergraduate courses at an educational institute. I am passionate about instructing and very interested in gaining a position as an assistant professor. I see most of those positions require a PhD, in addition, most of the positions, as you stated, seem adamant about the candidate having publications. Is it possible to still sell myself as a candidate that should be considered even though I have not yet been published?

    Thanks again.

    • Though I won’t say it’s impossible without, publications always help. I think if you can get two published papers from your PhD work you give yourself a far better chance of getting an academic job.

  3. Hi James,
    I returned to my undergraduate studies as a mature student and I’m due to graduate with my first degree in 2016, aged 38. I absolutely love what I am doing and I am moving onto a masters and then to the PhD in 2017. If my PhD takes five years to complete, I would be 44 by the time I begin my academic career. This is something I really want but I worry constantly that I am too old and that It will be impossible for me to develop a career in academia at that age. Of course, at 44, I know logically that I will still have over 20 good working years in which to develop my career.
    I am so excited about my future but I am plagued by negative thinking on this.
    Any inspiration or guidance would be really appreciated. It this a possible dream or am I too late?
    Best wishes,
    Daniel

    • One thing to bear in mind is that getting an academic job is very difficult regardless of age- demand massively outstrips supply as there are more people graduating with PhDs than there are jobs available.

      You may find some age-discrimination when applying for jobs, but this doesn’t mean that you won’t find one. I would say to anyone determined to follow an academic career that you need to get really, really good at what you do, and make sure you get good contacts (as this is often key to finding a job). Also, have a back up plan!

      • That is great advice. Thank you James,
        My determination for an academic career is absolute, not least because I genuinely believe that I have something to offer my field and I already have what I believe is a strong research proposal. In researching PhD options today (that’s how I found you), I was delighted to find many other people who have earned their doctorates at my age and much older. However, for me, I have to focus on the career opportunities at the end, as well as on the PhD itself because I don’t have the same amount of time as, say, a 27 year old does to make an impact.

        Thank you for replying, It is much appreciated.
        Daniel

  4. What do you think does education , university degrees exceed experience abundance ?How is in USA and how in UK Europe?

      • I think I can answer that question, being a career adviser with experience of talking to clients from different countries… I had an Italian client a while ago, and he told me that in his country, people are expected to put a lot of personal information on such as marital status, date of birth etc… In the States a CV is called a resume for instance and looks slightly different than the ones in the UK (where I’m based)… Also, don’t forget that how you write a CV is linked to ‘fashion’ as well… some things go out of fashion and some come into fashion, apart from this, the state of the economy and hence jobmarket is important as well. Things are much more competitive now than they used to be, say ten years ago, so a CV now is much more of a marketing exercise. CVs and what you can do on them differs from sector to sector as well; eg. the creative sector and the legal sector…

  5. Most of your advice is spot on, but I don’t think an academic CV has a maximum of 2 pages! Most CVs, even at an early stage of your career, are likely going to be 4-5 pages. I agree that you should not include trivial stuff, but you should include all your publications, conference presentations, awards, etc.

    • I think that, once you go over two pages for a cv, it may not be fully read. What I would advise is to stick with the two page CV but add additional essential material in an appendix of some sort, referring to this in your covering letter. A lot of what a CV is about is to sift through candidates quickly, possibly in different stages. By presenting too much information on the CV itself you may cut yourself out of the picture.
      This is an excellent article btw… at last some common sense, rather than out of date, generic and ineffective templates…

  6. Pingback: Top 10 Post-PhD Resources | Life After Thesis
  7. James, this point: “DON’T: include anything you wouldn’t want them to ask about in the interview (either because you think it’d be boring, or because it isn’t true)” is SO important!
    I got tripped up on that one during my job search, partly on the CV but also in putting things in letters of application that implied I was doing things on a bigger scale than I was. Eg. I wrote a small article on a topic that I won’t ever study again, and people took me to be an expert on that topic. Then I got asked about it later and didn’t know what to say. Ack! So, you’re right. People should use the CV as a way to gently prompt interviewers about what to ask you, to turn the situation to your advantage as much as you can.

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