Six ways to make your academic CV work for — and not against you

Some academics excel in their specialist field but fall short when it comes to setting out the unique offer they bring to the academic world. It is worth investing in ensuring that your CV – the single document charged with representing all you have achieved and have to offer – is the best it can be.

Your CV needs to work hard for you.

If you are looking for your next academic role – whether that is a PhD, postdoctoral or research fellow position – your CV will have to stand out and build confidence to win you a place on the shortlist. In some cases it may even need to beat the bots to ensure your application makes it to human eyes for review at all.

It’s not only when applying for a university post that you will need an accurate, up-to-date and compelling CV. It is also crucial for purposes as diverse as public speaking, grant applications, publishing and consulting.

In my experience as an editor, people make a number of common but avoidable mistakes that distract their reader or detract from the potential power of their message.

Those responsible for reviewing applications often have piles of CVs to process and pressing workloads to manage. At the earliest stage they are likely to skim your CV – sometimes in even less than a minute. It is worth checking that all relevant details are included and prominent, and that no clunky wording or overlooked typos grab their attention instead.

To help you successfully secure your next position, here are six ways to make your CV work for – rather than against – you:

1. Prioritise. What is most relevant to this application, and most important for your reader? Identify requirements and show how you meet them. Tighten and tailor your CV, using the same terms used in the job specification. If you are applying for a teaching role, expand on your teaching experience, rather than your research, even if you are particularly proud of it.

2. Cut out clutter. Be ruthless with superfluous detail or woolly wording. Showcase your keenness and clarity of thought by using only words which deliver impact. Remove irrelevancies, such as internal course codes or jargon that is specific to your current university. It will mean little to people outside it.

3. Be consistent. There are often different ways to refer correctly to the same institution, subject or area of research. But choose one and stick ruthlessly to it. Don’t bounce between slightly different variations; the effect jars your reader, even if subconsciously.

4. Use your best words. Where you can, choose active verbs rather than abstract nouns. Find words with life and interest in them, like ‘build’, ‘lead’, ‘design’, ‘win’. Avoid saying ‘My responsibilities included the design and implementation of research into’. Inject some energy instead with more dynamic verbs: ‘I designed and led research into’. Turn passive constructions such as ‘research was conducted into’ into active ones like ‘I conducted research into’. Let the person behind the CV come clearly through.

5. Make it work visually. Choose a simple, elegant font. Give careful thought to the elements you highlight in bold or italics. Make sure key information is clear and prominent. Remember that as the person skimming your CV moves on to the next page their eye is likely to skip to the next heading, and the impact of your words will be lost. Make your text fit into coherent, clearly defined sections. Orientate your reader by including page numbers for longer documents, to avoid confusion.

6. Get a second or third opinion. In all probability you will draft, redraft and revise your CV several times. This is important, but unfortunately it can also lead to the kind of snow-blindness that means you lose the ability to see your CV clearly any more. You may miss mistakes or overlook inconsistencies or poor choices that might be picked up by a fresher pair of eyes. Print your CV out and hand it to a friend, or use a professional CV editor to improve its impact and guarantee its accuracy.

To get where you are already, you will have invested a significant amount of time, energy and dedication in your chosen field. Take time to invest again now to make sure that your CV expresses this clearly and succinctly to those assessing your application for your next role, and make sure your academic CV really works for you.

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Jo Mitchell is an experienced writer and editor. After studying Modern Languages at the University of Oxford she worked in fundraising at Oxfam GB and Viva, where she specialised in writing communications for major donors. She now provides freelance editing and copywriting services at Nightingale Ink in the firm belief that sometimes words can sing.

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