How can students, PhDs and postdocs present themselves efficiently in their CVs while looking for a job

Presenting yourself correctly is the most important step to secure the job you want

Writing a CV is challenging, and there are many different approaches. I will focus on the one that works for me, as the one who reviews CV’s. 

In our case, the CV is half the information we receive, the other half is the cover letter. How to write a good cover letter for a job is a topic for another discussion. 

What Is a Curriculum Vitae

A curriculum vitae is a summary of your life, not just of your academic achievements. 

The real challenge is how to present yourself in a succinct way that allows the person screening it to determine whether you have the minimum required abilities and predispositions for the job. Therefore, The first step, always, is to carefully read the job description to which you are applying. LinkedIn makes it trivial to apply for a job, which means your application will be listed among many others. If you want to stand out: submit a custom CV where you at least hint that you read the job description. 

The shape the CV will take depends on different aspects, including the position itself and where the candidate is in their careers. The rest of this article focuses on students, Ph.D.’s and postdocs of scientific careers who are giving their first steps outside of the academic world. 

The CV of a student who just graduated

If you are a student just finishing a bachelor or a masters, the most important thing that must stand out is what have you studied.

Use the opportunity to quickly show what your skills are. Most study programs  include graduation or thesis projects. It is very easy to get a sense of what your interests and skills are by stating your achievements in this section. Also, it’s a good place to set you apart from others. If a physicist writes that they are analytical, does not add anything. If they add that they were in charge of the weekly student newsletter, says a whole lot more. 

New study paths pop up almost every year and it is hard to know what a master in sustainable energy, for example, prepares you to do. It is important to keep this in mind for multi-cultural applications. I, for example, an Argentinian living in the Netherlands, must review the CV of a German student. I won’t have a clue about all the careers available and what you are meant to learn in each one. Listing your skills is crucial.

Let someone else check your CV.

If you are giving your first working steps, ask someone to read your CV for you and give you honest feedback. A CV should always be read with a specific job in mind. If you are applying to become an astronaut, the skills you need to show are very different from those you need if you want to become an account manager in a high-tech company. 

Ph.D.’s and Postdocs who are applying for jobs for the first time

If you are giving your first steps out of academia, there are several things you must un-learn. 

For many jobs, the qualifications that set you apart are not the publications you have, nor how many. It is a matter of how do you perceive yourself from the perspective of the job to which you are applying. Papers are not the end-goal of your achievements, but simply stepping stones. Therefore, stop giving them more importance than what they actually have. 

Since you already have experience, the question that must be addressed in the CV is what are you bringing to the table. You are not junior anymore, you should have learned plenty of things by now. It is important to transmit that feeling. Teaching is a good indicator of public speaking skills, supervising students, or applying for grants. 

Stop listing the things everyone else has as major achievements.

Adding a collections of talks you’ve given does not make you a good speaker nor a good communicator. We’ve all given talks, and we’ve all listened to very bad ones. We have all written a thesis, but this does not make us good writers. Giving 10 invited talks does not even mean we enjoy presenting to an audience.

When you list achievements, do it not from a purely academic perspective, but also include the human side of things. For example, show whether you were part of a larger group, a collaboration, or if you’ve lead a project. Organising a conference, working on budgeting, they can all be excellent indicators for the person reviewing your CV. 

Having a Ph.D. says very little about you, contrary to what most people think.

While I was doing my Ph.D. I was told that one of the challenges scientists face is that many HR departments do not know what skills are developed during a Ph.D., and that’s the first barrier to overcome. The reality is that Ph.D. programs are extremely individual, and there is absolutely no baseline for what it means having a Ph.D.

We are forced to present results, but that does not make us good speakers. We are force to write papers (and a thesis) but it does not mean we are good writers. We lead our own project, but it does not mean we are independent. Therefore, don’t assume that your shiny degree is all you need, especially not if on the other side of the table there’s someone who knows that having a Ph.D. says very little. 

The specific details of your research may be a bit over the top for the person reading your application.

The CV must be short and sweet. You can explain the impact of your research without getting into the details. Do not use acronyms unless they are universal or you are sure about the context where you are using them. GCR may be the “gluco-corticoid receptor” or a “galactic cosmic ray”. If you are sending a CV for a position slightly outside of your comfort zone/field never use an acronym.

The CV of someone who already has work experience

For people who already worked in companies, it is sometimes hard to understand what they’ve done, what they’ve learned.

It is important to give it a thorough thought. Describing your current and past positions is the best chance to use keywords that may trigger a positive reaction. Being in charge of a team, or building a product from scratch, interacting with customers, regulators, or industrial partners. All this things can be extremely valuable. Did you receive trainings, or certifications? Have you learned about time or people management? All this things must be clearly stated.

Setting yourself apart

Job applications are, in many cases, a matter of finding a balance between standard accomplishments and out of the box ones. 

Setting yourself apart, showing your true self is the best way of finding a job you care about. If you are applying for a technical position in a small company, you can show out of the ordinary things. Why are you different from your colleagues? What particular accomplishment sets you apart from the rest? The papers you publish are an academic metric that unless they are specifically relevant for the position, don’t add too much. They normally tell more about the context in which you worked than about yourself, and we care about you, not about your boss.

Regardless of your work experience, never under estimate your hobbies and side projects. During one interview, just by chance, the candidate mentioned they liked playing with Arduino’s. We are not specifically looking for someone with a background in electronics but knowing the person is able to set a goal, learn, and build something is incredibly important for us. Even if it does not count as professional experience, we do use Arduino in our prototypes, which makes it a relevant secondary skill.

The layout of the CV and the things that absolutely must be in there

Knowing what to write is the first step, knowing how to write is a different discussion.

There are many templates available for CV’s. Pick one that you think represents your personality. But don’t over stress about it. I tend to prefer single-column CV’s in which you can easily see the different blocks such as education, work experience, hobbies, languages, etc. It make parsing the information much easier. Use bold and italics wisely to highlight the things that really match the job description. 

I have been asked about a one or two page CV’s. I think if you are just finishing your studies there’s a chance there won’t be much information about yourself to cover more than one page. If you already have experience, the challenge is to condense all you have done. In general, use the front page to capture the interest of the reader and use the second/back page for the extras. If your academic qualifications or work experience are good enough, I’ll flip the page, if they are not, probably there’s nothing on the second page that can make me change my mind. 

To photo or not to photo is open for discussion, and I hope we normalise getting CV’s without one.

When I get a CV without a photo, I know I can base my decision without even having access to the looks of the person. However, I also understand that in some contexts this may work the other way around, generating some form of negative bias on the recipient of the application. I don’t have elements to give an opinion on this matter, I know I don’t mind getting CV’s without a photo and I think it would be a better idea to avoid them altogether, same as with marital status, for example.

In the XXI century, it is extremely important to make it easy to find you.

If you have a blog, a website, a profile on some social media that you think is relevant for the application, make it explicit. Although you can include links in a PDF, I strongly advice you to write down the full URL. In this way you guarantee that someone who printed your CV or is looking at your document without a mouse realises there’s something worth clicking.

In many cases, recruiters take the time to google you to create a more global picture of who you are. You can be proactive and lead the exploration towards the online spaces in which you are confident. On the other hand, don’t add links to shameful places. I’ve reviewed CV’s with a Github link to an empty profile. It was completely unnecessary to list it if you have no open source code in it. 

Ask someone to read it

Never forget the value of early feedback.

Ask someone you trust and that may have experience reviewing CV’s (especially if they are in the same field where you are applying). There are some key elements in CV’s that are very easy to miss when it is your own, but very easy to spot on others’. 

If you can, check how the CVs of others look like. Read it and think if they are transmitting what you think of them. Once you realise the patterns that people use to convey messages, or the pitfalls that must be avoided, you can start applying it to your own curriculum.    

Once you are done with your CV, the next step is learning how to write a good cover letter for a job.

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