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How to present yourself in a cv

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Writing a CV is challenging, and there are many different approaches. I will focus on the one that works for me, as recipient of CV's. At least for us, the CV is half the information we receive, the other half is the cover letter. There's more at how to write a good cover letter for a job.

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 in order to move forward and read your cover letter.

The first step, always, is to carefully read the job description to which you are applying. I can't stress this enough. Always read and check the company before you reach out. 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. Out of around 50 people who applied, only one explicitly modified the CV for the actual job to which they were applying. This says a lot about the interest of the candidate.

Regarding the CV itself, there are different aspects to take into consideration. Some will depend on your track record, but some are quite general. So let's see first the differences based on how far along are you in your career.

For students just graduating

If you are a student just finishing a bachelor or a masters, the most important thing to note is what you have studied. Use the opportunity to quickly show what your skills are. 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. This is especially relevant in 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. Even for traditional ones such as Physics.

Your bachelor/master projects are without doubts among the most relevant pieces of information you can provide. Very briefly explain what you did, what you achieved, what you learned. Think very profoundly about who are you, what did you learn or do that sets you apart. Did you build something? Did you develop software?

The most important advise for students is to let someone check your CV before sending it. There are things like marital status or whether you have children that simply should not be there. Someone reviewing an application should never base a decision on that information. They should not ask and you should not tell.

People with experience (both PhD and non-academic positions)

If you already have work experience either by doing a PhD, postdoc, or working outside of academia, explain what your achievements were. In this case, the question is what are you bringing to the table. You are not junior anymore, you should have learned plenty of things by now, so it is important to transmit that feeling. You should show not only what you think you can get from us, what do you want to learn by working with us but what have you already done that will help us out with our mission.

For people who worked in companies it is sometimes hard to understand what they did, what they learned. It is important to give it a thorough thought. It is your chance to use keywords that may trigger a positive reaction. Did you lead a team, did you build a product from scratch? Have you learned about time or people management? All this things must be clearly stated.

For people from academic backgrounds applying outside of academia, bear in mind that the specific details of your research may be a bit over the top for the person reading your application. Keep it short and sweet and explain the impact of your research. 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.

One of the biggest challenges for PhD's is that the person receiving an application may not be aware of skills that doing a PhD develops. The overall advice is to write them down. This means that most applications from PhD's will include things like tenacity, independence, and 'analytical skills'. So you shouldn't limit yourself there. What else have you learned? Have you worked in multi-cultural environments, were you responsible for a budget, have you thought about valorizing your research?

About applying to technical positions

If you are applying for a technical position in a small company, where the chances of your application being reviewed by a technical person (like me) are high, 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 work 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. For example, during one interview, just by chance, the candidate mentioned they liked playing with Arduinos. 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, so it is a relevant secondary skill.

Today, people are exposed to many different stimuli and can pursue many different interests at their own pace. Many people follow some machine learning lessons but not a full course. Some like tinkering with electronics, others build websites, or have a blog. All these things speak a lot by themselves and are worth sharing, especially if you are applying for a startup company where polymaths are normally much more welcome than singlemaths.

The presentation of the CV

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 like education, work experience, hobbies, languages, etc. That makes it parsing the information much easier.

I have been asked about single or double 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. I wouldn't mind getting CV's without a photo, so 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.

Finally, it is 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 realizes 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.

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

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'.


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