The Curriculum Vitae (loosely, Latin for “the course of one’s life/career”) is usually the first point of contact between you and your future colleagues. Its conventional purpose is to provide a concise overview of your academic background and accomplishments. More to the point, however, the role of the CV is to pique the interest of the reader, get her/him to take a closer look at you and your other application materials, and ultimately invite you for an interview. Although the format of an academic CV is fairly standard and straightforward, there is some variation across disciplines and you should consult with members of your department about any particularities attached to your field. Unlike the resume, your CV grows longer as you become more accomplished. For most ABDs and recent PhDs, 3-5 pages is the norm.
His smile was gracious and his eyes sage as he took my CV, and began the diagnostic. “Ah,” intoned the Eminence, “perhaps you are the victim of a basic misunderstanding. This is a sales document.”
On The Market
In all likelihood you will need more than one CV, because different positions will place different degrees of emphasis on the various skills you possess (e.g., teaching versus research). “Cut and Paste” makes this a relatively painless process, but it does take some time.
Constructing an effective CV is an iterative process. Leave yourself time to get feedback and make changes. Type up a first draft, and show it to some friends and/or your advisor. Have them scan it for 10-15 seconds, and ask them what they remember. Does it effectively convey the information that you consider most essential? If not, make some changes and try again.
If you’re not sure where to start, check out the examples offered in Part II of this article, or attend the relevant session of the Academic Job Search series offered each fall by Berkeley Career Engagement. You can also get help with your CV and other application materials from a PhD counselor by making an appointment.
As you prepare your CV, the key point to remember is that the first task facing the members of the search committee (your audience) is to winnow the stack of files from the mass they received to the select few, perhaps 15-25% of the total, that they will actually read with care. At this stage in the process, that 10-15 seconds of initial scanning is about all you can expect. They are not yet looking for who they might want to interview, rather whom they can safely discard. Your job is to make it as easy as possible for them to see the strengths and qualities you would bring to the position. The specific elements or sections that make up the CV and how they are arranged are presented later.
How do you make it easy for your overburdened audience: organization, clarity, and consistency. Organization means that your information is presented in a manner that highlights what is most relevant and pulls the reader’s eye directly to it, rather than making her /him search for it.
For example, the most common criterion used for the first cut is your pedigree – where you received your PhD. In the case of Berkeley, this alone usually gets you to the next round so don’t make your readers, or more accurately at this stage, your “glancers” work hard to find it. If you are applying to an institution where English is the language of discourse, people read left to right and top to bottom. As you read the typical entry below, notice how
2013-2022 Doctor of Philosophy, English, University of California Berkeley
2009-2013 Bachelor of Arts, English, Magna Cum Laude, Harvard University
your eye naturally looks to the left and is drawn to the bolded category marker, your degree then the date, department, and, lastly, Berkeley. If you are applying for an assistant professor position in an English department, the reader already knows you have or will soon have a PhD in English. It’s not news; everyone in the stack has got one. What they don’t all have is one from Berkeley. The format above also draws attention to the unusually long period necessary to complete the PhD. Compare the above to the following,
PhD University of California Berkeley
English, expected May 2023
BA Harvard University
English, Magna Cum Laude, May 2013
This second example contains the exact same information, but notice how your strong academic pedigree now “pops.” If you’re ABD or have had an unusual career path you shouldn’t try to hide it, but neither do you want it to be the first thing a search committee member learns about you.
Clarity is achieved by the use of concise, unambiguous language and formatting options that help the reader easily assimilate the information you want to convey. Awkward phrasing, cryptic wording, etc. create speed bumps which distract the reader, and interfere with their ability to apprehend the critical information contained in your CV. For example, you and all your friends may know that your Chancellor’s Fellowship is very prestigious and hard to get, but someone on the outside may easily assume that just about every Berkeley graduate student gets one because that was the case with a similarly titled award at their institution. Instead of just listing the award, clarify it with a line of text. One of three awarded campus-wide from over two hundred submissions
Chancellor’s Fellowship for Dissertation Research, UC Berkeley 2017-2019
One of three awarded campus-wide from over two hundred submissions
In a similar fashion, if you have been invited to present a paper at a particularly prestigious conference or symposium, don’t assume that people outside your sub-field will be able to recognize its significance. Remember, the fact that they are searching for someone with your specialty generally means that it constitutes a gap in their department. If you have notable achievements, make sure they are easily found and understood by your audience, the search committee, and not just your friends and your advisor.
You can find more examples of how you can use formatting options to your advantage and structure your information in ways that make key accomplishments and experiences more readily accessible in The CV – Part 2 The Elements.
By the same token, you need to be selective. A CV which is overly dense with little white space between categories and text confronts the reader, rather than invites her /him. Too much information presented without an organized hierarchy makes it harder for your audience to discern essential from less important information.
Another tool at your disposal is the variety of formatting options (e.g., bold, italics, bullet points). Judicious use of these options can help set off major sections and subsections of your CV, making it easier to scan and read. However, it is easy to go overboard. Limit yourself to a couple of types and font sizes. Remember the goal is clarity and not artistic expression, and less is often more.
In addition, the more formatting attributes you choose, the more difficult it is to maintain consistency. When the reader confronts different spacing, formatting, and fonts among similar items it’s distracting, and provides an easy excuse to discard the offender.
The thought process behind figuring out how to best organize your CV is also a useful way of forcing you to think about your strongest credentials, and how you can best communicate these strengths when you get to an interview. Clarity, organization and consistency does not mean spending two days deciding if your vitae looks better in Verdana vs. Tahoma, but it does mean spending some time to look at the visual presentation of your essential data.
You belong in the “deserves further consideration” pile. Don’t make your reader work hard or look long to come to the same conclusion.