The Oxford English Dictionary defines curriculum vitae as ‘a brief account of a person’s education, qualifications, and previous occupations’. The literal translation of the phrase from Latin is ‘the course of your life’.
‘Of these two descriptions, I personally prefer the latter, as I believe a really great CV not only summarises your achievements to date, but also conveys your future potential and aspirations. So how do you get a fantastic CV? There is no simple answer, but I’ve formulated eight tips that I’ve found helpful in my career so far.
THINK ABOUT THE BIG PICTURE
What impact do you want your life to have? What motivates you? What are you passionate about? However daunting, finding answers to these questions is essential. Only when you have passion for your subject can you excel in your chosen field. I have found it very useful to write down my ‘big picture aims’ and refer back to these at various points in my career. It has helped me to be authentic, to manage my time and to maintain motivation. Granted, some of my overarching aims have changed and developed, but the core values remain the same.
KEEP YOUR EYE ON A PRIZE
So, now you have a clear vision of the mark you wish to make, where do you start? Only the most confident (or foolhardy?) are not overwhelmed by such lofty aims.
Find an intermediate and achievable goal. Most of us can imagine where we would like to be in 5 years’ time. Perhaps it is to have a personal fellowship or a lecturer/senior lecturer position. Or maybe it’s to have a career in science policy/communication or in industry. Whatever your aim, now is the time to work out what your future employer/grant panel would find desirable on your CV. That way you have 5 years to work on it.
Go on a fact-finding mission: phone grant advisory panels, read the application forms, speak to people who have your ideal job, seek advice from mentors, and put together a game plan. Make sure you can write something in each box of the application form. Find the gaps that are present at the moment and decide how best to fill them. Get insider information and see things from the other side: review papers, give feedback to students, sit in on grant panels. This will give you an understanding of the selection process that will be invaluable for your own applications.
REMEMBER THE BASICS
At a minimum, you will need to meet the essential criteria for any application. Without these, it is pointless working hard on desirable criteria. Ensure you have all the requirements. If not, incorporate these aims into an annual review of professional development in your current job. If you do not have a formalised review at your institution, ask for one with your line manager. Most employers support professional development; take advantage of courses/online resources to enhance your CV.
PUBLISH OR PERISH?
Most academic application forms will ask for a list of publications. If you have seven papers in Nature then list them but, if you don’t, there is no need to panic.
There is no denying that publication is necessary to increase the visibility and validity of your work. It is important to show you can finish work and have it stand up to peer review. Be a finisher − finished is better than perfect – and in academia this means publish. However, the impact factor of the journal is less important.
Perhaps this job/fellowship/grant will be the one that generates novel scientific data and leads to a quality, high impact publication. Not having a stellar publication is seldom the downfall of an applicant – usually much more importance is placed on potential.
First author papers are great; they show that you can drive a project, write scientifically and deal with the whole publication process. Non-first author papers are desirable too – you need to show you can collaborate. Remember the African proverb ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together’.
Once the essential criteria are in the bag, work on desirable CV items. The advice of an internal and/or external mentor is invaluable. There are many formal schemes that can help form these relationships; use them if you feel you lack good mentors.
Apply for small local grants and starter grants. This is great practice for larger applications and shows you have the motivation, organisation and resilience to deal with the grant application process.
Get your work and name out there. Present at local, national and international conferences and have a professional presence online. Web pages, ORCID iD (www.orcid.org) and sites like ResearchGate (www.researchgate.net) are considered extensions to your CV. Google your name: the person reading your CV certainly will.
Network well (there are courses on how to do this) and take part in public engagement. Funders are big on public engagement, so employers are too. The lay summary on grant applications is often what makes or breaks an application, particularly funding from charities. If you can clearly communicate your work to the public, you are an attractive employee/grant recipient.
Embrace your imposter syndrome. We are trained to question and apply scientific rigour in our work, so we will naturally do this to ourselves. Do not let imposter syndrome hold you back. Apply for prizes, don’t be scared of failure and enjoy the successes. There are plenty of prizes out there, especially for early career researchers, and they will form the icing on your CV cake.
FORTUNE FAVOURS THE BRAVE
The best moments in my career have usually been the ones I have feared the most. Go outside your comfort zone. Push the boundaries. Move laboratories, institutions, countries and/or areas of interest. Learn a new technique or collaborate outside biomedical science. This is when you learn and develop, and this is very clear and very attractive on a CV.
No one wants to work with someone who is difficult. Collaborate to help drive science forward. An attractive part of obtaining senior positions is involvement in the development of the next generation. Teach, mentor and develop your team and colleagues. Don’t kick the ladder behind you. These skills have traditionally been undervalued, but are now high on the priority list on a CV. Make sure you have them, for your CV and for your conscience.
MAKE IT CLEAR
Take time to ensure your CV layout and presentation are professional, clear and accurate. Follow the format requested. Eliminate errors in spelling and grammar. Make sure there are no rogue apostrophes (it is GCSEs, not GCSE’s), eliminate Americanisms (unless you are applying there) and utilise spell checking.
A flawless CV will show you have attention to detail: an essential quality in a scientist. Be concise. Be more Orwell: ‘Never use a long word where a short one will do’ and ‘If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out’.
Succinctly show you are the best candidate for the position. If asked for a cover letter, use this to show what attributes you can bring to this specific position. Align this with the institution’s mission statements. Do not just rehash your CV.
Finally, swallow your embarrassment, silence your imposter syndrome and get feedback. Ask your mentors, a trusted colleague and an intelligent, non-scientific family member/friend to read and critique your CV. After all, feedback is the food of champions.
Jacqueline Maybin, Senior Research Fellow and Honorary Consultant Gynaecologist, MRC Centre for Reproductive Health, University of Edinburgh