Making a CV (curriculum vitae)

Introduction

This page is aimed mostly at people who have not yet put together a CV (or have not put together one they are happy with). Thus, it's mostly directed at junior scientists, although hopefully the principles are applicable for people at many different levels.

Who is your audience?

The biggest single piece of advice is to write with your audience in mind. For a CV (as opposed to a resume, biographical sketch, etc.) this is typically an academic. So, as much as possible, you want to gear your CV towards what the reader will find useful. What will they want to know? What are they expecting? All of the more specific advice below acts in support of communicating effectively with your audience.

You may find yourself communicating with different audiences, which may mean having multiple CVs/resumes. For example, if you are a musician and a scientist, you will almost certainly not use the same CV/resume to apply for an orchestral audition as you would to apply to graduate school in neuroscience. If you wear multiple hats, you may want to maintain multiple CVs/resumes.

What are you communicating?

Curriculum vitae is a Latin phrase which can loosely be translated as "the course of my life". For most academics, a CV conveys your academic background, interests, and activities. This is probably the primary thing most people think about communicating in a CV, and for good reason.

However, there are other things that you communicate with your CV. Are you organized? A critical thinker? Do you pay attention to detail? These levels are especially important for younger people in the field. For example, if you are an undergraduate student looking to volunteer in my lab, I will not be expecting to see research papers on your CV. However, I will notice if your headings are lined up, if you have misspelled words, etc. This is not always conscious (although for me it often is), but can certainly affect how your CV is perceived.

General advice

  • Look at as many examples as you can from relevant fields. Are you applying to work in someone's lab, department, or office? Look at their CV and the CVs of their collaborators. Thinking about law school? Look at CVs of lawyers. Medical school? Medical doctors. Art history? Art historians. You get the idea. Since graduate school I have kept a folder of other people's CVs that I add to every now and then. It's helpful to get a sense of what things might vary from person to person, and what is consistent, as well as what works and what doesn't. Of course, inspiration can come from many places, and it's good to look at people from other fields for ideas. But if you have never seen something on a CV of someone in your field, you probably don't want to include it.
  • Pay attention to aesthetics. Most scientists don't have training in typography or graphic design. However, if you look at 50 CVs, you will probably be able to pick out 5–10 that are more pleasing, and 5–10 that are less pleasing. Try to pay attention to what works and what doesn't. At a mimum, this usually involves things like good organization, use of white space (not being too crowded), using a legible font, and aligning things consistently. Make sure that your CV looks good both displayed on the screen and printed out.
  • Make sure everything is spelled correctly. This should be obvious, but is still worth saying. Proofread, proofread, proofread, and then make sure to give it to someone else to look over (preferably the most nitpicky person you know).
  • Don't be too creative. For some jobs, no doubt having a unique-looking CV is a bonus. In most of academia, people reading your CV typically want to get at the basic information you have. And, equally importantly, one thing you communicate by having a good CV is that you understand what a CV is supposed to be. Most of the time having a well-organized and nicely presented "boring" CV will  earn you more points than trying to be wildly creative. (Being a little bit creative, of course, is fine—looking at what other people do is a great way to understand the limits of what is creative but still considered a professional CV.)
  • Send your CV as a PDF, with your name in the filename. This seems to be the best balance of your CV being readable by nearly anyone (e.g. Microsoft Word is not required) and preserving your formatting. And naming your CV something other than "CV.pdf" is very helpful when the person receiving it probably has more than one CV to look at.
  • Update your CV regularly. Depending on how professionaly active you are, this need not be often, but at a minimum update when you have new information that could be added. Regular updates ensure that you always have a current copy if you need one, and also gives you a chance to think about other activities which could potentially be added (for example, being co-captain of your intramural lacrosse team isn't science, but shows initiative, organization, and leadership—add it!).
  • Get feedback from others. This can be both from people in your field and people not in your field—they may well have complementary suggestions. You will have to use some wisdom in deciding which advice to take and which to leave, but in general, the more feedback you get the better.

Organization

A typical organization for the CV of a scientific academic is:

  • Name and contact information
  • Education
  • Employment/positions (see below)
  • Honors/awards
  • Research
  • Other (service, leadership, teaching/mentoring)

This will need to be adjusted depending on whether you have fewer or greater number of items and categories, your personal preferences, and various institutional traditions or standards.

These categories will also change depending on your experience. For established scientists, "research" will include publications, grants, and conference presentations. For undergraduate and graduate students before they have publications, this will likely instead include a description of any lab or research experience they have (e.g., lab rotations, volunteering, summer positions, etc.). 

What employment to include on a CV can vary a lot based on a person's situation. In general, once you have started graduate school, it is most common to not include any additional jobs that aren't relevant to your academic career. An exception may be if you take a break from academia and return, it is helpful to have this time noted somewhere. For undergraduates, however, this section is helpful, as it conveys at least some sense of past responsibility and initiative.

Using the organization of your CV to organize your career

To a certain degree, I have found it helpful to think about sections on my CV as reflecting different facets of my life as a scientist. I have my CV divided into three superordinate sections: research, teaching, and service. Although most of my time is spent in the "research" end of things, this organization helps me be intentional about finding activities that contribute to the service and teaching aspects of science. 

If you don't have any research experience yet, then thinking this way may help motivate you to find a summer research position (paid or volunteer). This "gives you something to write down"—but that's only important because it reflects a relevant experience you now have.

Length

If you have a shorter CV (which is common for undergraduate or early graduate student scientists), fitting it on one page is fine (most of the undergraduate CVs I see are one page). However, in academia, there are no bonus points for brevity. Take all the space you need to convey the information—academics are used to skimming very long CVs and won't bat an eyelash if you go onto two (or—gasp!—three!) pages.

Specific advice for undergraduates

  • CVs do not typically include high school education or experience. As an undergraduate student, however, you will probably want to include these, as it is more recent and more relevant. Your high school would simply go with your undergraduate information under "education".
  • Omit sections that aren't (yet) applicable. If you don't have any research experience yet, that's fine (we all started somewhere)—just leave it off.
  • The most experience you have may well be from various forms of employment that don't have anything to do with research. That's also fine; I would typically put your employment in place of the "research" section (or if you have research experience, immediately following). It may also be helpful to include a phrase or two about your duties at a job, something that is common for resumes but not typically done on CVs. However, when I am reading the CV of someone without research experience, I find it helpful to know what their job entailed. Bonus points for pointing out the part of your job that may have involved supervision, organization, initiative, etc. (your particular job probably doesn't matter much, but I will appreciate the fact that you are thinking about what qualities it reflects).
  • DO put on extracurricular activities, including music, athletics, arts, and so on. Note if you earned any special distinction (leadership position, competitions entered or won, etc.). Non-academic activities help give readers a better sense of who you are, and frequently demonstrate qualities that are important in an academic or research position (such as teamwork, persistence, commitment).

Other resources

There are a lot of other examples and suggestions out there. Just remember that norms and standards differ by fields, so take all advice (including mine) with a grain of salt, and be sure to write for your audience.