Why academic CVs (or résumés) are distinctive

The rules governing academic CVs (short for the Latin curriculum vitae in the UK, Europe and Australasia) and often called loosely called résumés in the USA, are complex. And they are generally different from those applying to all other spheres of the job market. In particular academic CVs and résumés often look as if they are lagging decades behind those in other sectors of life — with researchers still operating with documents designed for paper printing only, set out in conservative ways and devoid of any digital content or functionality when looked at online. But are these features now overdue for change?

The exceptionalism of academic CVs

In external, ‘real life’ contexts, résumés must be

  • short — just one or two pages in American industry, for instance; apparently more men get to this than women;
  • bulleted and easy to read; again, more a male trait perhaps in the USA;
  • yet giving detailed chapter and verse on your achievements, individual and team competencies and experiences; and
  • written in a can-do, energetic and optimistic mode, overtly designed to ‘close that sale’.

By contrast, certainly in the UK and Europe, a ‘shouty’ academic CV like this is often frowned on. It may even be taken as a sign of desperation, or an indication that you have an inflated sense of your own importance. A noticeably short CV may also look suspect, either a sign that you are omitting things, or perhaps reflecting a shortage of publications or achievements — both matters where academics tend to ‘go long’. An academic CV should be

  • completely factual and objective;
  • comprehensive, covering all relevant periods of your life (although you can summarize or leave out that CheeseFactory job while in college);
  • checkable in detail. It’s a cardinal sin (and perhaps a sackable offence) to exaggerate your achieved qualifications or degrees, research experiences, contacts with famous researchers, level of involvement in teams or projects, or, still worse, publications or the publication status and prospects of work in process or under review;
  • long enough to get all this done well — say up to five or six pages for an early career researcher. But avoid page after page of ‘achievements’ that selectors will not care about, or lists of youthful, uncheckable accolades from university clubs from more than three years ago.

In academia you still have to sell yourself via your CV or résumé, but here it must simultaneously function as a physical sign that you embrace all the academic and research virtues. You want to demonstrate via your CV that you’re qualified — so lead with your educational record and degrees (give precise details of attainment), even late on in your career. Show that you are (obsessively) orientated to research and participation in academia — so time out in other kinds of jobs should be covered but doesn’t count much, unless your were doing scientific research there, or are aiming for a business school. Demonstrate too that you operate well in academic or research teams — but other kinds of teams count for little. Ideally you can also show that you have worked in high prestige departments or labs, and with (lots of) well known and well-regarded principal investigators or supervisors. Be specific and scrupulous in outlining what you did within research teams, what you contributed to co-authored work, who you actually worked with, and so on. Will your account fit exactly with what your referees say about these things? Any discrepancies here work against you, creating distrust of other claims you make.

Above all, the CV or résumé should demonstrate virtue in how clearly it is set out, how logically it is organized, and the usefulness and appropriateness of the information included. It should show that you are objective, evidence-based, scrupulous with facts and details — so no embroidering, or fuzzing up timings or roles in ways that might be tolerated (even expected or aimed off for) outside academia. And it should show that your interests and priorities are those of the department and university that you are seeking to join.

Covering letters

Along with a crystal-clear, objective CV, academic application processes typically afford an additional writing opportunity to sell yourself in print. In most academic jobs in the UK and Europe, your application needs a ‘covering letter’ (essentially a letter of application to that particular institution). The letter must always make a substantive case advocating for you to be appointed — so just a formal line or two is not enough. And while your CV can be (or can seem) general purpose, covering letters must always be job-specific, tailored to the precise position you are applying for and to the job requirements and tasks set out in the position details.

Around five out of every six covering or application letters that I’ve ever seen (quite a lot now in my career) are remarkable for making no mention at all of what the candidate can do for the department or lab. Instead the letters are structured to be ‘Lots more information about me, me, me’, often duplicating the whole CV in joined-up prose. Somewhat more rarely, the letter may set out ‘Why getting your job would be good for me, me, me’, focusing on how good it would be for the applicant’s career and well being to work for you. In other words, most young, PhDers, would-be academics and even post-docs are still very solipsistic in their application letters. They concentrate so hard on telling people about their own individual achievements and hard-won academic expertise that they appear almost to see the world as revolving around them alone. In partiuclar, they forget to show their prospective employer what on earth use they could be for the department or lab.

To counteract this immensely strong tendency, make sure that you structure your covering or application letter completely around how you can contribute to the department

  • by your research and publication efforts (usually best to lead with this), including delivering publications that really add lustre to the department’s outputs (whatever level of department or university you are applying to)
  • by teaching brilliantly the courses the department needs to get done (usually best to make this the second thing in the letter, and include specific ideas of which courses you could contribute to, or which new courses you might offer)
  • by being an efficient academic manager and good citizen for the department (as witnessed by your past track record), and
  • by being agreeable and unstinting in working within a collegial team.

Usually the head of department is a key recruiter, and they want to know overwhelmingly how good will you be for the department (not just how good will we [the department] be for your career).

In the USA, are covering letters so common? I’m not sure. An awful lot of American academics still seem to use ‘back channel’ methods for promoting their PhD students or post docs. They write letters or emails, or ring you up, to expound the virtues of their individual candidates, in ways that have generally been either formally outlawed, or are frowned on as bad HR practice, in Europe and the UK now for several decades.

Most US universities also rely less on paper early on, instead pre-screening or pre-interviewing younger potential staff members at major academic profession conferences. Certainly this is the norm for adjunct teaching or most postdoc posts. Universities can also use this personally-gathered information from pre-interview meetings to help them decide who to fly in for career track presentations and meet-the-department interviews. Here elite US universities at least are using sophisticated processes, including full paper presentations, meals and personal meeting with existing staff. These practices are far more rigorous and in-depth than most UK and European practice still — where a formal interview with a university panel still remains dominant, perhaps accompanied by a short presentation.

Why publications are still key

For any academic job, above all you want to show that you are great at research and publishing. Having the tandem is key here. Lots of academics are rather good at research and not publishing, becoming the great ‘unknown expert’ who haunts many an academic department or lab. Or they publish only in large teams or with co-authors, where someone else has always got to do the writing and submitting. Sometimes their work creeps out on very long timescales, and with many accompanying signs of pain and anguish. Or perhaps, as time goes on, their publishing now appears mainly as chapters in books edited by their mates, thus avoiding the rough and tumble of more formal peer review.

At other times, people start out early-on looking like they will become prolific publishers — because they had four years of PhD and maybe add-on post doc time to do only that one great piece, their thesis or ‘job market paper’. And, of course, in this period more senior folk also gave them lots of free and detailed guidance (perhaps even instruction) on what to do in research terms. But then as the mire of teaching, academic management, and family life swells around a researcher, and as they must make research choices increasingly on their own, often with temporary appointments and frequent changes of jobs intervening — so the flow of work can slow to a trickle, or the grant bids don’t get funded, or the articles come back too often as ‘reject without revision’.

For permanent or tenure-track jobs, especially at elite universities, the already-tenured academics and research principals who are looking at your CV or résumé will above all want to avoid appointing someone as a colleague who is an underlying non-publisher of this type, or who looks like they might just become like this. Of course, heads of department want good teachers to meet their immediate needs, but these folk must also ‘fill their slots’ in research terms, without causing the head grief from the research Dean or the university’s research committees. Your future potential colleagues want to choose someone they can work and live alongside, perhaps someone who would make a great co-author or co-researcher. But they also want someone who adds to the external academic recognition of their department or lab in terms of research accomplishments and academic reputation. For them, will appointing you help build the reputation of the workplace to which they have committed so many years of their lives? Or blur it? Or corrode it?

For some countries the norms of what a good publication record means are very definite and quite general across universities. In the UK a government audit of research requires every academic to submit four research ‘outputs’ every five years for assessment, with everything ‘starred’ against a scale from 4* (world class, outstanding; 3* internationally excellent; 2* internationally good, or nationally excellent; down to 1* nationally OK). The REF process is absurd in many ways. But it exists and by doing so it links your colleagues’ public reputation and future department funding to your adeptness at generating high quality, published research. So in the UK, when you apply for a job you should ideally have your four REF slots already covered by books or good journal articles (at the 3* or 4* level), or be clearly ‘on a roll’ and going to get the 4 slots covered in good time before the next assessment date (expires end of September 2019). Of course many established academics have no or only some 4* items, and most others have mixes of 3* and 2*, depending on the level and type of university involved. But the message here really is that your publication strategy should focus on getting to (let’s say) six items that can be starred as high as possible, a set that will generate four ‘rock solid’ publications for the kind of university and the level of job that you are aiming for. Having lots of other, not-so-hot papers counts very little here. However, be warned — the UK system may still change away from the 4 items rule, especially after extensive evidence of its having distorting impacts through university ‘gaming’.

In Australia one government system (ERA) evaluates academic outputs for ranking purposes, and another system (HERDIQ) counts publications (especially the one third best ones) so as to allocate government resourcing. In this system you are ideally internationally published and cited (hard to do in one-country applied research), and prolific — so having lots of items matters more.

By contrast, in the USA and most of the ‘liberalized’ European university systems, publication norms are set university by university. They respond to the institution’s current status and ambitions to move up the research and citations rankings, which form a key part of the now omni-present overall university ranking tables. Some American universities may still value an academic record of slower-but-more-fundamental work, or more prestigious research, placing a lot of emphasis on ‘promise’ and being able to ‘invest’ for longer term impact. But often these are elite universities, and here too there are demanding internal norms for publication. This is especially true if you are to make the transition from a now almost inevitable temporary postdoc or ‘adjunct teacher’ status to the much rarer career-track appointments. Once you are on the career pathway, gaining tenure also depends on accumulating good quality publications.

So publication achievements, and above all your likely publication prospects, will only not be the absolutely key determinants of your getting an academic job in

  • teaching-only universities, and
  • the few remaining non-liberalized university regimes — like Spain, France and Italy — where professorial patronage and connections to senior folk still seem to rule the roost for career progression.

I’d welcome comments, critiques or alternative advice suggestions via email to p.dunleavy@lse.ac.uk or via my Twitter account @Write4Research.

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