Writing a curriculum vitæ

Tags: howtos, research

Published on
« Previous post: The Power of Admitting Ignorance — Next post: The meddling middlemen of academia »

I have been giving a lot of feedback about how to write a better curriculum vitæ (CV) recently. This post is a way of structuring and disseminating my thoughts on this matter. As a start, let me briefly delineate what this post is not about: I am not discussing how to write a resume. A resume is typically only a single page long and should provide all information pertinent to a very specific job. A CV, by contrast, can be any length and usually contains all details pertinent to your professional life.

Why you need a CV

Having a CV handy is useful in a variety of situations. Even if you are not actively looking for a job, recruiters might find your CV and use it to contact you about an opportunity—and who of us does not like it when opportunity comes a-knocking? Moreover, since you control what you put in the CV, you can associate yourself with certain key words for your research, your special skills, and so on. Last, it provides a single point of entry to collect your professional activities. There is no other document or platform that provides you the same opportunity to describe your work on your terms.

The structure

The basic structure of a good CV is always the same. Make sure that the first page contains the following information:

  1. Your name and some points of contact. These could include your office address, an e-mail address, any social media handles you want a potential employer to see1, and links to services such as GitHub or Bitbucket. This section is relevant because it will tie all the account handles to you as a person, but also give me—the reader of your CV—an opportunity to check whether I got the right person. Plus, it is an excellent way to enable recruiters to find more proofs of your work.

  2. The most relevant details concerning your education or your most recent professional experience (in reverse chronological order, i.e. the most recent piece of information should be shown first). Some examples: if you are doing your master’s thesis, write that first, provide a tentative title, and your adviser. If you just started your Ph.D., write something about your topic, your school, etc. All of these details tell readers at which point you are in your career—and this might decide how the CV is being received, what kind of offers you might be getting, and so on.

    This section is also useful when you are applying for a job or a fellowship, as it gives readers details about your field of specialisation, and it also provides important information for potential contacts. Some of my friends, who did not go down the academic route, even mention that their thesis topic came up in a job interview—this is the interviewer basically handing you a freebie by picking a topic you know a lot about.

  3. A brief description of your research interests, or specialisation, or personality. Admittedly, this is not crucial, but it helps to add a few lines here. Be brief, as in My research deals with representation learning and the incorporation of domain-specific knowledge, or I am a back-end software developer with a focus on cryptographic protocols, or I am a lawyer focussing on international affairs2. You do not have to add all kinds of details here; a reader should just get the general gist of what kind of career you are having or planning to have.

This is the first page only. Now, my advice becomes more tailored towards academic careers. Having mentioned who you are and how to contact you, you now have to add the daily bread of your research. The most important items are:

  1. Grants or independent funding that you secured. This is mostly relevant when you are approaching the end of one chapter of your career, such as the transition from master’s student to Ph.D. student, or the transition from Ph.D. to postdoctoral researcher. It is rare to have any entries in such a section early on, but as you mature, it becomes increasingly important to demonstrate that you can develop your own ideas and get the funding to work on them.

  2. Publications! Again, add them in reverse chronological order so that one can immediately see the most recent ones. Depending on where you are in your career, you might want to further partition them according to the relevance of a venue. For example, you might want to put highly-competitive journal or conference publications first, followed by an individual section for workshop papers, which in turn might be followed by a preprint section. Notice that I am not saying that preprints are inherently worth less than accepted publications; you should just make it clear to your readers whether a given item was peer-reviewed or not. If you do not have a lot of publications, do not despair, and just list all of them in the same section!

    Some general tips about this part:

    • Make sure that each item is formatted correctly and gives proper credit to things like joint authorship, joint supervision etc.

    • Provide sufficient details for readers to find or identify the publication. Use the proper title, the proper venue, etc.

    • If you are one of multiple authors, highlight your own name. While typically frowned upon in professional typography, bold has become the standard way of doing this. As you advance in your career, you do not necessarily need this any more, as people will trust your publication prowess more, but in the beginning, it is really important. The same goes for highlighting any supervision you did for a paper. I underline the students I have been supervising. Again, as you mature in your career, this may not be necessary any more.

    • Refrain from providing information about the acceptance rate of a conference. Readers should either be familiar with this type of information (for example, when you are applying for a new position) or they do not care. I think mentioning these numbers is the wrong thing to do; in the worst case, it might make you look like a ‘bean-counter’ that is confused about the true purpose of doing science, i.e. disseminating knowledge and attacking the boundaries of human ignorance. Same goes for counting your publications. I do not see the appeal of stating that you have $n_c$ conference papers, $n_w$ workshop papers, etc. Zachary Lipton formulated this nicely in a witty tweet.

    • However, do put additional information about the grant acceptance rates or special mentions about your paper in the list. For example, if your paper receives a coveted spotlight presentation in a conference, mention it! There is a time and place for modesty, but you should not make your life a lot harder than it has to be.

  3. Talks. Again, feel free to further separate them into Invited Talks—where someone specifically invited you to speak to them—and Conference Talks etc. if you have a sufficient number of them. For each talk, mention the title and the venue or location. This is particularly useful when you give a similar talk multiple times in different labs, as it demonstrates that your research is well-received by the community.

    Such talks can also be useful to discuss in a job interview; I myself have been asked about some of my earlier talks, in particular the ones that have been prepared for a non-academic audience.

  4. Teaching and supervision. Provide some details about your teaching activities. For example, did you support a professor in their lectures by organising exercises? Did you maybe even give a few lectures on your own? Be specific here and add everything that demonstrates that you are capable of standing3 in front of students and talking to them about something.

    As for the supervision part: if you ever supervised or helped supervise a thesis, list it here. In this case, you were advising another person; even if that form of supervision might not be officially recognised by your home institution, it should be mentioned in your CV if it happened—remember, you are not claiming to have been the one who signs off on the thesis, but you are claiming that you are capable of supporting students in finishing a project.

  5. Service to the community. If you have been reviewing things for journals or conferences, list them. The same goes for organising a workshop, assisting in running a conference, and so on. Anything that is useful to other researchers belongs in this category.

  6. Special skills. Here you can showcase your ability to, say, operate mass spectrometry machines, or write code in Python using certain machine learning frameworks etc. Make this section as strong and specific as possible. For example, when mentioning your knowledge of a specific programming language, provide some links or some details. Do not list all programming languages you have ever heard of without at least briefly qualifying what your knowledge is here. Are you a beginner user in JavaScript? Or do you already have decades of experience under your belt?

  7. Miscellanea and references. Everything else that does not fit easily into the pre-defined categories could be listed here. If you have a blog—such as yours truly—you might want to mention it, for example. Some people also mention hobbies; I have no special preference here and leave them out most of the time.

    Last, but certainly not least, add the contact details of some references. Whom could I contact if I wanted to learn more about you? This is particularly relevant if you are just starting out in your career. You can get people to be your referees if you just ask them—no specific reason is required, and most people I know are happy to support their former students and employees.

  8. Modification date. Close your CV by mentioning when it was last updated. This makes it easier to see whether we are looking at something that is recent or something that is more than four years old. Some people also include the modification date in the header. If you are using LaTeX—and you should, but that is a different story—just use the \today command here.

The looks

How you format the CV is really not all that important. While I like minimalist styles, the CV should express your personal preferences. If you want to throw a lot of colour at readers, go forth and have fun! Same goes fro using a pre-made template. The important this is to fill the CV with quality content. You can always update and improve it, but having a CV that is done with the default settings of the moderncv package is better than not having a CV at all!

Some questions

  1. Should I include a photo or not? It depends on your geographical location. In Europe, pictures are increasingly frowned upon, and, in some cases, asking for one in the CV might even be illegal. Since I, and probably anyone else, has a lot of pictures on their accounts, I figure that it does not really matter—if someone wants to see your inherent beauty, they can do so themselves. I would rather use my CV space to list my achievements.

  2. Should I include volunteer work? Sure, why not! Bear in mind that some employers might look less charitably on some organisations than on others. However, in the spirit of this very apt xkcd comic, I would rather include them than exclude them. Not getting interviewed because your prospective employer dislikes the causes you yourself find important is probably a boon in disguise. Would you really be happy with working for such an employer anyway?

  3. Should I include links? Yes, please do! As many as you can. If I can find your great paper easily, that’s superb.

  4. Should I include software projects? Yes, of course. Anything that is useful. Even if you think your code is not good enough, trust me: no one4 is going to negatively comment on your code. Instead, the standard reaction is ‘Thanks for sharing that’.

  5. Should I include my grades? Yes, if they are good or required for a certain position. If you always graduated top of your class etc., please do include them! If your grades are mediocre, for whatever reason, and they are not specifically required, I would leave them out, probably.

    By the way: if you are worried about your grades and what they mean for your future, maybe this post by the inimitably awesome Jeff Erickson will be helpful.

I hope that these tips were useful and wish you good luck in your careers, wherever they may take you. Until next time!

  1. The discussion of whether it is useful to have any account associated with your proper name has been raging for multiple years now. I am firmly in the ‘Take control’ camp, by which I mean that if I create any account with my proper name, I assume that the general public is capable of reading it and associating it to me as a person. This is in particular relevant for services such as Twitter, where the private and the public often commingle and interact in unexpected ways. ↩︎

  2. I am making this up as a I go along, but it sounds like a cool job title. ↩︎

  3. In the current situation, this could also mean that you are prepared to talk into a microphone for prolonged periods of time. All the more power to you! ↩︎

  4. Except for the meanest and loneliest individuals on this planet, that is. ↩︎