Hello, I’m Dr Andrew Holmes and I’m a research staff developer on Prosper based at the University of Liverpool. In this video, we’ll explore the essentials of academic and non-academic CVs.
To start with, I’d like you to take a moment to reflect on your academic CV, the one you used to apply for your current role or that you uploaded as part of your most recent grant application. How many pages is it? Do you know if your postdoc knows what a traditional academic CV looks like? Have you ever shown your postdoc your CV?
Academic CVs tend to be much more exhaustive and detailed than a CV you would use beyond academia. That’s why we’re characterising the academic CV as something like a library or inventory, and the result is that an academic CV can be as long as needed. Your academic CV may contain many, all or potentially more of the subsections on the right here. The most important will be education, research employment, publications and funding. References are almost always included in an academic CV, but never in a non-academic CV.
When we asked a group of postdocs about the length of their CVs, 50 per cent of them reported having a two-page CV. Now, there will be differences based on number of years as a postdoc and discipline, but in speaking with the postdocs, many simply weren’t aware that they were allowed to go over two pages. The postdoc quoted on the right didn’t find out until after their first postdoc position and was left wondering how many academic job applications they made that were rejected purely at the CV stage because of this one thing.
In contrast to the postdocs, when we spoke with a small group of PIs and managers of researchers, none of them had a CV that was only two pages long and 44 per cent of them had a CV that was 15 pages or longer. Applying for a lectureship with a two-page CV isn’t going to impress someone whose CV is ten times that long, and postdocs need to be aware of what traditional academic CVs look like if they’re to stand a chance of an academic career. This leads us to some fairly easy fixes.
Talk to your postdoc about their CV. Do they know what a traditional academic CV looks like? Send them yours to have a look at. If you’ve time, then you could even offer to read and comment on their CV. What stands out? What needs strengthening? Is there anything your postdoc could do in their current role to fill the gaps? We’ll return to academic CVs a bit later, but let’s now turn to non-academic CVs as they are a very different beast entirely.
If the academic CV is a library holding all your achievements, a non-academic CV is a curated window display of your relevant achievements. You want to be piquing your potential employer’s interest enough that they’ll call you for interview. The CV beyond academia is your ticket to the interview. Dolan’s 2017 paper points out that CVs serve three purposes.
Firstly, as a marketing tool to get you to an interview. Secondly, as a way to strategically direct an interview by showing how you map against the job description. The implications of the second purpose means that CVs should be mapped against the job description even more so than with academic CVs.
Assistant Professor Tina Persson is the CEO of Passage2Pro, a careers coaching company for people with PhDs, as well as the author of the ‘PhD Career Coaching Guide’ and a host of various PhD careers podcasts. When it comes to CVs, Professor Persson recommends that postdocs highlight key words and phrases in job adverts to help ensure their CVs are laser focussed on the job that they’re applying for. Here she’s colour-coded different aspects of the job advert.
For example, yellow includes transferable skills, whilst red is essential things that the applicant may have indirect experience of. Just going through the highlighting process can help an applicant better understand what the employer is looking for. The third purpose of a CV is a reminder to the employer after the interview during the decision-making process.
Dolan also points out that CVs should convey enough information clearly enough to impress following a ten-second scan. Recruitment takes many forms, and this won’t be the case in all roles across all sectors, but recruiters dealing with hundreds of applications for a job will be doing initial screenings very quickly.
Professional careers company Ladders conducted a study in 2018 with recruiters and found that the average initial screening of a CV clocked in at just 7.4 seconds. To make things worse, a CV might initially be scanned by software looking for keywords. Whilst all this may sound bad, knowing how CVs might be treated can allow postdocs to design their CVs to succeed.
We’re not going to go into a huge amount of detail of what a non-academic CV should look like; there are plenty of templates available online for postdocs to download or use as inspiration. It’s good to know, though, that there are local and industry expectations, so it’s worth a quick web search when applying in a different sector or a different country.
Tina Persson has some brief tips for non-academic CVs. Style is just as important as content and blank space is a good thing. CVs should be easy to read and scan. Postdocs can make use of relevant sections, headings, a headline and a summary. Numbers and an online presence can be used effectively. Above all, the CV should communicate the applicant’s value clearly.
Robert Dolan recommends working to ensure that the four or five things you want an employer to know about you are crystal clear from an initial read. As Ruth Winden, careers with research consultant at the University of Leeds and founder and CEO of Careers Enhanced Limited, points out, a non-academic CV should lead with what you offer, demonstrating that you are the solution to the organisation’s need. Rather than creating something from scratch, some postdocs might prefer putting their information into a database and using that to generate a CV automatically.
Europass is an online way of doing this with a standardised CV format for use across the EU. Or there’s also a way of generating a CV using R if your postdoc is good with that software. If your postdoc starts making applications beyond academia, offer to read their CVs. Are they targeting the job advert and what four or five things stand out to you? If your postdoc is looking to create a non-academic CV, then you can also signpost them to relevant information sources.
The Prosper portal has an entire page devoted to non-academic CVs with plenty of resources for your postdoc to refer to. Knowing where to point postdocs to in your organisation can also be invaluable. Whilst many university careers services don’t cater specifically to postdocs, they will have resources and support for non-academic CVs.
You may also know of someone in your own network who works in the same field your postdoc is interested in moving into. Would they be willing to spare a few minutes looking at your postdoc CV? An important consideration for a CV beyond academia is the target audience. Academic outputs and achievements may be impressive to other academics, but they may not be as clear to non-academics.
Take publications, for example, they’re currently the lifeblood of the higher education environment, the most desired evidence of academic achievement, but beyond academia, their value is less certain and a long publication list in a two-page CV isn’t using the limited space effectively. When we asked postdocs how they felt about their publications, the majority of the responses were that the publications made them feel proud, successful, accomplished, authoritative and skilled. For many, the idea of removing publications from a CV is a daunting and uncomfortable process.
When we asked academic Twitter how they felt about removing their publications from their CVs, we got a number of responses, including this one from former chemistry postdoc Dan Holden, who struggled to remove his publications until he realised that they were just muddying the message that his CV was trying to get across, how well that he could do the job he was applying for.
Alison Moulds was a postdoc on the Diseases of Modern Life Project and talks about repurposing rather than completely removing academic achievements, distilling them to the skills rather than the specific content. A long list of publications becomes a bullet point mentioning being published in a range of academic and other journals.
Shona Jones, a former pharmacology postdoc, points out that a CV would look different depending on the job. For a job in technology transfer, publications wouldn’t strengthen a CV, but experience in drafting patents would. As Alison Moulds mentioned, distilling academic outputs to the skills that lie behind them can be crucial in convincing an employer of the value a postdoc can bring. All the content of a non-academic CV should be informed by a postdoc’s skills, mapping them against the job requirements and clearly demonstrating this alignment in the CV.
Skills can go into a CV’s headline, summary, skills lists, and within the descriptive text and bullet points throughout. These examples from Tina Persson show CVs with dedicated skills lists. What’s more, in their experience sections, they’re also highlighting their skills. In the example on the left, the applicant is clearly highlighting phrases like ‘market research’ and ‘project management’, whilst on the right they’ve got phrases including ‘deal structuring’ and ‘value creation’. For each of those listed skills, the applicants should already have examples and evidence prepared to back up their claims in an interview.
Being able to provide engaging examples of how you’ve used a skill or achieved something is an important skill in its own right. Everyone remembers a good story and whilst we often think of techniques like the STAR method as being important for interviews, they’re also great for CVs, as well. The PAR and STAR techniques are useful methods for demonstrating value, setting a scene and showing how your actions solved a problem or improved a situation.
PAR is problem, action and result, while STAR is situation, task, action and result. A postdoc could use these approaches to highlight key achievements in a single bullet point. For example, ‘successfully raised 3.5 million to tackle the UK’s postdoc careers crisis’, or they could use the technique across multiple bullet points as in this example. ‘Used my role as a home insurance agent to identify customer turnover. Developed a digital survey to collect data from existing customers. Worked with agency president to lead a new customer service initiative.’
Or they could even use storytelling skills in a paragraph of text like this where the applicant briefly describes the situation they were faced with, students performing poorly, what they did to address the problem, established classroom goals and routines, and what the impact of those actions were, improved student performance, and, finally, the wider impact, happier students and happier parents. If your postdoc is applying for jobs beyond academia, then you might want to help them get over any reluctance to remove or repurpose academic outputs such as publication lists from their CVs.
Instead, help them to identify their relevant skills and achievements that lie behind those outputs which are more important to highlight on their non-academic CV. Regardless of their career decisions, your postdoc may benefit from practising PAR and STAR storytelling techniques about their current role and skills. You could ask them to write STAR stories about the five things they’re most proud of having achieved in their current role or suggest skills that they could write about. Having a record of bite-sized stories like this to refer back to will help them whatever their next step brings.
Creating a non-academic two-page CV is great practice at highlighting experiences and skills and is beneficial for postdocs looking for a career in academia or beyond. No CV, whether academic or not tells the full picture of a candidate’s attributes and abilities. Traditional academic CVs are particularly bad at this despite their exhaustive lengths. They’re a little like CV icebergs, a few very visible elements such as publications and grants, but the bulk of what researchers do are hidden beneath the surface, invisible to the viewer. This is important when thinking about non-academic CVs.
A lot of those hidden skills and experiences need to be brought out more, but it’s also a fundamental issue with traditional academic CVs that creates many biases and has a negative impact on the culture of higher education. These negative implications about traditional academic CVs haven’t gone unnoticed. Funders and institutions are beginning to make moves towards narrative CVs that allow academics to evidence a wider range of activities and contributions. The Royal Society produced its résumé for researchers in 2019 and at the end of 2021, UKRI followed suit with its résumé for research and innovation, which is based on the Royal Society’s format and is being used with an increasing frequency in funding calls.
As an example, these are the sections of the Royal Society’s résumé for researchers, providing space to showcase how a researcher has contributed to the generation of knowledge, to the development of individuals, how they’ve contributed to the wider research community and to broader society, as well as providing space to explain their values and motivations and other events or activities that may have affected their career progression, including career breaks and volunteering activities. These sections don’t detract from or remove traditional academic outputs such as publications; they just enable researchers to provide more context and details about everything else they do, as well.
On this slide are a couple of examples from the 2021 Luxembourg National Research Fund, which used a narrative CV approach. In their quotes you’ll see that the researchers demonstrate where they’ve contributed to society through charity clubs and how they’ve supported the development of individuals through developing their own leadership and management skills and shown how they’ve put their skills into practice. Narrative academic CVs are still being refined and whilst they avoid some of the problems with traditional academic CVs, they aren’t perfect. There’s little training around assessing narrative CVs and they may provide an advantage for those for whom English is their first language or those who have been trained to write well.
Research is continuing into narrative academic CVs to ensure that they don’t unintentionally introduce biases. Of those researchers who have used the narrative from the Luxembourg National Research Fund, nearly 60 per cent felt it allowed their achievements as researchers to be demonstrated and valued, while only 22 per cent disagreed. Narrative CVs also provide PIs and managers of researchers with the opportunity to evidence the work they do to support the career development of researchers. Funders recognise that a lot of academic time is spent mentoring and developing individuals and that research is about people working together and therefore care of those people is crucial. Does your postdoc know about narrative CVs? If they intend to stay in academia, then they’re likely to encounter them in the future, and the skills involved in crafting a strong narrative CV build upon the simple storytelling techniques mentioned earlier.
You could suggest that they read up on narrative CVs to then discuss with you or with other members of your group or department. You could also ask them to write a narrative CV using the Royal Society’s résumé for researchers template and then to discuss it with them.
Are there achievements or skills you’ve witnessed through working with them that they’ve missed from their CV? How did they find writing a narrative CV? Can they see any advantages or disadvantages in the format? Thank you for watching this video on academic and non-academic CVs.
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