Research intelligence: how to write a compelling narrative CV

With ‘storytelling’ CVs becoming crucial in hiring and funding decisions, Jack Grove explores how academics can craft compelling research statements

August 3, 2021
Source: Getty

Securing a first-authored paper in Nature, Cell or another top-ranked journal was once seen as a sure-fire way to land a permanent job or grant funding.

But things are changing, it seems, with some universities and funding agencies instead asking applicants to submit narrative CVs that give a more rounded picture of their research achievements and activities.

In April, UK Research and Innovation announced it would adopt an “inclusive, single format for CVs” that will allow researchers to present not only their research outputs but also their contribution to the “wider research and innovation community”, including supporting the research of others. The pilot – part of efforts to reduce research bureaucracy − is based on the Royal Society’s Résumé for Researchers scheme, in which individuals are asked to summarise their career in a four-part narrative totalling no more than 1,000 words.

But the growing use of these statements is somewhat controversial. “We want researchers to optimise themselves for doing the best science, not for writing the best story,” said a recent open letter from 171 Dutch academics bemoaning this “time-consuming format”, which is used by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) for reviewing grant applications and has replaced the “objective information about publications, citations [and] lectures”, including journal impact factors.

Without these well-understood measures of performance, committee members have “no idea how to compare candidates”, while international reviewers “sometimes simply refuse to review the narrative”, the letter added.

The shift towards narrative CVs is, on the other hand, being welcomed by many academics who have long been worried that excellence was increasingly being viewed in publication terms only, ignoring other worthy contributions to research and institutional life.

“A full list of publications is tedious to read,” said Robert MacIntosh, head of Heriot-Watt University’s School of Social Sciences in Edinburgh. Rather than cite every paper for a résumé, he suggests that researchers select just a handful but set out how each “might inform change, innovation or improvement beyond academia”.

“Having to say succinctly what your research interests are, why they should matter to anyone beyond your academic community and what you’ve learned from your career-long enquiry is a challenge that we should embrace,” explained Professor MacIntosh, adding that “funders, research partners, potential students and future employers might all be more interested in a compelling five-minute read than the accumulated detritus of peer-reviewed publications”.

“Reversing the narrative form” so that a CV establishes “what you’ve found and how it informs practice approach” could be equally applied to peer-reviewed publications, he added.

In the Royal Society’s template for its Résumé for Researchers, individuals are asked to provide a personal statement about their “overarching goals and motivation” and to reflect on four topics: how they have contributed to the generation of knowledge; to the development of individuals; to the wider research community; and to broader society.

So how should researchers approach these sections to avoid their becoming dull? “To stand out and catch the attention of the reader, I recommend storytelling,” said Alexia Youknovsky, chief executive of the Paris-based science communication consultancy Agent Majeur.

“For each module, the idea is to focus on one or two striking examples to highlight the greatest achievements, skills and results,” advised Ms Youknovsky, a former chemical engineer whose book, Sell Your Research, was published last year. The trick is “to avoid appearing too self-centred” by “balancing this personal narrative with mentioning your team and beneficiaries”, she added.

“Unlike traditional CVs, research statements allow researchers to show ‘who they are’ in addition to ‘what they did’,” she explained.

“It comes down to answering questions like: ‘Why did you pursue a career in research?’ or ‘What motivates you when you go to work?’ Scientists should clearly talk about themselves, their personality and explain what drives them,” added Ms Youknovsky, who admits that this type of application can feel somewhat forced given the “impersonal type of writing” normally used by scholars.

Keeping sentences brief can ensure that the CV’s central message remains memorable, while “alternating short and long sentences will give rhythm to the text”, added Ms Youknovsky. If possible, use the active voice as it is the “most direct and dynamic way of presenting the information”, she said.

That sense of an authentic voice can be achieved by discussing the content of each section with a friend and then transcribing the conversation. And although some scholars may baulk at the idea of centring research in an emotional, even heartfelt, personal story, Ms Youknovsky preferred to think of it another way: “Using vocabulary to describe emotions makes it possible to connect with the audience. Simply put, you should share your passion.”

And for all the criticism of such initiatives, Ms Youknovsky believes they are long overdue, pointing out that it was “rather difficult for researchers to highlight public engagement activities until now”.

“A scientist’s worth can’t be judged solely through the number of publications or the impact factor of the journals in which the work was published,” she said.


Print headline: Turn a CV into a compelling tale

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Related universities