And then I discovered DNA

Tim Birkhead on the trumpet-blowing and florid fiction of the academic CV

April 17, 2008

There are some weeks when I seem to do little more than read and write references and CVs. In the never-ending quest for positions, the curriculum vitae (literally, the life story) is how we make the first sift.

What I find disconcerting is being in a position where I know the person who has written the CV and feeling that it doesn't quite match the reality. Writing a CV is about blowing one's own trumpet, but not too loudly, or too quietly - a delicate balance. I have seen both forms and, I have to say, exaggeration seems to be a singularly male attribute - sexual selection in action. This isn't an excuse, merely an observation. The CV can be the literary equivalent of a peacock's tail, but unlike the peacock's tail, it can easily be exaggerated or faked. The peahen's tail, of course, is typically more modest.

Downright dishonesty is, as far as I can tell, relatively rare. But stretching the truth is commonplace and most apparent in the overinflation of trivia. Typically, the candidate blows up a banal event into something more significant. With weasel words a five-minute informal presentation at a low-key meeting can read like a plenary paper at a prestigious international conference.

Overblowing one's CV is a risky strategy. It may work if the referee does not know the candidate, but the chances are that one or more of the referees will, and it can then be extremely damaging. The real difficulty comes when among a bunch of potential candidates are some that one knows well and others hardly at all and one has to take what the latter say at face value.

It is also important to be aware that CV styles differ markedly between disciplines. Scientists typically write bald, objective and functional CVs. Those in the arts and humanities often write something more reflective. An artist colleague asked me to check his CV and at first sight it seemed to be wonderfully erudite, full of clever words and profound thoughts. However, when I cracked the code in which the jargon-ridden personal statement was written, there wasn't a single sentence that meant anything.

My colleague wasn't a crook, and this wasn't a smokescreen, but when I told him that (as a scientist) I found it utterly incomprehensible he was shocked and said that this style was the norm. So it might be, but I couldn't help being reminded of Alan Sokal's spoof paper "Transgressing the boundaries: towards a hermeneutics of quantum gravity" published in the journal Social Text (1996). Perhaps those in the humanities can accurately decipher their colleagues' CVs, but wouldn't it be easier if they wrote in plain English?

In addition to its content, one can tell quite a lot about a candidate from the way his or her life story is laid out. The CV that is a mass of print, with tiny margins, documenting in 9pt font the minutiae of every thought the candidate has ever had is generally a bad sign - unless, of course, one is looking for a nutter. Similarly, the sparsely printed CV in Comic Sans isn't good because it fails to instil a sense of seriousness. Times Roman is safe, normal, if somewhat undistinguished, but Helvetica (especially bold) always has a whiff of fascism about it.

Having made the initial sift based on the CV, the next stage is the references, but like many academics I am sceptical about their value. Political correctness and transparency have transformed references from something useful into a reading-between-the-lines parlour game. Even a gushing reference may be designed to deceive: a PhD applicant I knew had glowing references from two eminent figures. Only later as their PhD unravelled did it become apparent that the student had had no contact whatsoever with either referee. References based on nothing other than the noble notion that one should support any student from one's own institution regardless are an ever-present threat.

The unsolicited reference is something of a rarity, but occasionally people feel that they must send a reference even when they haven't been asked. Usually, this happens when a candidate might need a bit of extra help. But not always.

In one case I remember, the candidates for an academic position in a particular department were interviewed over a couple of days and it then took a few more days to form a consensus. Just as we made our decision, we received an unsolicited reference from the head of department of one candidate we'll call Dr S.

With no hint of political correctness, the letter simply stated that under no circumstances should Dr S be offered the job, and went on to say that, indeed, Dr S should not be given a job at any university. There was no explanation and my mind raced wildly as I wondered what was so wrong about this particular candidate.

While I was reading the letter and trying to comprehend why anyone should write such a reference, the phone rang. To my horror, it was Dr S asking whether he had got the job. Luckily, perhaps, we had already decided to offer the position to another candidate.

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