Just one more thing ..

Need to decipher a CV? Channel your inner detective, says Sally Feldman

August 5, 2010

In his new novel, And Then There Was No One, Gilbert Adair produces a perfect pastiche of a Sherlock Holmes story. As always, the great detective's genius lies in the dissection of minutiae. "Instead of searching for major monstrosities," he tells his sidekick Watson, "you should confine yourself, as I do, to minor oddities." And in this case the clue to the mystery, as in so many classic crime stories, is not so much something discovered as something missing. The body has been found in a room that was never occupied and never cleaned. Yet there was no dust and therefore no footprints. It's that very absence of dust that leads Holmes to uncover the identity of the murderer.

And the art of detecting, of observing details, discerning discrepancies, noticing absences, is exactly what you have to do when assessing applications for jobs. Why has this candidate listed all the grades of his O levels but not those of his two A levels? Why might a would-be fashion lecturer refer to a degree but not name the subject? And if someone has held lecturing posts in three universities why should only the earliest be given as a reference?

You may not have to be Inspector Maigret to work out that the first candidate flunked his A levels, that the second was hoping not to have to admit that her degree was not in fashion but geography, or that the third had not flourished in his most recent jobs. But if you're going to be able to spot some of the more elaborate deceptions of contemporary job-seekers you'll need to adopt a forensic approach to shortlisting.

Lord Peter Wimsey, for example, would have no trouble discounting the red herrings that appear repeatedly on lists of academic credentials. Frowning over your shoulder at the magic letters PhD, he'd direct you to those easy-to-miss qualifiers - always in smaller print, often squirrelled away in brackets - such as "due to complete 2012", "registered for" or even "hoping to enrol".

Beware, too, the list of publications. It's no good getting excited about jackpot research excellence framework points when you come across a candidate who claims to have written three books. Any aristocratic sleuth worth his salt would pick up such telltale accompanying phrases as "seeking publisher", "in press" or "under consideration".

Neither would Hercule Poirot need all of those little grey cells to notice a mysterious gap in a CV - especially like the one I encountered only last week, which appeared to leave out an entire decade. Even a Bow Street runner would see through this as a clumsy attempt to disguise some shameful episode, most likely a distinctly non-academic term spent at Her Majesty's pleasure.

But in that all-important "statement of intent", the downfall of so many would-be safe-breakers, a more literary sensibility is useful - that of Adam Dalgliesh, say, who is not only a top police detective but also a poet. P.D. James' cultured copper would be more than alert to infelicities of spelling and grammar: the applicant who claims to be an experienced "sub-edditor" or the one who suggests "its" obvious that he has a passion for grammar. He'd also warn you off those who boast of their suitability for the job but fail even to mention that most crucial aspect of it: the students. And if, like Dalgliesh, you're alive to the subtleties of language, you'll be wary of the writer who begins each paragraph with "I" - as off-putting as a love letter confined only to the attributes of the seducer, with no mention of what he can do for the beloved.

Some candidates don't tell you enough; others tell you far too much. This is a tried and tested ruse of the villain, alluded to in Adair's novel when his heroine quotes G.K. Chesterton's clerical gumshoe. "Where does a wise man hide a leaf? In the forest," declares Father Brown. He then goes on: "But what does he do if there is no forest? He grows a forest to hide it in." In Adair's story, the motive for murder is obscured by a false trail on the internet. Eager job applicants will disguise their threadbare credentials, their leaf, in a forest of supporting paperwork. They'll list conferences which, on closer inspection, show only that the candidate has turned up at them, rather than actually contributed. A journalist may say she's written for 10 local newspapers, all five broadsheets and several websites - without detailing how much or how often or even when. Americans, in particular, will send an elaborate-looking press release including a photograph of their usually much younger self, fleshed out with testimonials boasting more glowing adjectives than a university mission statement.

You might also take advice from Edgar Allan Poe's celebrated detective Monsieur Dupin, who beat the police to solving the crime in The Purloined Letter by simply looking for the missing object in the most obvious place. Translated into the world of recruitment, this often applies to the internal candidate. You're so keen to inject fresh blood or to steal an ace striker from a rival faculty that you don't notice that the perfect answer is sitting nervously before you and has been all along.

Pacing those mean academic streets, I've taken tips from all of these masters of the genre. But most of all, I try to emulate the style of Stieg Larsson's crime-busting heroine Lisbeth Salander with her gothic demeanour, eyebrow studs, dragon tattoo and digital genius. If she suspects wrongdoing she'll kick out; if cornered, she'll kill - and, best of all, she has an uncanny knack of always being right.

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