Don't go to work on an egghead

March 20, 1998

Careers advisors tell Phil Baty why academics are often the worst people to guide students on how to compose CVs

Academics should become pro-active careers advisers to their students, a paper for the Department for Education and Employment recommended earlier this year, and universities must treat counselling and careers advice as seriously as teaching and research.

But the key message of the paper, Supporting Learner Autonomy, could be a "recipe for disaster", according to chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters, Roly Cockman. Cockman believes that many academics, insulated in their ivory towers, cannot write decent CVs themselves.

"Some institutions have better links with the outside world of employment than others," says Cockman, "but if the academic community is left to do its own thing, without close links with employers, it will be a disaster."

Indeed, some academics can seem almost comically bad at selling themselves when scrutinised by the careers experts and graduate recruiters.Jocelyn Bell Burnell, professor of physics at the Open University, made one of the most significant astronomical discoveries this century when she discovered pulsars 30 years ago at Cambridge University. At the bottom of page one of her 1997 CV, buried deep in a paragraph about her time at Cambridge, are the words: "discovered pulsars".

She has learnt her lesson now, she says. "Academics are getting better at helping students jazz up their CVs and write letters of application," says Bell Burnell. "CVs for academic posts are always very detailed, but I make use of the covering letter, and pull out the key achievements on a covering page."

Academics, used to applying to highly specialist positions, write exactly the kind of CVs that employers will not read, careers advisers complain. Tutors, left to their own devices, can hinder students looking for non-academic jobs. "Academics are the first in line to give advice to their tutees about writing CVs, but a lot of the advice that they give, we have to counter," says one university careers head, who thought it would be "unhelpful" to reveal his name.

"Academics should not be setting themselves up as experts," he says. "One student came to me with a CV with an incredible amount of detail about all the academic subjects, and all the grades he had received for all the course units. He told me that his brother, an academic, had told him what to write. I told him that employers would not be at all interested. Some academics are very much out of touch."

One of the problems, says Jonathan Wolff, head of Brunel University careers service, is that different jobs require very different CVs, and most undergraduates are not going for a job in academe. "CVs are an advert for an individual," says Wolff. "Someone in marketing wouldn't use the same type and style of advert for a Mars Bar as for a complex financial package. You shouldn't use a pro forma CV for all jobs. The key message for my students is always to tailor and target CVs."

It is important to remember, he says, that there are no hard and fast rules and no universal criteria. "From employer to employer, the rules change. I'd say listen to all the conflicting advice, find out what makes sense to you, and make sure you are giving the recipient a clear, at-a-glance illustration of who you are, and what your selling points are."

Soon, says the AGR's Roly Cockman, the dilemma will disappear, as employers move more and more quickly towards insisting on their own tailored application forms. "Soon the norm will be to have a special form specific to the company," he says. "And CVs will all but disappear. The forms are designed to make applicants think when they are filling them in: 'is this really the company for me?'."

The new breed of application forms will reduce inappropriate applications,and, perhaps more importantly, says Cockman, they will force applicants to lay all their cards on the table. "No one will be able to get away with saying their interests include 'socialising' and 'going to the pub'."

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