Keep your children and hobbies to yourself

June 25, 2004

Don't clutter your CV with irrelevant detail: keep it clear, brief and - most important - honest, says Susan Bassnett.

It's curious how many academics have trouble presenting themselves and their work on paper. Despite all the writing we must do (job and funding applications, appraisal forms, documentation for promotion), there seems to be a lot of uncertainty about how to construct a curriculum vitae. What is even more curious is that there is so much guidance around about how to write one. Yet week after week, I read CVs that do the writers no favours.

So on the assumption that perhaps what is needed is some guidance on what not to do, here is a list of some the most common and recurrent failings.

The biggest problem is lack of clarity. People either provide too much detail or omit crucial points. When constructing a CV, think about what it is for: it should provide a clear account of where you are, what you have achieved, what you are doing now and where you are moving next in your research.

Besides this factual detail, which should be laid out clearly, it is becoming standard practice to provide a short (no more than one side of A4 maximum!) personal statement. This should be a frank self-assessment of your skills and strengths, not a hymn of self-adulation. Phrases such as "my ground-breaking, internationally acclaimed bestselling book" will not win you many friends. Stating that you are a good communicator and enjoy working in teams will.

What does not need to go in? The names of your children, for a start, and your list of hobbies. Do people assessing your ability to manage a research project need to know about Tamsin (14) and Tilly (6), and do they need to know what kind of music you like? List a part-time, temporary job only if it is relevant and can help your case.

Also, I've never understood the very British habit of listing subjects and grades of examinations taken at age 16. If you are a 50-year-old senior lecturer with a PhD and a book to your name, why still list your GCSE results? Stick to academic qualifications and set your schooldays behind you.

Try to be sensible about the publications you list. I have seen CVs that list ten-line programme notes as publications, even one that listed a letter published in a broadsheet newspaper. Such overkill is counterproductive. To get a good sense of what is important, list your publications under headings: books, articles in refereed journals, chapters, conference proceedings, review articles, reviews, entries in reference works, working papers, web publications and so on.

Increasingly, people who have to wade through pages of trivia want short CVs. Create a complete CV first, then produce a brief version listing major achievements and publications. The short one is easier to read and can be sent out in the first instance.

One size does not fit all. You need to work at a CV. It needs constant updating, and it needs to be tailored to fit each purpose. You need to take special care with anything you list as "forthcoming". Make sure you explain what you mean: have you had page proofs, if so give page numbers; have you signed a contract, or is this just a gleam in your eye? Nobody can get away with an unsubstantiated use of this term these days, so don't try.

It may seem obvious, but always be truthful. If you are co-author, state the percentage of your authorship. List your own name before that of your co-authors only if that is how it appears in print. If you are awaiting the results of a grant application, say so; don't fudge the issue so that it could be read as though you had guaranteed success. Similarly, if you haven't submitted your PhD yet, or if the thesis has been referred, don't lie about it on a CV - it will always be exposed.

My favourite CV story involves a distinguished elderly professor in an ancient university who declined to write one on the grounds that if people didn't know what he had written, they shouldn't be bothering him in the first place. Most of us can't be quite so confident about our fame, but we can all be as honest.

Susan Bassnett is professor at the Centre for Translation and Comparative Cultural Studies, Warwick University.

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