Less is best as you window-dress

January 14, 2005

Get your dream job by turning your CV into a tailor-made shopping list of your skills that will convince a prospective employer to snap you up, advises Harriet Swain

Admit it. This year's first New Year's resolution was to get a new job and the second was to stop putting things off until tomorrow. So have you written your CV yet? No? Get out that blank sheet of paper this minute. So says the website of the UK GRAD programme, which supports universities in developing the skills of postgraduate researchers. It suggests using one side to compile a shopping list of everything your prospective employer would want from the perfect candidate (based on previous extensive research of the job), and the other to note down evidence that you could supply it. This gives you an immediate picture of your suitability and highlights any shortfalls in skills or experience.

The need to tailor your CV is crucial, says Barbara Graham, director of the careers service at Strathclyde University and author of a book for researchers and postgraduates looking for jobs. "A lot of people write a CV from their own perspective," she says. "They do it from the point of view of 'this is what I want to tell you'. But it isn't about what you want to tell, it's about what information is most relevant to the selectors." This is why you should never have a generic cv that you submit to every prospective employer.

It is particularly important for academics to recognise the difference between applying for an academic and a non-academic job. For academic posts, says Paul Cox, vice-president of the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services, you generally need to provide evidence of research, and the main way to supply this is through a list of publications, although it is also important to mention attendance at conferences, membership of learned societies, awards received, training undertaken, results disseminated, and research-related practical experience.

There are also techniques for presenting your research in the best possible light. Cherry Douglas, deputy director of City University's careers service, says you must mention whether you are eligible for research funding - "if you are backed by a named research council, that gives added kudos" - whether you are supervising any research students and whether their research has had positive outcomes.

UK GRAD stresses the need to include funding details and the name of your research supervisor if you have just completed a PhD, and to bear in mind that the selectors will be asking, first, "why was this research done?"

and, second, "was this person successful?" You must therefore lay out clearly the aims of your research and what you have done to achieve them (it is not always relevant to include an abstract or to give details of research techniques).

If you are applying for non-academic jobs, you may need to dispel some preconceptions that the outside world has about universities, Graham warns.

"People will know nothing about the fact that you might have management skills or have had to budget and do fundraising. You may have to demonstrate that day-to-day business activities take place in universities." Putting too much emphasis on your academic record may also encourage selectors to question your commitment to a non-academic job, she says. However, you need to demonstrate that you are a high achiever and can deliver quality results within agreed deadlines and budgets.

Douglas says that for a non-academic job you need to stress transferable skills, such as report-writing or team building, and that this may involve mentioning hobbies or other extracurricular activities. But selection is all-important - your stamp collection would not be of much interest, whereas active membership of a committee would.

Peter Deer, chairman of the Universities Personnel Association, warns against adopting the fad for topping your CV with a box describing what a great person you are. "When it started, it made people stand out," he says.

"Now large numbers of people do it. What we are interested in is what a person has done, not their view of themselves."

This doesn't mean that you should avoid highlighting elements that make you suitable for the job. Cox says the CV should be seen as part of an overall package, including references (if you are applying for a job in an internationally competitive university, you will probably need international references) and a covering letter with a personal statement.

This should identify your motivation for applying and show that you understand the employers' requirements and can match as many criteria as possible in the job specification. "You need to be rigorous and exhaustive in demonstrating that in the statement," Cox says. Once you have written your CV and personal statement, be ruthless in striking out anything that is not absolutely relevant. Graham says: "By increasing the length of your CV you probably decrease your chances." She advises thinking of it as a shop window: "You don't just throw all the goods in, you select for effect."

Appearance is important, too. It needs to be on good quality paper and laid out with clear headings. You will need to consider whether the font you use is easy to read. Don't fold or staple and, most important, watch the spelling and grammar. Always get someone else to have a look at it, Graham says. Most careers services will do this.

Finally, says Douglas, "Try to stand out from the crowd without being weird and wacky."

Further information
Barbara Graham and Lynda Ali: Moving on in Your Career - A Guide for Academic Researchers and Postgraduates , Routledge, 2000
www.grad.ac.uk - UK GRAD programme
www.prospects.ac.uk - UK official graduate careers website Your university careers service


Tailor your CV to the job you are applying for

Keep it brief

Use evidence to back up statements about your skills

Get the grammar and spelling right

Compare CVs with your peers

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