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Graduate School: Applying, Living, Thesising

The Professional Student is a blog about everything grad school from the application process to my experiences living as a grad student, being a parent in grad school, and researching the role of chemistry in the evolution of our universe.

Your academic life on paper: the CV

Olivia Wilkins

In addition to copies of your transcripts and personal statement, graduate admissions often also require a resumé or curriculum vitae (CV). Your resumé or CV is an important component of your application materials; it is an opportunity for you, the applicant, to list for the admissions review committee what you've accomplished. It is also a great place to list things like service or work experience that won't fit into the application form itself or the personal statement. But when preparing this document, you have to decide which document will be most conducive to your application. More importantly, you have to think about what to include and how to present this information.

An annotated copy of my CV can be found in the post My academic life on paper: My annotated CV.

The difference between a resumé and a CV

There are several differences between a resumé and CV, despite these terms often being used interchangeably. One of the first differences is which is used by different communities. Typically, a resumé is used in the business and industrial world. A resumé is your first impression on the review committee, and quite often, it is only given a short amount of attention (30 seconds or less). The goal of a resumé is to list the most important aspects of your career thus far, usually within one page (although with more experience, two pages is also appropriate). Furthermore, this document is carefully tailored so that it only reflects information directly related to the position or graduate program to which you are applying.

A CV is often used by people in academia, research, or medicine, where the scale of experience has more to do with publications, talks, and awards, than where you worked and what you did. The length of a CV (unless otherwise specified by the graduate application) is limited only by the amount of experience you have. In earlier parts of your career, having a CV that is one or two pages is common, but after graduate school, your CV could be much longer; many professionals with complete (i.e. with all publications and presentations rather than an abridged version with just selections) CVs go beyond 10, 15, or even 20 pages. Of course, this is also affected by formatting, including font, text size, and white space, but cramming everything in one or two pages should not be a concern. Whereas a resumé includes only the highlights, a CV is a complete profile.

When applying for graduate admissions in the sciences (and any other research-oriented program), you should most likely opt for uploading a CV. Regardless of the programs to which you are applying, however, you could very well have the option to upload either, so knowing the difference is important.

What to (and not to) include

Just about every CV should include sections for education and leadership, but there is no set of rules for what sections to include in your resumé. Look at CVs from professionals in your field and pull inspiration from them. What sections do these professionals have in their CVs? For instance, I want to pursue a faculty position at a university after I finish grad school. I am writing my CV now for that position, and I often look at the CVs of people I want to work for in grad school for guidance. Therefore, my CV has sections for education (with subsection for honors), professional and academic societies, research experience (broken down into radio astronomy/astrochemistry and chemical ecology), posters and publications, presentations, teaching experience, service and leadership, and skills (broken down into research/laboratory skills, computing skills, and languages).

It is important to adequately explain the pieces of your CV that highlight why you are the ideal candidate for graduate school without overexplaining yourself. Generally, it is advisable to be more thorough with research experience, at least in the sciences, by describing your specific role in a project. Show that through your research experience you actually did research and weren't just cleaning glassware.

Teaching experience, if you have any, is another important aspect of your CV for graduate programs, especially ones that require grad students to work as a teaching assistant (TA) as a condition of their stipend. However, the actual tasks you did in your undergraduate teaching experience are likely unimportant or irrelevant; generally, TA, grader, and tutor are titles that mean similar things among institutions. What is more important is for what courses you held these titles; the review committee can probably deduce what you were doing in these positions, especially if it is a course offered by their department. For example, listing "Teaching Assistant, Department of Chemistry: General Chemistry I/II/Accelerated, Thermodynamics and Kinetics" on your CV implies you've supplied guidance to a range of students (non-science, lower- and upper-classmen, newcomers to lab reports, veterans who need more fine-tuning) and that you've made a lot of solutions and runs to the supply room (meaning you are also trusted to pay attention to details and labels). By not including these descriptions, however, you save your CV space and the reviewer time for tasks that are expected of such a position.

Service and leadership experience can be tricky because it often isn't directly related to what you will do in graduate school. Nonetheless, exhibiting leadership is important and should be included. For the most part, listing programs you were involved in and positions you held is advisable, but the details can probably be left out. However, if you have little research or teaching experience, service and leadership, especially when related to your field (e.g. public outreach activities) might still show the committee that you are passionate and committed to pursuing opportunities in your field.

By the time you apply for graduate school, you should have a record that exhibits dedication, passion, and well-roundedness in academia strong enough to stand on its own. That means leave off the high school activities (National Honor Society or band doesn't set you apart anymore), irrelevant jobs (while working at the grocery store equates to experience working with other people, including unpleasant ones, this probably won't help for your grad school CV), or lies/exaggerations/potential opportunities (your CV should reflect what you've done or what you are doing, not what you might do).

Formatting your resumé or CV
  • Do include section headers.
  • Your CV should be organized, and one of the best ways to do this is by using section headers. These headers allow your reader to quickly identify information that is of interest of them. For instance, if you are in a pool of several qualified candidates, final decisions might come down to leadership or involvement in professional societies. Including separate sections for these items makes your CV easier to read. Hence you save the reader time and make your accomplishments stick out.

  • Do use links.
  • Using links in your CV is an easy way to direct the review committee to websites featuring abstracts of papers, your profile (e.g. LinkedIn), or other examples of your work (e.g. online magazine, blog). However, hyperlinks on a printed page look sloppy, so use clickable links that are not reflected when a page is printed. For example, if you write your CV in LaTeX, using the package hyperref allows you to include hyperlinks that are visible on the computer screen but absent from a printed version using \href{URL HERE}{DISPLAY TEXT HERE}.

  • Do use your white space effectively.
  • This is more of an art than a science, and using white space comes down to visual preference. Having headers off to the side, leaving most of the left quarter white, wastes space and doesn't look very nice. On the other hand, you don't want to cram everything into a small space, inking every inch of the page. Use linebreaks between sections and item entries, but limit this to a line or two.

  • Do include page headers.
  • Every page should have a header. On page one, the header should include your name (centered, bold, and with larger font) at the top along with your contact information (email address, mailing address, phone number, etc.). You should also include any professional websites, such as a LinkedIn profile, if you have one. This header will take up several lines.

    Subsequent pages should have a one-line header, including your name and page number. You may want to include an email address and link to a professional website. Including these things makes sure that your accomplishments get traced back to you in the event that the pages of your CV get separated. Plus, the header is a professional way to frame your document.

  • Do keep in mind your field.
  • Your field may have expectations for what your CV should look like. For instance, if you have publications in a given field, you should list them following the appropriate citation guide. If you've done research in other fields, be sure to spell out acronyms, especially if there is even the slightest change that your reader may not know its meaning.

    Also keep in mind what is most important to your CV when organizing the sections. In the sciences, you most likely want to flaunt your education and research. Education almost always goes at the top of the CV anyway, but consider putting research experience second; research should definitely be listed on the first page. If you are applying for a teaching position, perhaps as part of a grant, you may want to put teaching experience first instead. Assume that the reader will go from reading to skimming your CV very quickly, so have the most important information for your profile first; do not make the review committee search for anything.

  • Do not mix-and-match fonts.
  • Be consistent. Pick one font for your entire CV. While many people opt for Times New Roman, Cambria or Computer Modern are much nicer fonts. Serif fonts are easier on the eyes and much more professional, so stay away from fonts like Calibri (and Comic Sans... never use Comic Sans....). Furthermore, everything should have the same font size (10-12pt), except your name at the top of the CV (12-16pt), which you want to stick out.

    To differentiate between section headers, position titles, or other components you want to highlight, use stylistic things like small caps (great for headings), bold, and italics. While underlining text is okay, it does not look as clean as bolding or italicizing.

  • Do not use Word resumé templates.
  • This is especially true if you list "Microsoft Office" as one of your skills. Using a template often looks sloppy, and it might also give the impression that you are lazy. These templates often abuse white space and include dreaded combinations of font emphasizing attributes (never underline AND bold AND italicize... pick one). Use your CV as proof that you are competent in MS Word or the preferred word processor in your field (e.g. LaTeX).