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Pimp My C.V.!

© Copyright 2006, Charles King

The academic resumé—the curriculum vitae, or c.v.—is a scholar’s calling card. It is more than a list of professional publications, activities, and qualifications. It is the way we present ourselves to the world—the equivalent of an artist’s portfolio, the journalist’s clippings file, and the actor’s headshot.

Typically, however, graduate students are never explicitly taught how to put one together. They are often just given copies of their advisor’s version and then told to copy the format (which may itself be less than ideal). Or they are sent to their university’s career center, where the staff specialists on hand are usually more familiar with one-page corporate resumés than with academic c.v.’s.

Here are some general rules for pimping your c.v.: how to present yourself in the most honest yet most favorable light to potential academic employers and fellowship committees. C.v.’s in different fields and different disciplines have their own rules, and you can get a general sense of what these rules are by looking at, say, a half dozen different versions in your particular field. (These are easily obtainable online from virtually any university department’s website—start by choosing those of scholars who are particularly respected in your field.) But the ideas below apply across several disciplines and provide a rough-and-ready guide for putting together a stellar curriculum vitae.

It’s Vitae, Not Vita

Your “vita” is literally, in Latin, your life. A “curriculum vitae” (pronounced “veye-tee” or “vee-tie”) is an outline or summary “of your life.” This point is more than simply grammatical: Everything that you have done in your vita need not go into your vitae. By the time you get to graduate school, you can begin to push off your c.v. those things which made you a great undergraduate. You can begin to present yourself as a professional scholar, rather than simply a good student. That means limiting references to awards and honors which—while a big deal at your old alma mater when you were twenty-one—make your c.v. look less professional as you get older and wiser. Ditto for sports, hobbies, and so forth. The fact that you play the bagpipes or won the tri-state cooking triathlon can come out naturally during an interview or a job-talk dinner.

The Structure

C.v.’s come in lots of shapes and sizes, but many have a similar structure. There are certain essential sections that need to be there, plus other add-ons which you can use depending on your individual circumstances or the demands of the position for which you are applying:

The Essentials

  • Name
  • Full contact information
  • Employment
  • Education
  • Publications


  • Additional training (e.g., quantitative methods seminars, summer schools, major workshops)
  • Teaching experience
  • Languages
  • Paper presentations and invited lectures
  • University or professional service (e.g., in professional associations, graduate student government)
  • Media appearances (if you have been regularly solicited for your views)
  • Experience in applied settings (e.g., foreign policy, consulting, non-profits)
  • Each of these items should represent a distinct, labeled section of your c.v.
The first page or first section should give all the essential information about you. Put your full contact information at the top, including telephone, fax, email, and webpage if you have one (and you want potential employers to see it). Next, list your academic employment history, if you already have a position as a lecturer, post-doc, or professor. Otherwise, skip to the next section, in which you list your degrees—highest one first. No need to mention your graduate GPA, since the expectation is that a graduate student would not be applying for a job or fellowship without an excellent record. For your doctoral level work, it is a good idea to mention the name of your supervisor/primary advisor and perhaps your committee members, along with the title of your dissertation. Some c.v.’s will also contain a brief abstract of the dissertation. This is something that can fade away, however, as you author more publications and develop a research trajectory that is independent of your dissertation research.

What Have You Done Lately?

Always work in reverse chronology order. List your most recent degrees, publications, and honors first, and work backwards from there. You want to highlight the fact that you are on an upward trajectory, looking boldly toward the future rather than giving a long life history, from pacifier to present.

Publicize the Publications

The publications section is one of the most important parts of the c.v., so give some thought to how you want to present your work. If you already have a significant number of publications—a few articles or book chapters, some short book reviews, maybe a working paper—consider dividing the publications section into sub-sections, with each one highlighting a particular type of work (e.g., “Peer-Reviewed Journal Articles,” “Book Reviews,” etc.). If you are at the beginning of your career, one section is fine.

But if you already have a refereed publication or two, find some way of distinguishing those from less prestigious publications such as book reviews. Some people use the asterisk method: They place an asterisk at the front of refereed publications, along with a note at the top of the section which says “* indicates peer-reviewed journal” or something of the sort. That’s a fine way of going about things, or you could create a separate section for peer-reviewed articles, if you already have enough of them to warrant their own section.

If you have yet to secure a publication but have given formal paper presentations at conferences, it is fine to create a single “Publications and Presentations” section, in which you list the title and presentation information for your particular papers. (But you’ll want to split this section into two as you gain more publication experience.) If you have publications forthcoming, it is fine to list those with the note that they are soon to appear (“forthcoming 2008” is completely fine as a notation).

Normally, the publications section is placed at the end of the c.v., but practice differs on this matter. Some people place it right after their educational background. Placing it at the end makes sense, however, since that is still where most people expect to find it.

Always give full publication information for every work. If it is a journal article, list the article title, journal title, volume, issue, date/year, and page numbers. If it is a book chapter, list the chapter title, book title, editors, place of publication, year, and page numbers. One more time: List the page numbers. You want your reader to be able to distinguish a 30-page article from a 2-page comment, and he/she can only do that if you’ve given the page references.

Style Matters

Give some thought—in fact, a lot of thought—to the visual appearance of your c.v. Draft the first page and then give it to a friend. Have him or her scan it for ten seconds, and then ask your friend what stands out on the page. If the answer is something other than the essential information you were trying to communicate, have another look at the page design.

If your high school guidance counselor ever told you that your resume (1) had to be on fancy “bond” stationery, (2) could only be one page long, and (3) needed a “goal” statement at the top (“Eager intellectual seeks employment in demanding, tenure-track environment at up-and-coming research university”)—forget that advice. A c.v. is a document intended to be read by a scholarly audience. It is not the same thing as a corporate resumé. Stick with straight-up white printer/copier paper and a font no fancier than Times Roman or Courier. Use bold, underline, and italics to highlight particular items, but always use such enhancements sparingly. Secure it with a paper clip or a staple in the upper left corner. Number the pages, and make your name a header or footer on each page.

Most importantly, give a consistent “look” to the entire c.v., so that comparable pieces of information are given the same stylistic treatment. If you write “January 20, 2006” in one part of the c.v., don’t write “15 December 2005” in another. If you underline the titles of some publications, don’t italicize the titles of others. If on one line you list an M.A. degree and then the name of your university, in that order, don’t list the name of your university and then your B.A. on another line. Be consistent in the way you present information, and the reader’s eye will naturally pick out the essential text. Remember, this is a professional document, and it needs to have the look of something that is professionally edited, copy-edited, and quality-checked.

Here is an example to illustrate these points. Consider this section, in which the c.v.’s author presents her educational credentials:

History BA, Anytown University
Senior thesis: “The Deconstruction of Reconstruction: A Foucaultian Reading of the Work of Five American Historians of the South." Won J. Forbes Doolittle Prize

Master of Arts in Public Administration
Anytown University, 2004

Doctorate in progress
Bettertown University, Department of Political Science (2005-)

This is a mess. The style is completely inconsistent across the three entries. The lead is buried at the end: The important information here is that our applicant is a Ph.D. student; the reader will care far less about the title of his/her undergraduate thesis. Key bits of information are missing, such as when the doctorate (and is this a Ph.D. or some other version of a doctorate?) is likely to be finished. We also don’t know when the B.A. was awarded, or what the doctoral dissertation topic is, or what in the world the “J. Forbes Doolittle” prize was awarded for. Maybe it was for perfect attendance?

A cleaned-up version might look something like this:

Ph.D. candidate (Political Science), 2004-present (degree expected spring 2008)
Bettertown University
Dissertation title: “Deconstructionist Thought and the Making of Southern Political Culture” (J. Forbes Doolittle, committee chair)

M.A. (Public Administration), 2004
Anytown University
Master’s thesis title: “A New Method for Estimating Voter Turn-Out in a Southern Town”

B.A. (History), 2002
Anytown University
Winner of the J. Forbes Doolittle Prize (highest-ranked senior history major)

Now, that’s better. The items are listed with the most recent and most important first. We’ve used simple tab indentations to set off different pieces of information. And our presentation is consistent across the three entries. Someone can now scan this section and pull out the relevant details with little effort. We could spruce it up even further with selective use of bold or italic fonts.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

You should have as many c.v.’s as you have job applications. Are you applying to a small college which emphasizes teaching? Then consider expanding the teaching section of your c.v. by going into greater detail on the courses you have TA’d or taught, the syllabi you have prepared, or any teaching awards you may have won. Are you applying for a post-doc which requires considerable quantitative skills? Then consider beefing up the section of your c.v. in which you describe any additional quantitative training you have had outside your regular coursework. Just as you would tailor a cover letter to fit the particular position you are applying for, it is no crime to treat your c.v. in the same flexible way.

Get Help

Don’t be afraid to show your c.v. to your advisor, a peer or anyone else whose opinion you respect. Ask for advice on organization, presentation, and style. Look at the c.v.’s of senior professors and copy their style—but only if it is obviously worth copying. You would certainly ask friends and mentors about the content of your cover letter or syllabus. Treat your c.v. in the same way: as a form of self-presentation which reflects a sense of strategy, good design, and old-fashioned street smarts.

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