How to Prepare a Curriculum Vitae, Cover Letter, and Personal Statement

1. WHAT’S A CV? WHAT’S IT GOOD FOR?

Whereas those in business write resumes, we in the sciences generally prepare curricula vitae (CVs). Both a resume and a CV present key facts about one’s professional background. However, the two differ somewhat in content and structure.

Literally, “curriculum vitae” means the course of one’s life. A CV shows the course of your professional life. Figure 36.1 shows a CV of a fictional graduate student. Although the facts of this person’s life are imaginary, the kinds of information provided are fairly typical: address and other contact information, education, honors, research, teaching, publications, and other professionally relevant experience.

A CV has many uses. You may be required to provide one with your thesis. Supplying one is standard when you apply for a job. Grant applications com­monly include CVs. You will need to submit one if you are being considered for tenure, and you might need to provide one for your annual review. If you are nominated for an award, you may be asked to submit a CV to the selection committee. You should not, however, as one socially awkward young scientist did, offer your CV when asking someone for a date.

If you are seeking a position in industry, you may be asked for a resume rather than a CV. Early in one’s career, a CV and a resume may be almost the same. However, a resume commonly states an objective at the beginning. Also, duties generally are listed for jobs held. Whereas a CV can run several pages or more, a resume normally is limited to one or two pages, thus sometimes requiring that information be condensed. Many websites, books, and university career centers offer guidance on resume preparation and provide sample resu­mes. If you need to prepare a resume, consider using such resources.

2. WHAT TO PUT IN (AND WHAT TO LEAVE OUT)

Sometimes you may be told what types of information to include in a CV, what format to use, or both. For example, some colleges have detailed instruc­tions for faculty CVs. Likewise, some funding agencies specify what to include in a CV in a grant application. Usual content and structure of CVs can differ among scientific fields and among institutions. Thus, it can be useful to look at others’ CVs and have others review a draft of yours. For ideas of what to include in your CV and how to present it, consider looking online at the CVs of members of your department or of scientists elsewhere who are leaders in your field.

Do list your publications in your CV. Also list major presentations, such as papers given at national conferences. Consider listing as well the grants that you have received. In listing your publications, use a standard format for refer­ences (see Chapter 15), such as the one employed by a leading journal in your field. If a paper has been accepted but not yet published, list it as “in press” or “forthcoming.” If it has been submitted but not yet accepted, or if it is still being prepared, do not list it under publications. You may, however, mention it in the research section of your CV.

Your CV should focus on your professional history. Normally, it should not include personal information such as date of birth, marital status, health, or hobbies. Do not list your Social Security number or other personal identifica­tion number, especially given the possibility of identity theft.

Of course, do not exaggerate your accomplishments. In addition to being dishonest, doing so can harm your career if the discrepancy is discovered. If there is nothing to list in a given category, omit that category. Do not be like the student who included the heading “Honors” in her CV and then wrote under it, “None.”

3. OTHER SUGGESTIONS

CVs commonly are structured in reverse chronological order. In other words, within each category, items are listed from the most recent to the least recent. Some CVs, however, use chronological order. Whichever order is used, be con­sistent.

Do you use a nickname instead of your given name? If so, you may put it in parentheses. Ditto if you go by an English-language name in addition to the name in your native language. If readers might not be able to surmise your gender from your name and so might wonder how to address you, consider stating your gender in your CV or putting “Ms.” or “Mr.” in parentheses before your name. Of course, if you have a doctorate, those writing to you can simply use the gender-neutral “Dr.”

Include some contact information that is unlikely to change, in case recipi­ents wish to be in touch with you much later. For example, if you are a student, your address might well change. Therefore, consider also listing a long-term postal address (such as a parent’s address) or including an email address or mobile phone number that is expected to stay the same.

If the nature of something listed might not be clear from its title, include a brief explanation in parentheses. You might say “Huth Award (for excellence in scientific writing)” or “Johnson Club (astronomy interest group).”

Consider having different versions of your CV for different uses. If you are seeking jobs at both research laboratories and teaching institutions, one ver­sion may focus mainly on your research experience and another may also list your teaching experience in detail. Even if the same information is included, it may appear in different orders in different versions of your CV.

Keep your CV up to date, so it is ready when needed. And, of course, proof­read it carefully.

4. PREPARING A COVER LETTER

If you are applying for a job, you probably will need to accompany your CV with a cover letter. This letter provides further opportunity to introduce your­self, and it can help demonstrate your communication skills. Commonly, such a letter runs a single page. Rarely should it exceed two pages.

If possible, address the recipient of the letter by name. Be sure to spell the name properly. If it is unclear whether the recipient is a man or a woman, or whether the recipient has a doctorate, try to find out (for example, by checking online), so you can address the person appropriately. If this information is unavailable, address the person by full name (for example, “Dear Kelly Jones”) rather than using a courtesy title (as in “Dear Mr. Jones”). If the name of the recipient is not available, you may use “To Whom It May Concern” or, if appli­cable, a more specific salutation such as “Dear Selection Committee.” Do not use “Dear Sir” unless you are sure the recipient is male. In a formal letter, nor­mally a colon rather than a comma follows the salutation.

At the beginning of the letter, make clear what you are applying for. Do not use general wording such as “the opening in your department,” lest your application end up with those for the wrong position. Also consider including in the opening sentence your main qualifications. For example, you might say, “As a recent recipient of a Ph.D. in molecular ABCology from XYZ Uni­versity, I am applying for the postdoctoral position in DEF research that was announced in Science last week.”

In the middle of the cover letter, discuss your qualifications. You may intro­duce them by referring to your CV (“As noted in the accompanying curriculum vitae . . .”). Show how your qualifications match those requested in the posi­tion description. Doing so can provide a chance to elaborate on items listed in your CV. For example, you may summarize research you have done or identify techniques with which you are adept, or you may specify duties you had as a teaching assistant.

Do not discuss salary in your cover letter. Any such discussion should come later, once the employer expresses a desire to offer you a position.

End the letter positively but not overconfidently. Avoid overly assertive state­ments such as “Thus, I am the ideal candidate for the assistant professorship in molecular ABCology. I look forward to receiving an interview.” An example of more appropriate wording: “Thus, I believe that my background qualifies me well for the assistant professorship in ABCology. I hope to hear from you soon about the possibility of an interview.”

5. WRITING A PERSONAL STATEMENT

Applications for some opportunities require personal statements. For exam­ple, you may need to write a personal statement if you are applying to profes­sional school or seeking some types of fellowships.

A personal statement is a brief essay that describes your professional devel­opment as it relates to the opportunity being sought. Often, it is best struc­tured mainly in chronological order. You may begin with a paragraph providing a brief overview, then summarize how your interests have developed thus far, describe your main current activities, and finally discuss directions you antici­pate taking. If feasible, show that your decision to seek the opportunity is well informed, for example by discussing related experience.

If you have a nontraditional background—for instance, if you pursued a different career before—or if you experienced a delay during your education, you generally should address the matter in your personal statement. Do not leave readers wondering why, for example, the dates in your CV do not seem to add up. If you discuss problems you have overcome, do so positively and without defensiveness, and show that you addressed the probl ems maturely and thoughtfully.

Be confident but not arrogant. In keeping with principles of good writ­ing, show rather than tell. For example, to show that you have leadership abil­ities, you could state that you have held several leadership roles, note the main such roles, and mention a leadership award that you received. Do not emu­late the medical-residency applicant who wrote, “First, I have a great bedside manner. . . . Second, I have excellent technical skills. . . . Third, and most importantly, I have a humble spirit.”

In a personal statement, generally avoid or minimize discussion of aspects of your background that are not professionally related. In particular, do not dis­cuss your political or religious views. Not only may doing so alienate readers whose views differ from yours; even if readers agree with your views, you may seem unprofessional or unfocused.

Finally, word your personal statement readably, in keeping with advice in this book. Those who review applications containing personal statements tend to be busy. Help them to understand quickly where you are coming from, where you are now, and where you are going. You will then be more likely to receive their support in obtaining the opportunity you seek.

Source: Gastel Barbara, Day Robert A. (2016), How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper, Greenwood; 8th edition.

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