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Posted on 11 Nov '21

Getting Your CV into Shape for a PhD Application – 10 Tips

No matter whether you are an undergraduate, a Masters student or have been out of university for a few years, the day you decide that you want to apply for a PhD programme is the beginning of a long to-do list of things you need to achieve.

You need to pick which universities you want to apply to work on your application, and (hopefully) prepare for interviews. But what about your CV?

If you are still a student, chances are you have never had to write an academic CV before! Even if you have already applied for research jobs in the past, getting your CV in shape can be a really daunting experience. Here are a few of my top tips on how to make your résumé the best it can be.

#1 Keep it short

The best way to apply for any position is to put yourself in the shoes of the person assessing your application. They probably have thousands of applicants to go through and they are almost certainly doing this on top of their regular workload.

In other words, they do not have the time to go through a ten-page manifesto listing every single skill you have ever applied and every single activity you ever took part in. Draw a line at two pages of well spaced-out and formatted text – you are more likely to draw the interest of your readers and to keep their attention!

#2 Prioritize!

This is a CV for a PhD, so organise it accordingly (and get the really important content onto the first page).

Start with your “Education” section (detailing which courses you have taken and when). Follow up with your “Research Experience” section. Order your qualifications and experience in reverse chronological order, starting with the most recent ones and going backwards.

Since your CV can only be two pages long, you are probably going to have to cut some things out. Start from activities that are further in the past and move forward. For example, your education section probably doesn’t need anything older than your A-levels. While “cutting from the back” is a good rule of thumb, apply common sense as you go through your own CV. If you took part in something truly extraordinary as a high school student that is really relevant to your subject, it should probably take precedence over your university intramural netball games!

#3 Read the job description

Whatever PhD position you are applying to, it will come with a project description, just like those here on FindAPhD. To the Machiavellian-minded, that description can contain the secrets to tailoring a successful CV for that PhD.

What are the supervisors looking for? What skills does the ideal applicant have? What kind of research goals and experience? You can use this information to structure your CV as a point-by-point response to the PhD position advertisement.

For example, a PhD position might be looking for somebody with research experience in biological chemistry and coding skills. It might also refer to teaching skills (perhaps working as a teaching assistant is a mandatory part of the programme) and strong multitasking skills (essential if the student will need to coordinate work carried out in different laboratories). The savvy applicant might structure his or her CV with a “Research Experience” section, followed by a “Coding Skills” section, a “Teaching Experience” section and a “Multitasking Experience” part. Do not worry if your efforts are a little obvious, this is what you are supposed to be doing after all!

#4 Never, never, never ever lie. . .

Lying on your CV is not only immoral – it’s really counterproductive. Don’t forget, you are hopefully going to sit in an interview room with whomever reads your CV and at least some questions will revolve around the information in it. Lying on your CV could set you up for a very embarrassing moment. Believe me, there is no coming back from having to admit you just made something up on your CV!

My personal favourite urban legend tells the story of a young applicant who wrote on his CV that he was fluent in Portuguese, while he had in fact no idea about any foreign languages whatsoever. Unfortunately, one of his interviewers was Brazilian and thought that having a little chat in Portuguese would be a fun way to break the ice. Needless to say, that particular interview did not go well.

#5 . . .but present yourself under the best possible light

Having established that you should never ever lie, it is perfectly OK to present true information in the best possible way.

For example, if you got a really bad grade in one of your modules, you can choose to only include your overall mark for the year, or final degree classification. PhD programmes will usually ask for university transcripts either way, but choosing to not draw attention to that particular aspect of your time at university is perfectly all right.

Similarly, if you have a gap in your CV, try to fill it with an extracurricular activity or two. Were you volunteering at an animal shelter, singing in a local choir or even writing for a blog during your time-out? While of course interviewers will notice there was a gap in your employment or full-time education, having something to fill the gap might be helpful to distract attention away from it.

#6 Keep it relevant

While of course it is important to show that you are a well-rounded and interesting person through your extracurricular activities, giving them too much space will distract from your other, more relevant achievements.

For instance, if you have been involved in high-level competitive sport at school or University and are applying for a doctoral program in Applied Chemistry, try to summarise all of your sporting prowess in one or maybe two lines of text. This will give you more space to add a description of the research projects you have under your belt, which is definitely going to be more interesting to the folks in the Applied Chemistry Department. Of course, if you were applying for a PhD in Sports Science, your athletic exploits might actually be directly relevant to your work and would deserve more space and consideration.

#7 It’s all about the experience

The “Research Experience” section is probably the most important part of your CV (you’re applying to be a researcher after all). As such, it should take up the biggest chunk of your word-count.

It is a good idea to add a few lines of description under each project, detailing what the research was about, what techniques you used and whether you got any interesting results. Since PhD students are often asked to be independent, highlight any instances where you had to use your initiative and think for yourself. If you feel you do not have enough experience, it might be a good idea to defer applying altogether until you reach your target.

#8 Get the skills you are tempted to lie about

Writing your academic CV is a good opportunity to reflect on the fit between your skills and career goals. For instance, you might be applying for a PhD in Computational Biology and realise that, while you have a lot of research experience in Biology, your coding skills are not where they need to be.

I firmly believe that this kind of gap is what prompts people to lie on a CV – creating a sort of skills wish list as opposed to an accurate summary of their experience. Instead of lying, use this process as an inspiration to get the skills you want to write about.

Showing how you plan to do this can actually help your application. If you are teaching yourself how to code using books or online resources and there are computational scientists at your interview, they are probably going to be interested in your progress and excited that you’re interested in their subject! Wherever you can, opt for a formal way to learn as it looks more tangible on your CV (and you can include it in that all-important “Education” section at the top of the page).

Does your University offer after hours or evening courses that are relevant? Does the local council? Languages and IT skills in particular are very highly sought after at the moment, which means that there are plenty of adult-education classes available that you can use to prove your commitment to developing your skills.

#9 Keep it professional

It might seem superficial, but looks matter. CVs are formatted differently around the world, so take a few minutes to check what is expected where you are applying.

If you are going for universities in the UK or the USA, pictures of yourself and personal data such as date of birth and marital status are unnecessary and distracting. On the other hand, applicants in some countries in Continental Europe and Asia usually have a nice professional picture at the top of the first page next to the contact information.

Of course, there are a few design principles that apply to all CVs. Choose a plain font and format it for clarity, using headers and indentation to separate different sections. Stay away from excessively bright colours, exciting fonts, pictures and GIFs – your CV should be memorable for its contents, not for its looks!

#10 Ask for help!

Before you send your CV off into the ether, make sure you get a second (and third, and fourth) opinion. Share it with family and friends to check that it is as clear and concise as you think it is. Most importantly of all, get somebody in your field to cast a look over it.

Many universities will have some type of CV-clinic event where you can take your CV to get feedback from university professors, the very people who will be assessing the document once you submit it! If this is not an option for you, think of other ways you can find to get a professional’s opinion. If you are getting research experience with a lab or research group, ask them what they think! You can even get in touch with people you have done your previous research experience with to ask for advice.

If none of these scenarios seem feasible, don’t be shy and approach one of your lecturers: chances are they will be thrilled you want to do a PhD (remember, they did one too!) and would love to help you out by reading over your CV!

Editor's note:This blog was first published on 18/01/2018. We've checked and updated it for current readers.

Gaia Cantelli recently completed a PhD at King's College London and maintains a personal blog about her scientific work.

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