Composing a CV

Your vita will be the second thing your prospective colleagues will see.  Along with your letter, your CV will be screened by a committee that is intent on reducing the, say, 800 applicants for one position to a more manageable short list for closer inspection.  Committee members will try to do this expeditiously and professionally, and that’s why your CV must be concise, precise, and uncluttered, providing essential data about you, your training, and professional activities.

In preparing your materials you should remind yourself that you are doing so no longer as a student, but as member of a profession.  In that light, the most important thing is to represent your experience and qualifications as clearly and directly as you can.  Give yourself time to review work you have done as it indicates experience (and potential) that may be germane to professional employment.  It may be very useful to talk to your dissertation adviser or a member of the placement committee about the kinds of experience you should (or should not) include in the vita.

If you try to imagine the scene into which your letter and CV will appear, you may find it easier to avoid some common mistakes.  The members of search committees are generally besieged by other institutional service, under pressure to do everything on time, and trying to balance a (sometimes perverse) combination of competing local needs, budgetary constraints, and professional priorities.  Committee members have to make complex decisions quickly, so if they have to spend a lot of time examining your CV to find out who you are, where you were educated, or what you have done, they will weary of you before they find out.  For these reasons, it might be best to understand that the CV is nota document that people read; it is more typically scanned, especially during the initial round of review.  It is impossible to underestimate the importance of a CV that is concise.

Here are some general guidelines, including particular things to avoid:

  1. Prepare a vita, NOT a résumé.  A CV is meant to outline the course ("curriculum") of your life ("vitae"), as it pertains to the position in question.  It should therefore follow a chronological order.
  2. Avoid inflated self-characterizations.  Leave those to your recommenders.  You have every reason to proceed with confidence, but you don’t need to sound like a PR agent for yourself.  You have been through a rigorous program at a major academic institution and you ARE competitive for the jobs in this market.
  3. Remember that your vita is first of all a graphic object, and should be aesthetically pleasing as well as balanced on the page.  Whether or not the people screening the application continue reading is often strongly influenced by the degree to which they can see relevant information at a glance, and see it without eyestrain or a magnifying glass.  Do not hand-type your CV; and do NOT have them typeset in special ways, or use funny fonts and colors.  Use standard fonts and avoid clutter.  Pay particular attention to how you eye moves down the left hand of the page.  Typical mistakes in CV presentation is to run every line flush with the left hand margin.  This makes it difficult to see distinct entries.  Regularizing your formula for indentation is vital. 
  4. Keep the CV concise, but do not leave out experience that is relevant to your qualifications. Professional activities such as participation in colloquia, forums, conferences, workshops (at whatever level, and on whatever scale) are especially important at the start of a professional career, and serve the same function as publications: they indicate that you are professionally active, and are likely to remain so.
  5. Do not specialize yourself out of a job. Very few people end up teaching only (or even mainly) in the field or fields for which they were first hired, or in which they were examined-or even did their dissertation.  You may, therefore, want to include areas in which you have taken exams, but there is a risk here of appearing as too much the student, jack of all trades but master of none. You are already, by virtue of your graduate work, a member of the profession.  Deal in accomplishments, not in possibilities.

Designing the CV

  1. Divide it into clear and appropriate sections.  There isn’t a hard-and-fast formula or a simple standard, either for the headings or their ordering; look at several models and decide what works best for you.  However ordered, the sections should include the following:
  2. Your education (college and grad school, but not high school or before).
  3. Dissertation title and director.  Some people include a brief paragraph about dissertation; some don’t.  This is unnecessary when it is in your letter. Don’t repeat!
  4. Academic awards — if you have enough (3+) to make a list, including college graduation (summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa), but rarely anything earlier.
  5. Scholarly activities: publications, conference papers, public lectures.  You need to make clear what’s written, what’s oral; what’s published or forthcoming, what’s submitted; what’s an essay, what’s a review; what’s of academic significance, and what’s for the general public. (If a manuscript has been submitted, it is better not to indicate where, but simply to flag it as "under review."  By the time a search committee inquires, it might be under consideration at a different journal and there’s no reason to expose yourself to a confession about a paper rejection.)  Label headings precisely and accurately to indicate what’s in each section.  Be as narrow as you can in your headings; for example, use "Publications" and "Presentations" separately if you have enough material to warrant this, otherwise group them together under "Publications and Presentations."  Give comprehensive page numbers (in standard MLA format) for any publications, and consider listing the number of pages for each forthcoming or submitted piece.
  6. Under ‘Teaching Experience’ list all the courses you’ve taught (including those before you came to Duke).  Some may need to title the section ‘Employment’ or may want to have a separate section for (relevant) non-academic or non-classroom activities.  In these cases, you may need to tailor the headings individually.  Search committee members will always be curious about how you spent your time when you were not in school.  Although you are under no obligation or pressure to tell them, the fewer "gaps" in your CV the better.  Anything that can forestall readers’ questions or reassure them in the face of even unexpressed concerns will probably be helpful. 

    More often than applicants realize, some of the things they’ve done while "on leave" from academic pursuits can be highly attractive and enhance their CV: editorial or managerial experience, working with adolescents or community organizations, instructional activities (e.g., teaching word-processing to business executives), and other substantial achievements (partner in a law firm).  But do avoid the trivial or the completely irrelevant.

  7. Professional Service: committees, etc.  Any number of things can be best included here: you organized (or helped organize) a post-colonial discussion group in the department; you were a graduate student representative on a university committee; you assisted a professor with her research; you undertook a community activity that evidences skills or recognition not otherwise documented in the CV.
  8. List the names and affiliations of your recommenders.
  9. Mention how your dossier may be obtained (give email and phone number).

"The Rhetoric of the CV." Chronicle of Higher Education, April 5, 2012.