April 5, 2022

Spring-clean your CV: 7 tips for success

As the Great Resignation continues, many people in my own circles of medicine and academia are dipping their toes into the waters of a job search. Exploring new opportunities is exciting and exhilarating, but there’s one thing that can dump cold water all over the whole experience.

The dreaded CV.

What is a CV?

The CV, or curriculum vitae (course of life), is often compared to a resume. But while both document your employment history and are typically necessary for seeking a new job, that’s pretty much where the similarities end.

In the academic world, the CV explains why you have the rank and title you do. This means it must be an extraordinarily detailed accounting of your work both within and beyond your jobs. It’s also extraordinarily important for documenting your accomplishments, presenting yourself professionally and achieving the career you hope to have. Think of it as the story that tells how you got where you are and where you are headed next.

Unlike many tasks, preparing a CV gets more difficult with experience. The more work you do, the longer and more complex your CV becomes. That’s why I spend a lot of time coaching even senior leaders through preparing this document. You can easily lose a whole weekend preparing a CV as an application deadline looms. And preparing it on a dime all but guarantees that you will accidentally leave out important information.

That’s why I advise my clients – and everyone reading this blog – to spring-clean their CV. Then, create a system for keeping your CV up to date so sending it to a recruiter will be a snap when the job of your dreams opens up.

Here are my best tips for dusting off your CV and getting it in tip-top shape for your next opportunity.

7 tips for preparing your CV

Draft an executive summary

If you have been in academia for any length of time, you probably know that a 10-page CV is on the short side. I have seen them go as long as 100 pages! While you need to provide all of that information to recruiters and search committees who want to see the full depth and breadth of your experience, you should assume most people won’t read it in great detail.

I encourage clients who are preparing a CV to draft a one- to two-page executive summary that hits the highlights. You should place this summary at the beginning of your document and focus on your more recent work and accomplishments. It should be written so it speaks to the kind of job you are seeking. For example, if you’re looking for a next-level leadership role, highlight the ways you have prepared for such a position.

I like to see these highlights written as problem-action-result (PAR) statements that highlight a challenge you navigated, the action you took and the result you achieved. For example, suppose you are a division chief who was tasked with moving a primary care clinic budget from deep in the red to the black. Describe the actions you took — such as reworking compensation models, revising productivity metrics or creating new incentives — and then share the outcome you achieved.

Choose a friendly format

Some institutions will want you to prepare your CV according to specific formatting requirements. Take the time to check the institution’s hiring guidelines to ensure you don’t annoy someone right out of the gate by failing to follow the rules.

If there are no guidelines, here are a few points to keep in mind. I share them as someone who has read many CVs when hiring. Unless you’re seeking a graphic design job, your font and color choices probably won’t make or break you, but readability matters a lot.

With that in mind, I recommend presenting jobs and accomplishments in reverse chronological order, starting with where you are now and clarifying whether you are still there. Use boldface font to make sure your current job jumps out first. Then, place dates for all jobs down the left-hand column so they are easy to scan quickly.

However you present this information, be consistent. Formatting inconsistencies like font changes and switching from paragraphs to bullets (and then back) are distracting and can look like a mistake.

Include the right stuff

Your CV will be an exhaustive record of presentations you have made, papers you have authored and all your jobs. But there are some things you don’t need to include. Undergraduate education should be listed, but high school can be left off in most instances. You also don’t need to include your grade point average unless explicitly requested.

You should also leave off professional license numbers, DEA prescribing credentials, Social Security numbers and other highly personal information. You should assume that your CV will be passed around wherever it’s submitted. Treat it like the public document it is.

Address any gaps in your employment history

Not everyone wants to hear this, but gaps in your employment history will spark questions. There is nothing in the world wrong with taking time off from work to deal with family matters, backpack across Europe or write a book. In fact, many gaps enhance your life experience in a way that will intrigue employers. But this is a place where transparency sends the best message. Save the hiring manager from having to wonder by addressing gaps proactively in your CV and noting how you spent the time.

Develop a master copy of your CV

Imagine you’re in the running for two jobs. One at University X and one at College Y. You create a stellar CV customized for University X and you submit it …. to both schools. Gaffes like this happen, but they are less likely when you work from a master copy of your CV.

That’s because any time you prepare a CV as part of a job search, you’ll want to be sure it’s tailored to highlight the skills needed for a given role in your executive summary. So, create a master copy of your CV now that you can keep up to date (more on that in a moment), then make a copy and customize it as needed, working off the master copy every time.

Protect your CV

It’s a good idea to save your CV as a PDF before sending it off. Hopefully no one who will interact with the document would intentionally make changes, but it is easy enough for a recruiter to accidentally introduce text or formatting problems. Avoid the possibility entirely by submitting a PDF.

Create a system for preparing your CV 

Even if you are in your dream job and plan to stay there until retirement, it’s worth creating a system for preparing your CV. You never know when you will need your CV and need it quickly. And for professionals who do plan to move to greener pastures at some point, there will be far fewer headaches if your CV is not woefully out of date.

Remember my suggestion to create a master CV that you can then copy to customize? Your system for preparing your CV is all about that master document. The most painless way to do this is to set aside time each month to review everything CV-worthy you have done over the past few weeks.

I suggest a kind of inbox for capturing items. It could be a blank document where you drop links to papers and presentations you’ve given. Or a folder where you place materials that will jog your memory. Even your calendar, if most engagements and projects have a corresponding invitation or to-do item.

The idea is to build a habit of recording things as they happen or very soon thereafter, so you won’t forget them later. Because trust me, you will forget things without this kind of system. (Insert eyeroll for the things I should have on my CV but forgot about before I developed my own system!)

Your evolving course of life

Like performance reviews and budget negotiations, CVs are a fact of work life in many professions. You simply need one if you are a scientist, clinician or similar professional. But your CV doesn’t have to be painful to read or revise.

In fact, once your CV is clean and up to date, you may notice a new sense of freedom with this critical task off your plate. You will have a wonderful encapsulation of everything you have done to get where you are today.

And once your CV is ready for your next opportunity, you may find you are, too.

Unlock your potential and align with what matters most to you. 

It’s that simple.

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