It’s commonplace for professional cv consultants to say that the cv isn’t an autobiography. An autobiography is the story of your life, the cv is a marketing tool to sell yourself to an employer. A cv is something written for a job selection, promotion or other kind of review body so it ought not to include every detail of your life up till now. Don’t put in the name of the dog, where you last went on holiday and what kind of car you drive, the advice goes. What you have to do in a cv is to select those things that are most important for the very particular reader you want to convince to want you.
At one level I agree with this but at another, it’s so wrong.
The imperative to stay away from extraneous detail is important for the academic cv. But I don’t think there’s any harm in thinking of the cv as an autobiography (see Miller and Morgan 1993 for a scholarly explanation). To suggest that autobiography is a dangerous headset through which to compose your cv is actually a fundamental misunderstanding of the literary form. An autobiography is simply a story of a life. And that little pronoun is important. A story. An autobiography is not the story or the only story you can tell about yourself. One life can produce many different kinds of autobiographies depending on the intended readers and the purposes for which the narrative is written. Autobiographies are selective in what they discuss, and highly edited in order to make the story interesting. If autobiographers didn’t select and edit their life stories then their books would be interminable, and their readership zip, zilch and none.
Why the cv as autobiography ?
The cv as autobiography foregrounds the notion that this is a telling, it’s selective, and it’s meant to tell the particular reader about who you are and how you got here. Your cv-as-autobiography is read as a representation of you-the-writer, as an account of a working life–in-progress.
It is critical to understand that the academic cv-as-autobiography is not a summary – it is not a list. It is not simply a bullet-pointed resume of everything that might be relevant to someone, somewhere, some time. It is a concise presentation of the things that are relevant to the particular position. Even if it is formatted in a relatively listy form, and organised under relatively uncontentious headings, the bullet points will be read as a set of signposts to the things that you have done. The reader will fill in the blanks around the points. The reader will create the story if you don’t give them one.
So the cv writer needs to think very carefully about what it is that the academic reader is looking for. It won’t be the same for a selection committee as for a promotion or grant reviewing reader. Matching the cv story to the expectations of the particular job – thinking about the work that this particular autobiography has to do – is critical.
I’m not a fan of the generic cv that gets trotted out for all occasions like a textual LBD. I think that the cv has to be tweaked depending on the job its being tailored for. If the job is as a researcher then paying particular attention to the information about research positions and publications is important. However, for a teaching position, you will want to put in more detailed information about your teaching experience than you might if you were applying for a researcher position. If it’s for a post doc, then the cv-as-autobiography needs to foreground the research agenda and ambition that you have. The cv-as-autobiography is about selecting and foregrounding the things that are most needed for this job.
It’s as well here to think about the particularity of academic readers. Academics are trained to do critical ‘reading-between-the-lines’. The academic cv needs to steer the pernickety academic reader in particular directions, and steer them away from others. This is exactly what an autobiography does. The autobiography anticipates critical readers. It provides explanation as well as saying what happened. It offers a narrative thread that allows the reader to understand why things happened when they did, and how things hang together.
An example: publications
All academic cvs list publications. A lot of the early career researcher cvs that I see lump all publications together – book reviews, conference papers, journal articles, work in progress, professional publications all in one list. What this says to the critical academic reader is that the writer of the un-sifted publications:
a. probably doesn’t have that much out there yet, and they are trying to make the section look bigger by putting everything together. But there is nowhere to hide if there isn’t a lot written yet. It’s much better to face the lack of published work head on, because trying to fudge it allows the critical reader to assume that –
b. the cv writer either doesn’t understand the different weightings put on different kinds of publications in their field and in the academic world generally, or they haven’t bothered to think about this when putting the cv together. Either way, the assumption of lack of knowledge or lack of care is not what you want the cv reader to think. You want them to understand that you are making a good job of publication in the time you’ve had.
In general, The Book and the Peer Reviewed journal article or conference paper are much more highly regarded than any other kinds of publications – I am talking here only about academic research and teaching positions. These are then usually listed separately. The book review and the conference paper are minor writings, and while it might be helpful to list them for some kinds of positions in some disciplines in some places, this information often carries no weight – other than to show that you are engaging in normal scholarly activities. And too many conference papers just looks as if you give a lot of papers and can’t convert them to the refereed form.
It’s really worth noting that professional publications, blogs and other media writings are highly valued in some countries – in the UK for example these can now be listed as ‘public engagement’ rather than ‘other’ in the publication list. Saying and showing ‘public engagement’ in the UK context demonstrates that the cv writer knows that writing for a variety of audiences is considered an important and valuable scholarly activity. It also says that they are able to do ‘public engagement’ and already are. In the UK this kind of writing may now be a positive differentiating factor in applications, rather than the negative it is in other places.
To sum up- the tip for the publications section of the cv is to differentiate.
Of course, this is not all that there is to say about the academic cv as autobiography, and in the next post, I’m going to talk about some of the common ‘life-story’ problems that early career researchers have to deal with when applying for academic positions. I’m also looking for someone for a guest post on writing a cv for non academic posts too (hint hint).