Some Things You Always Wanted to Know about CVs and Weren’t Afraid to Ask (guest post)


“One of the many things we don’t usually teach people how to do in our profession is construct a CV.”

So writes Lewis M. Powell, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Buffalo, in the following guest post*, in which he provides some advice about putting together a curriculum vitae. A version of the post first appeared at his blog, Horseless Telegraph.


[M.C. Escher, Emblemata Second Title Page (detail)]

Justin asked me if he could cross-post this at Daily Nous, so, given the broader exposure, I want to emphasize that I am not an expert, this is really just reflective of one perspective on this. However, I generally think it is good to have more open discussion and advice about these sorts of implicit norms (especially when the norms are somewhat sketchy or admit of a lot of variation in the first place), so that people have a clearer sense of how to figure out what they can do without running afoul of them. Also, I did not do a survey of other advice posts or guidance that had already been written, before writing this, so I apologize in advance if I am duplicating things that have been said better by others, or other good perspectives, and would appreciate seeing links to any such pieces.

At the start, I want to mention briefly not why you should listen to me, but how you should contextualize my advice: I’m an associate professor, so I’ve made and updated my share of CVs, I’ve done grad admissions many times, I’ve sat on a fair number of search committees, and I’m on a college-wide committee in which some philosophers’ (and non-philosophers’) CVs are reviewed by colleagues across many disciplines, and so I’ve seen a lot of CVs in a lot of different contexts, and I’ve heard a lot of opinions about CVs.

The very short answer to most questions about your CV is that it should be clear, accurate, and relevantly complete, and if it is, you don’t need to stress. Of course, the devil is in the details, and you’ll notice that this post is more than one short paragraph, but it seemed worth giving you some version of the “TL;DR” up front.

*   *   *   *   *

Very often, I see people asking questions about their CVs—is it okay to list this thing I did on my CV? Does this important thing I did go under research or service, or somewhere else? etc.—and one interesting feature of this is that the people I see asking are at all stages of their careers. I think this happens because one of the many things we don’t usually teach people how to do in our profession is construct a CV. That’s because constructing a CV isn’t doing philosophy, and we mostly like to focus on teaching people how to do philosophy (or sometimes the teaching part even drops out, and we just like to do philosophy). Also, for obvious reasons of recursion, the people doing the training often don’t really know how to teach people things like “how to make a CV” since they were only ever trained in how to do philosophy and, well, you see where this is going (I imagine that I am overgeneralizing a bit about the sociology of the discipline based on the parts I have been exposed to, and I am fortunate that we had some (extracurricular) training in my grad program from our diligent director of graduate studies about these things).

Sometimes we tell people to go look at a handful of examples and then make a CV that looks sort of like that. This isn’t an entirely horrible way for people to start working out some of what works and doesn’t for themselves (it’s a slight improvement on everyone deducing CV-ology from first principles). Basically it is a haphazard way for people to observe and internalize some existing CV norms (presuming they looked at a fortunate sample of CVs), but it’s not a great process for understanding what we are doing or why, or helping us answer questions like “what do I do if I have an unusual item to include”?

So I am going to offer a more general account of CVs, which can help answer the specific questions from above. People in the comments and on Twitter will, hopefully, let us all know if my perspective is wildly off base, but you should take it with a healthy quantity of salt regardless. I am, after all, just one person. If this account is correct, it will, ultimately make answering the questions above both easier and harder: Often you can make a lot of different choices, depending on what impression you want people to take away from reading your CV. This is because beyond a handful of specific genre conventions, the primary constraints are: clarity, accuracy, relevant completeness.

My general account begins with this:

  1. a cv tells a story about your professional accomplishments
  2. but it can’t say everything
  3. you have to (get to?) organize the information on it
  4. you will (usually) be giving it to specific people (or groups of people)
  5. different audiences care about different information
  6. organizing information in different ways tells different stories about you
  7. what should be on it and how to organize it depends on who it is for and why they want it
  8. whatever else, your story needs to be accurate and relevantly complete

Genre Conventions and Making Information Easy To Find:

There are fewer hard-and-fast genre conventions than you’d think for CVs. Many things which seem like good candidates are actually just extremely sensible things to do for a very wide range of purposes you might have in making a CV. By genre conventions, I guess I mean things so widely established that you should think of violating them as something that would generally overwhelmingly flabbergast or dumbfound pretty much any reader. The easiest example of this is where to put your name and contact information. I’d find any CV that didn’t have that information as the first thing, front and center, utterly flabbergasting. I will discuss the others at the very end alongside “Serif/Sans Serif” questions.

A good reason this is an immutable genre convention is that there is no purpose and no audience for whom it would make any sense not to have the information “who does this CV belong to?” the easiest information for them to get from your CV (you probably even want your name to be in a footer or a header so that it’s easy for them to know it’s your CV no matter what page they are looking at). But this follows from a more general principle: audience attention is a scarce resource. Once you get past the realm of hard-and-fast conventions your choice of ordering impacts how likely someone is to see information, and that’s why it tells the reader how important you think it is (the same goes within sub-sections).

Beyond the very few immutable conventions, I think the remaining conventions are either a) specific to the purpose for which the CV is being used, or b) have more to do with issues of how easy or clear it is for the reader to find information or c) are largely better understood as being about what you want to communicate about yourself with the choices you make. Which is why it is actually hard to give clear rules that apply across the board for anyone on how to make a CV and lots of stuff is going to vary a bunch case-by-case, and maybe even for the same person depending on whether the CV is for a fellowship or a job application or just to put on their website so people can see what they’ve been up to.

On my proposal: once we are outside the world of immutable, hard-and-fast rules about where to always to put/find information on the CV, the way to know where you should put something is to ask yourself questions like:

  • “What places on my CV would the person/people I am giving it to expect to find it?”
  • “What would putting it in one of those places or the other suggest about me/my priorities?”

Similarly, the way to determine whether you should put something on your CV is to ask yourself questions like:

  • “Would the person/people I am giving my CV to be surprised/annoyed/disappointed that this information wasn’t included?”
  • “What would including this information suggest about me/my priorities?”

Similarly the way to answer questions about how to organize the information on your CV is to ask yourself questions like:

  • “Would the person/people I am giving my CV to have an easy time finding the information they want to know, if I group things in this way?”
  • “Will the person/people I am giving my CV to be able to easily tell the difference between times I was the main contributor and times I was not the main contributor, if I present the information this way?”
  • “What would presenting the information this way suggest about me/my priorities?”

That’s why I think the basic account can help you answer almost any question you might have about what to put on your CV, where it would go, and how to organize it. Let’s assume you have a comprehensive record somewhere of literally every professional thing you’ve ever done, neatly organized and sorted (that might be a useful thing to have, though I assume most of us don’t). You obviously don’t need to tell everyone you are giving a CV about everything on that list all the time. No one needs to hear about every reading group you attended or every time you guest lectured for a professor when you were their TA and so on. But: there might be times where some of that information is relevant to include, or valuable to find a way to include. Any CV you make is going to be some compressed presentation of that Comprehensive Record of Everything You’ve Done. It will omit some things, highlight others, make choices about how to group things together and label them, etc. If everything you do is very easy to pigeonhole, you will never have any questions about where to put things on a CV, because you can just steal someone else’s CV template and go wild. But what’s happened there is that a bunch of choices got made, and they may well be fine for you, but they got made. That CV tells a story. And probably, eventually, you’ll have something that doesn’t quite fit, or raises some questions.

Some questions:

A. Maybe you are early career or a grad student and you presented one paper four times, and two other papers one time. How should you list your presentations? The short answer is that you have options. You actually have more than two, but the two most straightforward are to list the events chronologically, which emphasizes the amount of conference activity you’ve had but risks de-emphasizing the variety in your focus, or you can list the papers as the major items, and put sub-heads on each for the times they have been presented. This way fore-fronts that you have three different papers that you’ve presented, but makes it less immediately obvious that you’ve presented seven times! Both ways are fine, they just highlight the information differently.

B. Maybe you had some papers published that were more public-facing and you also have a public-facing column on a blog. How do you list your public-facing work? Again, it depends! You can list all of your publications under “Research: Publications”, and then put the Blog under “Other Professional Activity”, or you can pull those out and have a separate “Public Philosophy” section of your CV. It seems like different recipients of the CV might respond differently to that depending on what the goal is (are you submitting for a job or fellowship aimed at public facing philosophy?). One note about this is that for clarity sake, if you have publications that aren’t being listed in Research: Publications”, and you think “someone may wonder why my papers aren’t all listed there!”, you could have a note (just one small italicized line under the section header) that says: “Public Philosophy papers are listed in section D”. Just subtly answer the question for them.

C. Maybe you have a paper under review and it is really good, but it hasn’t been accepted yet. Can you list it in the section labeled “Publications”? No. That section is for papers that are published or (in our field) past all of the relevant editorial barriers to publication (i.e. at least “forthcoming”). You can have a section labeled “Research”, which has subsections like “publications” and “works in progress and under review” and you can list your works in progress and your works under review in that latter section (because that is accurate/not misleading). But there is a very high chance that you will rub people the wrong way by listing things that are under review among your publications (even if you disagree with me about whether it is inaccurate, I think you should defer to me on whether my view is sufficiently widely held).

D. Maybe some of your papers were invited and some were refereed (or some were both!). Do you list them together or separately or how to you indicate that? As with all of my answers, this is one of those things where it depends. If you are early career, people you are giving your CV to care a lot more about these distinctions, so it is important to make sure you make it easier for them to tell at a glance and don’t seem like you’re trying to sneak anything past them. You can make it super-duper obvious by separating them into different lists. Or you can keep them in one list and make sure there is very clear marking of which ones are “less” significant in the eyes of your audience, for easy discounting. Why do the latter? Looking back at question (A), maybe you want to show that you’ve been shifting from one area to another, and it’s easier to do that with the work all in one place than in two separate lists. But you still don’t want to look like you’re trying to pull a fast one. If you are later in your career where, the general process seems like it would be the same: ask yourself who is this for, and how much will they care, about this distinction, and what are you are saying presenting the information one way rather than another.

Serif vs. Sans Serif

There are lots of questions about CVs that this doesn’t answer: they turn on fully idiosyncratic and unpredictable features of the people reading them. That is, they have nothing to do with the purpose for which the CV is being evaluated or what they say about you, they have to do with whether the person reading the CVs objects to, e.g., certain types of fonts. It used to be about whether to staple or paperclip your CV. You cannot productively predict people’s preferences on this front. If someone is going to dislike your CV because you didn’t know their favorite font, or because you used the wrong sort of bullets to itemize lists or whatever, that wasn’t something you could do anything about, and no advice I could offer would have helped. I don’t think this happens all that often. If you want to know which fonts and formatting look nicest, you can either form your own personal judgments so that you like how your CV looks, or look into literature on font readability and such. The only thing I would say is very important is to make sure that whatever PDF you produce is searchable, because some people will want to see if something is on the CV by using ctrl-F, and you might as well make their life easier.

I said I would come back to hard-and-fast CV genre conventions. I am having trouble thinking of a purpose for which you would submit an academic CV where the first few blocks of information following your name are not some arrangement of the following (if applicable, and I’m not even 100% sure about the third one): a) your relevant employment history (including at least start and end years), b) your relevant education history (including at least conferral years), c) your areas of focus/specialization/competence/teaching interest. The fact that this is a conditionally applicable, disjunctive list, some of whose members I am not entirely sure of, reflects something about the flexibility of CV formats, and yet, I want to stress: these are the things where when they are supposed to be present and they aren’t, the CV seems ill-formed. (Whereas, the questions people frequently stress over, like, “can I list a talk that was canceled due to covid?” are, to me, ones with very easy answers like “yes, probably, depending on who it is for, but make sure it’s clear that it was canceled due to covid.”)

My very last note is that you will notice (if what I’ve said is right) you don’t really have a single correct snapshot CV at any given time. There are lots of different CVs that could be appropriate for you at a given time, depending on your specific purpose and who it would be for. None of them should conflict with each other, because they are all constrained by accuracy. But they might emphasize different things. Maybe one would include your course history and reading groups, and on another that would just be clutter. This only seems a weird way to talk because we normally act like there is a single thing—”your current CV”—and you just update it when you have something significant to add. And I think that’s one reason why can be so hard to answer some of the questions: they don’t have answers that make sense outside the context of specific things you would be using a CV for. Should you list your public-facing papers together with your academic work, or in a separate section? It depends who’s asking for your story.

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David Velleman
1 month ago

One minor suggestion. I think the document described here is more like a resumé than a CV. My reason for saying this is that younger scholars may not realize that they will later be unable to remember important events in careers, and they can’t be sure today which events will turn out to be important. You will find yourself needing to know which paper it was that you commented on at the Pacific APA 30 years ago. Maybe you think it was by the person who just emailed you out of the blue, but you want to be sure not to say “So nice to hear from you after all these years!” if you’ve actually never met. That’s a trivial example, but there will far less trivial cases. So I recommend maintaining a complete curriculum vitae, with everything you publish, every every presentation you make, no matter how insignificant they seem at the moment. Of course, that CV is not what you send when a resumé of your career is what’s called for. It’s the record from which you select the items for a resumé, as Lewis Powell describes.Report

Lewis Powell
Reply to  David Velleman
1 month ago

David highlights another good use of having some sort of “Comprehensive Record of Everything You’ve Done” (as I termed it).

I think my terminology is reflective of how to understand the phrase “CV” in the field, because when a job at requests a CV, they don’t want you to send the thing that David describes and you don’t want to send the thing he describes. Same with preparing a fellowship application, applying to grad school, really, your tenure dossier, and any time I can think of that someone asks for your CV (unless they are researching your biograpy, maybe?) they do not want the document he describes as a CV, but instead would want something like what I’ve called a CV, and what David has called a resume.Report

Kenny Easwaran
1 month ago

The last point makes me wonder – when I’m writing things in LaTeX, I have a single bibliography file that has everything, and then choose a style file that does the ordering and italics and everything else as needed for a particular use. Is there something similar for a CV? It would be convenient to have one document or database where I put everything, and then another place where I choose some settings for what to display and in what order, and it pulls it from that central database. But I haven’t heard of such a thing – does anyone else know of anyone who has made up a version of this that the rest of us can use?Report

Lewis Powell
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
1 month ago

At one point I had been using filemaker pro for another purpose, and considered setting up a filemaker pro database that just contained the full comprehensive record of every single thing I had ever done, and then allowed me to tweak the display for various purposes. This would not be a good plan for a few reasons:

  • Bad return on investment of time to learn how to use that (also why I don’t know how to use LaTeX).
  • Filemaker pro is expensive (I’m sure there are alternatives that are cheaper, it was just the one I was familiar with).
  • Whatever relative of the sunk cost fallacy it is where you keep not doing something because it would have been better if you had started doing it earlier?

Report

Mark Kalderon
Mark Kalderon
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
1 month ago

I use LaTeX for my CV. There really should be a package. Maybe there is now, it has been a few years since I looked. I copied and slightly modified a CV template from somewhere on the web, I cannot now remember who is responsible for it. It works reasonably well for my needs. You can check out the source code I am using at https://github.com/PhilGeek/cvReport

Bill Vanderburgh
1 month ago

All good advice. I got some related advice as a grad student (lo, these 25 years ago) that struck me as good then and still does now. Maybe it was from the Academic Job Search Handbook? I relied on that a lot since, as you point out, our discipline does a poor job of helping people with professional skills.

The advice was: When you have few publications or presentations, list everything under one heading in date order (most recent first) and make a parenthetical remark before each entry to contextualize it. Later, when you have more, divide into subcategories. Examples of parenthetical remarks:

(book)
(journal article; acceptance rate XX%)
(invited chapter)
(conference proceedings; acceptance rate XX%)
(under review)
(journal article; co-authored with NAME, my contribution was XX%)
(guest blog post)

This sort of thing fits well with advice I got when preparing my tenure file, namely that the candidate has to make their own case, they can’t expect the committees to understand the significance of the entries in the file. The same point applies to cv’s since you never know what discipline the dean or provost making the hiring decision will be from or what they will know about philosophy.

Having been on and chaired search committees, I realized I really like it when people with long lists in several categories number the entries. (Don’t make me count that you have 14 articles and 27 conferences–I’ve got 200 files to get through.)

When a category gets TOO long, later in your career, you need to start selectively leaving things out. It is worth an italicized comment at the beginning or end of the section to the effect “12 additional refereed presentations (total 31)” or “7 additional grants and awards, lifetime total $xxxx” or “Thirty-eight additional department, college and university service assignments.”

Speaking of how the c.v. changes depending on career stage, some other advice I picked up: When starting out, research is probably the second or third thing you list (education, then either teaching or research depending on the job you are applying for). When your list of pubs gets long, put it at the end.

Oh, and this is crucial: Many people on search committees are old. Many old people have poor eyesight. People with poor eyesight get annoyed when they have trouble reading your c.v. People who are annoyed when reading your c.v. are less likely to hire you. Therefore always use a legible font at 12-point (certainly not less than 11-point). Similarly, white space, headings, line spacing, clutter, etc., all make a difference. The goal is not fancy, the goal is clear.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
1 month ago

This all looks like excellent advice. I’d add one thing, though: in my experience (based on Oxford, USC, Pittsburgh, so obviously typical of only a certain type of institution): hardly anyone will do more than skim-read your CV.

To expand: as I’ve often stressed in DN discussions, at first pass no-one has time to spend more than a handful of minutes per dossier. And the dossier is 80 pages long, and the CV is low priority compared to your writing sample, personal statement, transcripts and references. If you make it to later stages, the writing sample will do most of the work; again, the CV has a minor role.

For graduate admissions, there’s probably almost nothing on the CV that’s likely to be relevant that won’t already be excerpted elsewhere. For junior hires, people want to know your publication record, your AOS/AOC, and possibly where you did your PhD, and that’s it. Even how many talks you’ve given and where is unlikely to matter much.

Concrete consequences:

  • if you are applying for a job, make sure your publications are easily and prominently visible; likewise your AOS/AOC and educational background. Nothing else matters much.
  • if you are applying for graduate study, don’t stress about your CV too much. Just do a professional job and don’t worry about the details. It probably won’t matter.
  • if there are idiosyncratic things on your CV that you think are important for your application, don’t rely on your CV itself to present them: they’ll probably be missed. Draw attention to them in your personal statement (grad applications) / cover letter (job applications).

(To repeat the disclaimer: this is how it goes, in my experience, at places like Oxford, USC or Pitt – i.e., elite research-focused departments. Others are better placed than I to comment on how these comments generalize to other institutions.)Report

Gordon Hull
Gordon Hull
Reply to  David Wallace
1 month ago

Yes to all of that. One quick addition from my experience on hiring committees for junior positions: some combination of your cv and cover letter needs to clearly and efficiently communicate that you in fact do what the job ad says you should be able to do. AOS/AOC don’t need to reflect the exact wording of the job ad, but they need to communicate that you fit it. The AOS/AOC also need to reflect your actual record – it’s no use saying you’re a specialist in epistemology if you’ve been publishing in only ethics (side qu for the group: should junior hires put their dissertation title/topic on the cv? If so, where? I’ve seen this done a lot of ways, and don’t have an immediate preference). A weird fit between the AOS/AOC and research record is a red flag.

The fastest research route to substantiating your AOS/AOC is publications, of course, which is part of why they should be so prominent (if you have more than a small number, I agree with the advice below to number them and to present in reverse chronological order. The longer you’ve been out, the less the search committee cares about your first article). Conference papers can serve a similar legitimating function (but don’t mix them in with the published papers, because then it looks like you’re artificially inflating your cv).Report

Lewis Powell
Reply to  David Wallace
1 month ago

Here is where I think my point about there not being many hard-and-fast rules comes in. I agree that attention spans are short (I mention this in the piece—it may be easy to overlook because the piece, ironically, is likely too long), but on my college level tenure committee, the CV is (at least by some members, I can’t speak for all of them), studied very carefully, and at length. People from other disciplines raise questions when they can’t make sense of information presented on the CV. So, for some purposes, one may want to treat the CV as apt to be intensely scrutinized. I do agree with you that this doesn’t mean you try to make the CV do all the heavy lifting of explaining everything. Sometimes the right solution is to have the CV clearly indicate where in the dossier the explanation exists. For example if you participated in an event that doesn’t fit some standard classification of events that we participate in, like it was a philosophical theatre experience or something. Don’t try to figure out how to convey what it was and why it was valuable on your CV. Note that you did it on your CV, put it in the section that best reflects what kind of contribution it was, and have a note that says “further information about this event can be found …” Maybe note if there is some super important aspect like that eligibility for participation was refereed or came with a prestigious award, etc.

(Oh, and if there is nowhere in the dossier to explain it, you should consider hosting the explanation on your own website, but your explanation should link to the external website of the event itself, if applicable. You want to host the explanation yourself so that you can provide the right explanation customized for your purposes, and make sure it is current with your CV, but you want to link to the relevant event itself so that it is easy for whoever looks at the CV to click once and see more information about whatever this unusual event was).Report

Last edited 1 month ago by Lewis Powell
Mark van Roojen
Mark van Roojen
Reply to  Lewis Powell
1 month ago

Having just served (actually I’m not done) on a College P&T committee, I think that you want a different CV for that purpose than for the job market. Each field has its conventions and common knowledge so for the job market you generally don’t have to explain stuff that you may need to explain for people in other fields. For example some fields have conventions about ordering authors on multi-author papers. Others have different conventions. That matters more in a tenure CV than in a job market CV where those hiring will generally be in our field. (The P&T committee I’m on liked indications of percentage contribution for multi-author papers on the CV whereas I’d never heard of such a thing before my first year on that committee last year.) Since job market CVs are mostly used in the first cut and read quickly, less by way of explanation is better if the simplicity helps people see the things you want them to see.Report

Lewis Powell
Reply to  Mark van Roojen
1 month ago

Yes, exactly! The category CV is heterogeneous, and the “rules” differ dramatically based on who it is for, which is why it is so hard to know what they are, unless you narrow the question based on who you are giving it to.Report

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan
1 month ago

A short version of this:

When you apply for a job, your CV tells a story about you. It is an advertisement for you. In most cases, the search committee will only look at the first page. So think carefully about what story it tells, and make sure the best reason to hire you in on the first page.Report

Annie
Annie
Reply to  Jason Brennan
1 month ago

Would you say this applies even if it means things being “out of order” compared to the norm? For example, I haven’t given all that many talks and none that are that prestigious, but my teaching evaluations are extremely good (not saying this is in fact diagnostic of good teaching, just focusing on perception here). Should I put the teaching stuff before the talks? Thanks for your help.Report

Lewis Powell
Reply to  Annie
1 month ago

It depends on what sort of job you are applying for, and how those two things would rank in your view and in the view of the people considering hiring you, as reasons to hire you. It’s not just how impressive the talks or the evals are, it’s about how much the people reading the CV would care about them, and what you are saying about how much you care about them.Report

Jason Brennan
Jason Brennan
Reply to  Jason Brennan
1 month ago

This inspired me to post a few excerpts about CV-writing from my book on academic life here:

https://200proofliberals.blogspot.com/2021/02/the-story-your-cv-tells.htmlReport

Michael Kremer
Michael Kremer
1 month ago

It seems there is a big difference between European and North American expectations for CVs, at least for job applications. Based on reading applications over the years, it seems that North American institutions emphasize first of all publications and presentations (and North American candidates’ CVs tend to be organized accordingly). European institutions look for success at winning grants, especially for more advanced positions. This can lead to candidates producing CVs that cause irritation with one group while satisfying another group.

I would be interested to know if others agree with this assessment.Report