Highlights CVs and different skills

Have you heard of a skills based CV? Can postdocs use a skills based CV? When should researchers use it in their job hunting?

Let’s do traditional

Traditionally, most people have a chronologically based CV. You’ll have your name at the top and then have your qualifications, all listed in reverse chronological order (most recent first. Then we have work history – for most you lovely avid readers that will be all your research roles. Again, in reverse chronological order.

If you’re a PhD research student, it makes sense to have your qualifications (not education – that was school!) at the top because that is what you’re doing now. Stop this list at your earliest degree – no-one needs to know about your school pottery qualification (well unless it is mentioned in the job description – in which case I’m intrigued!).

If you are a postdoc, you might want to reverse the first two sections. Why? Because as a potential employer I am more interested in what you are doing now, rather than what you did for your PhD.  Also, it means that immediately I get the fact that you’re not a PhD student that you are a postdoc! And as we know postdocs are the most marvellous beings – professional researchers who have experienced life beyond the student.

In general, that’s how we do an academic CV, in reverse chronological order, because we need to know what you’re doing now, what’s most recent and then go back in time (but not in an entertaining Back to the Future way). We will follow that through, we might have a teaching section, a skills section and certainly a publication section at the end. It works for academia – we (well academics) know what they are looking for and the conventions help them find it quickly.

How to escape academia without looking like a failure?

Escape the mould of the standard academic CV! Focusing on your skills rather than the history of your life, which let’s face it has been mostly academia, can explain why you are the perfect fit for their job description. Forcing yourself to group skills together translates your many experiences into something the employer can easily understand.

Your CV will be read for 30s or less

A skills based CV can be a fantastic way of making sure that you’ve got all the skills that that particular employer is looking for. Outlined in a way that is really quick and easy. The job market is phenomenally competitive at the minute in academia and outside. A CV might only be read for probably less than 30 seconds, the employer knows what they’re looking for and if they can’t find it quickly, you go on the no pile, you stay on the no pile and there is no second sift at this point. Jobs are having 100 applications or more for each job, so you need to stand out, you need to make it quick and easy for your precious piece of paper or digital CV to go on the yes pile as opposed to the no pile.

How do I make a skills based CV?

If you are a postdoc, you will have your name up the top with a doctor at the front or ,PhD at the end. Quite often, then people give a huge paragraph of contact details, personal information, various other things. This isn’t needed! A phone number and email address will suffice.

Then we have a personal statement, now I used to hate personal statements at the top of CVs, but on a skills based CV, I think they do have a place. If you can write something meaningful, that speaks to the employer about why you would be fantastic for the job, then by all means, use that profile space. It needs to be no more than three sentences but does need to be meaningful. Do not say “I have great attention to detail and a passion for communicating science to the public” – don’t we all? Think about making it really pithy and highly relevant to the job. The biggest question that an employer has of a postdoc or even a late stage PhD switching to a job outside of academia is “okay, are they going to be just a frustrated academic? Are they going to want to still be in the research arena? Are they taking this job because it’s just a fill in until they can get a postdoctoral fellowship?” You’ve got to convince them that you really want to move! And move to them.

That magic first page of the CV

We’re still on the first page of our CV (max headroom: 2 pages) and we’re going to have a section called skills. This is the most important section in a skills based CV (yes I guess you knew that!). As always, look back at the job description and they will have a list of skills. Now the caveat that every job description known to man is written for an angelic being that does not exist.  Look at the skills listed and think okay, have I got six out of 10? If the answer is yes, I can apply!

Some of the skills will be more important to that employer. A quick way of finding which these are is to phone., If there is any contact on that advert for further information, you must ABOSLUTELY do that as it’s such a busy job market at the minute and you want every advantage you can get. By talking to Joe Bloggs, you’ll find out that actually the top three skills are the most important. Talking to someone will also put your name top of their mind when reading through the CVs.

So now we’ve identified the top three or four skills in that job advert, we’re then going to have sections for each. In the sections, there should be two or three bits of evidence that shows how you have that skill. For instance:

Communication skills

I have presented my scientific findings at conferences both in presentations and through posters. I have explained the physics of medical imaging to a wide variety of collaborators, mostly notably at an Erasmus course for medical doctors in Dundee. I applied for competitive funding to bring science experiments to a local school in a disadvantaged area. The feedback from teachers and children was enthusiastic.

Rinse and repeat with each skill. Too many for one section and a bit thin on another? My recommendation is to look at what fits best were for this particular job application. Grab some post-its and move the experiences around the different sections. For instance teaching can be great communication, explaining technical concepts or, um, dealing with difficult people!

Once you’ve demonstrated your excellent your skills, you then come on to your work history and qualifications. And they will probably realistically be on the second (and final) page. But they can be much briefer now, because you’ve pulled out the really relevant things for that employer that that employer cares about.


And remember the 3Rs for CVs. Relevance. Reduce. Recent.

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