The academic cv – it’s forward looking



Most people think about their cv as a retrospective document. The cv has to talk about where you’ve been, what you’ve achieved, where and with whom. However, this is not the way that the academic cv is read. All cv readers have an eye firmly on the future and how what’s on the page tallies with a particular job, bid etc. So writing the cv as if it is simply a record of what has happened in your working life up till now is the equivalent of trying to drive a car looking only in the rear vision mirror.

The cv is a post-hoc rationalisation of events. But it is one where you have to talk about what your experience fits you for. To put it another way, it’s vital the cv signals the broad direction in which your teaching, research and writing is going. The reader needs to understand you aren’t randomly wandering around in job-land, but are purposeful, going somewhere. And you need to show the reader that the job you are applying for is a logical next step from where you are now. Even if that’s not the reality, the cv game has it this way.

Establishing ‘fit’ between a future agenda, the job in question and your history is not easy for a lot of early career scholars. These days, you more often than not have to piece together a series of short-term positions, some of which won’t necessarily appear coherent at first sight. (An aside- this is where blogging might help – a blog about a particular topic can signal that you have maintained a particular focus throughout a variety of positions.) It is crucial to do something in the cv proper to convince the reader that there is a logic to what might otherwise appear to be a random set of job choices.

Here are three strategies you can use in a job application to produce a more forward-looking and coherent stance:

– the first is straightforward – it’s through an accompanying letter, if you are able to put one in. A letter of application needs to very clearly establish the connection between the job and your experience, skills and knowledge and your overall ambitions.

– the second strategy is to write a short discursive introduction to the cv. In this short introduction, talk briefly about the long term research and/or teaching agenda that you are pursuing. This very short discursive section must connect your long term agenda with what you’ve learnt from each position you’ve held. If the jobs you’ve had have allowed you to develop a methodological repertoire then say so – In order to develop a comprehensive set of research tools, I have built up a research repertoire of x, y and z. Or if your various positions all used the same methodology you can present projects as applications of the particular methodology in a number of sites and topics – My aim is to build significant expertise in mixed methods studies/narrative studies/archival work; I have to date worked on x projects which… etc. Maybe you have held a number of posts working on a particular topic, but in different disciplinary contexts – Over the last x years I have worked on projects which examined the effects of the current policy agenda in hospitals, offices and schools, using a range of methods (say which) in order to… Maybe you can also talk about about developing interdisciplinary expertise. This discursive introduction will provide a framing for the list of publications and projects that follow; it guides the reader in their evaluation of your suitability for the post and what you might do in it, and get from it.

– the third strategy is to attend to the ways in which the publications and projects are represented. It may be that, as a result of various jobs, or because you’ve got an interdisciplinary focus, you now have publications in apparently disparate journals. Some may also be co-authored publications and/or be scattered across disciplinary areas. There are at least three possibilities to deal with this in the cv:

(1) make sure you anticipate the critical reading in any introductory sections and letters by making the claim early for methodological, theoretical or interdisciplinary coherence across the publications and projects.

(2) a less orthodox approach, but one I’ve seen used to advantage, is to annotate projects and publications. Providing there aren’t a lot of them, add a sentence after each project/publication to indicate the key issue – the content, methodology, argument or knowledge contribution – in such a way that it’s clear there are commonalities between what might otherwise look like a random list.

(3) you can group the publications under headings to show coherence but also to flag up that you work in a couple of areas. (This is actually what I often do with my own list of publications and projects.)

You have to make sure that any discursive work and annotations you write cumulatively builds up a picture of a specific academic agenda and growing expertise. It is this adding and piling up that is the evidence for things going in a particular – and you can make this seem very rational – direction.

And here’s something to be wary of. Early career researchers often put work-in-progress or work-in-review into a general publications list. My hunch is that this is often the attempt to signal something forward looking. But it doesn’t work like this. The prospective list is usually read by the critical cv reader as an attempt to pad the publications out, the writer is trying make their list of achievements look more than it actually is. Personally, I only ever include in my cv any work in press, and any books under contract or special journal issues actually in train. But if you feel you must add in some work in progress then, rather than muddle the future up with the present, my tip is to add a very very short section at the end of the publications sections which flags up only those books, refereed journal articles, special issues and chapters that are in review and under contract/commission. Don’t put stuff in that you’re working on and hope to put in sometime. That really isn’t read kindly.

And of course, because life, work and the future are always in progress, don’t forget to redo any discursive sections and annotations for each position! With cvs, bespoke is always the way to go.

Author Bio: Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham. Her research is centred primarily on how schools might change to be more engaging and meaningful for more children and young people.