An Introduction to Writing a CV
This page is designed particularly for graduate students in all fields and provides introductory advice on how to write a CV. The term “CV” is short for “curriculum vitae”—the Latin phrase for “the course of one’s life.” Your CV is a document that presents who you are as a scholar. CVs are used in academic spheres to organize your education, experiences, and accomplishments in a clear and predictable way that allows readers to skim and find information efficiently. When you apply for an academic position or opportunity, a CV is usually requested instead of a resume.
Hiring committees may receive hundreds of applications for any one job, and their time is limited. Therefore, you want to make sure that your CV is as clear and directed as possible. Your CV needs to be tailored to that position’s specific expectations and structured and formatted so that all your material is clear, consistent, and skimmable. Your integrity is very important to uphold, so as with any other application document, make sure that anything you include on your CV is accurate and will stand up to questioning in an interview.
This information is general and not tailored to any particular discipline. As such, you absolutely need to:
- locate strong current sample CVs from your field,
- talk to your mentors and professors about particular expectations of CVs in your discipline, and
- share drafts of your CV for feedback from trusted advisors and colleagues.
The insight you receive from these other sources along with the information provided below will help you to make informed decisions about how to approach, draft, and revise your particular CV.
Resumes vs. CVs
While CVs and resumes are similar documents, they are also different in some key ways. (You can find more information about resumes and resume writing here.) This table details some of the most important points of comparison and contrast to be aware of:
- Resume: To present the case that your experience and skills make you a great candidate for a particular position.
- CV: To present the case that your academic experience and accomplishments make you a great candidate for a particular academic position.
- Resume: Any possible employer or HR employee.
- CV: Fellow academics on a hiring committee.
- Resume: Probably only 1 page and absolutely no longer than 2 pages.
- CV: As long as you need it to be while still keeping it as concise as possible.
- Description of Experience
- Resume: Focused on active skills linked with quantifiable results you’ve achieved.
- CV: Often not needed since your audience understands academic work and many job, publication, and conference titles are self-explanatory.
- Objective Statement
- Resume: May appear on the top of the first page.
- CV: Not included.
- Resume: Not included.
- CV: May appear at the end of the CV.
- Description of Experience
- Resume: Simple, clear, and skimmable.
- CV: Simple, clear, and skimmable.
Sections to Include
Your CV should be divided into clearly labeled sections that allow your readers to easily skim through and learn about your relevant qualifications. The exact sections you include will depend on your background and the positions you’re applying for. In some disciplines, there may be an established order to the sections after “Education.” If so, follow that. If not, highlight your greatest strengths for the position. For example, if you are applying for a position at a research university, you might choose to start with your publications. If the position primarily involves teaching, lead with your teaching section.
In what follows, we detail the most common CV sections:
This information should appear at the top of your CV and should include your name, phone number, mailing address (either work or private), and professional email address. You may want to draw some attention to this information by slightly altering the formatting, alignment, or font, but don’t overdo this.
Frequently this section follows your contact information. This section, like most in a CV, is organized in reverse chronological order, so that your most recent (or highest) degree or degree–in–progress appears first. Include the name of the school, the degree conferred, the area of study and/or major and minor, and the year the degree was completed. This is also an appropriate place to include the title of your dissertation and/or Master’s thesis along with your key advisors’ names. Don’t include your GPA, and generally, do not include information about anything prior to your Bachelor’s degree.
Given the expectations of a CV, include only employment experience that is connected to your academic work, interests, and development. Also, whereas in a resume you describe your work, skills, and accomplishments, such detailed descriptions are often out of place in a CV. The people reading your CV have a pretty good idea of what it means to have taught, for example, a general chemistry or an introduction to philosophy course. Of course, if a position you held wouldn’t be clear to other academics, you may choose describe it here. For example, if you worked at an MRI lab but your primary responsibilities involved subject location, screening, and interviews, this would be an important descriptive detail to establish in this section.
While you may choose to not use subsections and there may be others to consider, the three most common are: teaching experience, research experience, and administrative experience.
Often this details: the institutions where you’ve taught, your job titles at these institutions (e.g., TA, intern, adjunct instructor, etc.), the names and course numbers for the classes you’ve taught, and the dates when you taught these or the number of terms you taught them.
If you’ve served as a research assistant in any capacity, this would be an appropriate section to identify that. Depending on your field and experience, you may choose to detail: the names of labs you’ve worked in, the names of PIs you’ve worked under, the titles of projects you’ve worked on and the nature of your contributions, and the dates of your involvement. It is appropriate to use vocabulary here that is familiar to your scholarly peers.
If you have leadership experience in your department or in connection to other organizations or initiatives, you will want to identify your role, the name of the program, the dates you served in this capacity, and perhaps a brief description of your responsibilities. While many CV items won’t include descriptions, when accounting for your administrative experience, you may need to offer a sentence or a concise bulleted list in order to inform your readers of what you did within this position.
Include the titles, names of any co–authors, and publication information for your scholarly reviewed publications. Some writers format their references by following the major documentation system used in their discipline. Often publications are organized in reverse chronological order starting with your most recent publication. There are some very specific rules about how to describe manuscripts that are under consideration but not yet accepted or that are in press. Be sure to ask your faculty advisors for instruction about how to claim credit for work in progress without inflating your accomplishments.
Sometimes CV writers want to showcase other, slightly less academic publications (e.g., blog posts or creative writing). If you choose to do this, make sure you use subsection titles to provide clear distinctions between types of publications.
Presentations and Posters
Include the presentation or poster titles, names of any co–presenters, conferences, and dates for your scholarly presentations at conferences. If you have many of these to choose from, select only the most relevant or prestigious presentations to include in a given CV.
Grants, Fellowships, Honors, and Awards
Depending on how many of these you have to draw from, you might choose to break this into subsections. Mostly, this section is about acknowledging the accolades you’ve won and the competitive resources you’ve received. Include the names of the awards or grants and the date you received them. Here again, be strategic about what you include. If a grant you received is particularly prestigious or sizable, it can be appropriate to detail the amount received.
CV readers want to know about your participation on committees, the ways you’ve contributed to the life of your department or other organizations, and the associated volunteer work you’ve done. In this section, include information (titles, organization names, dates) about this part of your academic experience.
If you’ve been a member of a scholarly organization, include the titles of those organizations and the years of your membership.
Especially if it is relevant to your research or academic work, include any languages you know and the extent of your proficiency. If appropriate for your field, this might include foreign languages as well as computer languages.
When it comes to formatting your CV, your priority should be maintaining simplicity, clarity, and skimmability. Now is not the time for you to experiment with different fonts and unconventional alignment. Follow the formatting standards you identify within the sample CVs that you locate. Don’t try to be original with how you lay out your information. Make sure your CV looks like the others so that readers can focus on the content of your document. Here are some specific formatting tips to keep in mind:
- Balance text and white space. Pay attention to where text is bunched up and where your page is empty and try to spread these elements out so that your information is clear.
- Don’t use anything smaller than point 11 font, and while it’s okay to adjust the margins, don’t go under .5–inch on all sides.
- Be stylistically consistent. For example, if you choose to make one section title bold, make them all bold.
- Be smart about where your page breaks occur. For example, don’t leave a section heading stranded by itself on the bottom of one page. Also, if you have a choice on an electronic application, upload your CV as a .pdf file. This will let you control the formatted appearance regardless of what templated preferences reviewers have on their computer.
Be consistent and work with parallel structures.
Across your CV, be consistent in your formatting, structure, and content. This is a matter of very closely following the norms that you establish for how your CV is set up. For example, if you abbreviate state names in your education section, abbreviate them in your work experience section as well. If you include a 12–point line break after one section, include the same size line break after every section. If you use complete sentences in your description of one job, use complete sentences in every description.
Revise and proofread your CV.
No matter how many similar CVs you’ve sent out, always read through each newly adjusted one slowly and in its entirety. Consider critically your content, clarity, order, and layout. Make sure that your grammar is flawless. Ask people whose opinion you trust to look at your CV, and be open to making changes to your document based on their recommendations. In addition to getting feedback from experts in your discipline, if you are a currently enrolled UW–Madison student, you are welcome to bring your CV into the Writing Center or visit us at one of our satellite locations to have one of our instructors help you re-see and re–consider your work.
Organize your CV drafts and information.
Your CV will change and grow as you continue through your academic career. Find a way to keep track of your additional experiences so that when it comes time to submit a new CV you aren’t scrambling to remember recent conference presentations, awards, classes, etc. Some people have a CV folder on their computer where they can progressively deposit details about additional work and accomplishments. Others find it useful to have a master or composite CV that includes formatted information about everything they’ve done. They return to this document several times a year to update it, and when it’s time to submit a new CV, they paste items from this list into a new document. However you do it, make sure that you’re keeping track of the impressive things you’ve done so that nothing gets accidentally left out.
- Chapter 1 “Preparing for Entering Academia” of Prosanta Chakrabarty’s A Guide to Academia: Getting Into and Surviving Grad School, Postdocs, and a Research Job (2012) has great tips and insight for junior scholars writing their first CV.
- Chapter 7 “Your Career” of Martin H. Krieger’s The Scholar’s Survival Manual: A Road Map for Students, Faculty, and Administrators (2013) includes some important questions for you to ask yourself to make sure that your CV accurately and efficiently represents your best work.
- The Chronicle of Higher Education has published a range of detailed information, samples, and before–and–after renovations of CVs through its 2008, 2009, and 2010 “CV Doctor” content. You can find links to all of this material here.
One of the best ways to learn about CVs is to carefully study successful samples. While you should be absolutely sure to ask faculty mentors and other collegaues in your field for CV models and advice, we have also a few .pdf files of successful CVs from UW–Madison colleagues in various disciplines. While there is no single right way to compose a CV, these samples can open up conversations about choices you have for organizing and structuring CVs.
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