Dear CareerDoctor,I would like some advice on CV writing, specifically for people, like me, going into the biomedical field/industry.Rajeev

Dear Rajeev,

In one of my recent columns, From an Employer's Wish-List to Your CV, Part 1 , I outlined a strategy for writing your CV that involved identifying the needs of your prospective employer and gathering together evidence of your suitability.

If we assume that you have a healthy list to work from, you are now ready to start creating your CV and covering letter. You have already done a lot of hard work, but now it's pay-off time--time to craft a CV that reads as if your chosen job has your name on it.

First of all get an image of the skeleton of your CV straight in your mind--quite literally. Decide on its structure and the headings that will direct the reader to key information. If you look at a few CVs you'll probably see the same headings and titles cropping up again and again: education, experience, interests. But do these actually sell what you have to offer? Very subtle changes in language can have a real impact on the impression your CV makes. For example, I prefer "Qualifications" to "Education" because I think it shifts the focus to your achievements. So, in applying for the job I used as an example in Part 1, I'd probably use as CV headings, in this order: Qualifications, Research Experience and Skills, Core Skills, Other Work Experience, Interests, and References.

Then you must make sure that you put the right bits under those headings. I've lost count of the number of postdoc CVs I've read which describe their research as "work experience" or worse, as part of their "education." In my mind, work experience equates to vacation and casual work, and even though these may be very valuable, they cannot develop your skills or knowledge to the same extent as a career in research. But if you introduce the heading "Research Experience" then you can pull all relevant work experience and details of research projects into a section that gathers together your technical skills and is easy to find. Short-listing CVs is very tiring and done in very limited time, so do everything you can to help the person reading yours.

This brings us to the subject of navigation within a CV--above all, it must be straightforward. So if you decide to pull together related information as I've just explained, make sure that the reader can find it. For example, if you're an undergraduate you must include the title of your research project under the degree description in the "Qualifications" section and note that it is described elsewhere ("details under Research Experience").

In a similar vein, PhD students and postdocs tend to find it tempting to fill their CVs up with detailed abstracts (or abstract details?) of their research, along with lists of publications and conferences attended. STOP! Fair enough, your research represents your major selling point--provided you are planning a research career. But it can get messy and repetitive. The best place for this information is in an appendix. Just write a brief, snappy description of your research in the main body of the CV. Then list the highlights such as the number of peer-reviewed publications, funding awards, and presentations at major conferences in a section titled "Achievements" (this always gives a positive impression!) and use the annex to give the details.

Now that you've put some flesh onto the skeleton of your CV, it is a good time to start thinking about what your CV will look like. Undergrads may get inspiration from examples on the Prospects Web site and PhD students and postdocs on the GRAD Web site. I'd also recommend that you get hold of as many "real" examples as possible by asking colleagues if you can see their CVs. I'd be wary about styling yours on a single example--take the best elements from several and inject your own style. Just spend some time playing with formats and ask your colleagues, university Careers Service, or professional body for feedback.

Although the final look is up to you, don't sacrifice clarity in the search for a unique "look."

  • White (or very close to white) paper looks professional (coloured paper reminds me of party invitations) and is best as CVs are often photocopied.

  • Use a font that is easy to read--sans serif fonts are best (that is, the fonts without small lines at the end of characters, such as Century Gothic and Tahoma).

  • Use clear, unambiguous headings so information is easy to find.

  • Break up text with bulleted lists--avoid dense paragraphs, which are easily skimmed over by tired eyes.

Don't forget your covering letter. Next Wave (see box) and Prospects offer very good advice, which I am not going to duplicate here. But keep in mind that, by definition, a covering letter is written to accompany your CV, so think about what sits best in the letter and which information will go into your CV, as you decide on headings. Another tip is to use the same phrases and language in your CV and covering letter as in the advert--which is very likely to be a direct product of the short-listing criteria.

Next Wave Tips for Your Covering Letter

- The Cover Letter: Door Opener par Excellence

- The Commandments of Cover Letter Creation

- Cover Letters: Cover the Marketing

Having identified your evidence of the qualities and skills the employer is seeking, decided on the headings which will market these most effectively, and developed some ideas about the format and "look" your CV will have, putting the CV and covering letter together should be reasonably straightforward. So my final pieces of advice will relate to mistakes I commonly see.

Spelling is my personal bugbear. If a recruiter sees a spelling mistake on a CV then what faith can they have that the reports, letters, and other written material the job will require will be produced with any more care? Beware of computer spell-checks as they do not spot every mistake and misspelling--it depends on the context.

If you use the strategy I suggested in my previous column, then all the information on your CV will relate to the post you are applying for. If you feel that important information hasn't been included then of course you should add it, but try to do this in a way which doesn't detract from the vital points. A good test is for you to ask someone to read your CV, and then quiz them on what they felt the key selling points of your CV were and what stood out. If their impressions are very different from what you hoped to achieve, it may be time to rethink the format or content of your CV.

This simple test also helps you to see how accessible and easy to read your CV is. When I was working as a careers adviser, I always felt that the best time to give an opinion on CVs was at the end of a hard day--although I came to regret sharing this idea with students, as they started queuing up outside my office later and later! What I mean is that you should never assume the reader will be fresh and enthusiastic, look hard for information they hope you have presented, and take for granted that you have the skills they seek. It is far more likely that they will make a decision about the future of your application in less than a minute. So if first impressions aren't good (too much information, tatty paper, misspellings, irrelevant details) then they may not be willing to search for positives.

As I'm sure you can tell, developing an effective CV requires a lot of effort, but it is an investment that should pay off. Going through the process I have described in these columns is difficult at first, but it becomes easier with practice. Ultimately it will save you time and effort as it ensures that you only apply for jobs you are confident about securing. I guarantee you that sending out 50 generic CVs in all directions is more time-consuming and less prone to success! You'll also become more articulate about your skills and selling points, which will reduce your preparation time for interviews. Perhaps the most compelling reason for devoting some time to CV preparation is the realisation that relatively few people truly tailor their job applications, so you can be confident of standing out from the crowd.

All the best in your career,

The CareerDoctor