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The ultimate guide to creating a life sciences CV that is more than just a piece of paper

The ultimate guide to a life sciences CV that is more than just a piece of paper

It always seems that when you are under pressure to update your CV the formatting goes all wonky. No matter how fastidious you are with the formatting there is always at least one line of text or one number that is 1/2 of a space off from the others. You try deleting, copying and repasting, and pounding on your keyboard. No of these things seems to work.

Episodes like this are one of the reasons why we dread writing and maintaining our CVs. What you may not realise is that those who read our CVs dread equally as much having to review a stack of dull CVs that all look the same. Endless publications, abstracts made to seem to be more than they are, and everyone an expert in Microsoft Word and Excel.

You do not want to be obscure

Is the reason you created a CV because you want to be obscure? I hope not. You need to stand out.


By anticipating what questions your future employer will have on her mind as she reads your CV. You may think she will want to know how much you know about your field. But that will not help her differentiate between candidates. There are many people who have a deep knowledge of their field. Your future employer is likely looking for a different type of knowledge.

She wants to know who can apply their knowledge and get things done.  It is, if you will, your knowledge about how to apply your knowledge that matters. With a simple restructuring, you can transform your CV so that your ability to apply your knowledge and get things done stands out.

In a previous post, I outlined the concept of the Researcher’s Needs Pyramid. Demonstrating your ability to meet these needs is an excellent way to highlight that you know how to apply your knowledge and get things done. Regardless of your chosen career path your ability to fulfil your needs as a researcher is highly relevant.

7 Questions to answer in your CV about your ability to meet your needs as a researcher.

1. Who are you?

This is straightforward: name, address, email, phone number. It is also important in this day and age to list here the social media you use for work. No need for your future employer to see cat videos posted by your weird uncle Bob.  Linked-In is best. Include a good photo. The more of your torso you show the better. It makes you look more friendly. You should also be smiling. Black and white looks more professional.

2. What step change do you want to contribute to?

This is just a variation of who you are but in a more meaningful way.  Here is how this section appears on my CV:

Step change that I want to contribute to in the life sciences: I am passionate about multi-stakeholder collaboration as a way to drive innovation in the life sciences. My aim is to facilitate multi-stakeholder collaborations to prove that the level of creativity that happens when multiple disciplines and multiple perspectives converge is able to achieve innovations that no one thought were possible.

Writing a clear statement like this not only tells people what you care about, it defines what you plan to accomplish. That is more important to your future employer than your non-fluent knowledge of Cantonese.

If you have not thought about the step change you want to contribute to, take the time to do so. Doing so is infinitely less annoying than struggling with the formatting of a Word document.  It will also help guide you in deciding which opportunities are right for you. Furthermore making a clear statement about what you aim to accomplish increases your chances of being selected by an employer that is right for you.

3. What collaborations have you been involved in?

This is an unusual topic to include so prominently in your CV. However, for the life sciences, it can be a major differentiator. Everyone knows that collaborations are essential if you are going to have any kind of impact. Even if it just a collaboration with someone down the hallway who gives you advice on a technique. You should also appreciate that effective collaboration is one of the best ways to fulfil your needs as a researcher. This is particularly true for multi-stakeholder research collaborations. They are rich with opportunities to get more funding, learn new techniques, generate and get access to more data, and publish high impact publications. Most importantly multi-stakeholder collaborations are your best chance to contribute to a step change in your field.

Bernard Marr put it this way in a recent post on 10 important career lessons most people learn too late:

                       "You can go fast alone, but you can go farther together."

4. What publications demonstrate your abilities?

It is pretty obvious that you should include publications on your CV. If you have a number of publications this section can get very long. To make it easier on the person who is reviewing your CV list out 5 of the most relevant publications or most impactful then put a link to the longer list which will appear later in your CV. Depending upon your goal you may want to make this short list stand out more by listing the impact factor or describing your role on the project that led to the publication. Don’t be modest. If it was a project that you developed the concept, techniques, hypothesis etc. by yourself, say so. Your potential future employer will want to know that you are more than just another pretty name on a manuscript. In fact, if you are not selecting your top 5 papers because of impact factor then it is a good idea to include manuscripts that you contributed the most to

[box]Simple technology hack: Put a hyperlink into the document at the bottom of a short list that leads to a longer list at the end of the document.[/box]

Don’t forget about any blogging you have done. A blog post is a publication and a good way to profile yourself as an expert. If you do not blog, perhaps you should. It’s easy if you focus on what you are good at. For example a blog about lab techniques, recruiting patients to a study, managing your time as a researcher etc.

5. Are you data savvy?

Another unusual category. Research these days is about data. In reality, data has always been the substance of research, but now the complexity of research means that the modern researcher has to have data handling skills. Showcase those here.

What types of datasets have you worked with? Are you familiar with data standards? Have you ever had to quality control a dataset? Don’t forget to list out the size or the context of the datasets you have worked with. Maybe you have experience processing data from an analytical instrument such as a mass spec or a gene chip. Take credit for that as well in this section.

6. What are the techniques you can bring to your new job?

Often when techniques are included in a CV only the name of the technique is included. Take the time to give concrete evidence that you have mastered each the technique. How many experiments have you run using the technique? Did you have to work to establish the technique in your lab? How do you quality control your technique? Did you write the SOP? Have you been involved in selecting a new device or even negotiating over supplies? If you feel you don’t have enough to list in this section take action. You could see if the manufacturer of a piece of technology has training courses and take them. You could create a SOP for your lab, or just revise and update the current one. Write an article or a blog about the techniques you use. If you do only clinical research there are a lot of techniques you make not consider as techniques. Recruiting and consenting patients in an important technique. Writing a protocol or building a clinical study budget is important technique. Did you help design the case record form?

7. What funding is supporting your research?

What was your role in getting that funding? Do you have to manage the budget for your project? Even if it is a small local grant list it here. If it is the unusual situation that your PI has structural money and you have never had to apply for a grant do all that you can do to stay where you are at.

Getting funding shows that you have the skills to form a project that is good enough to impress a panel of reviewers. Most jobs will require something similar. Even within industry you have to make the case for budget for your projects.

Answer these 7 questions up front in your CV, then include all the other usual stuff that is put into a CV towards the bottom.

Your CV is more than an annoying chore.

Don’t be afraid of the gaps in your CV. They are a call to action. They tell you which researcher needs you need to work on to further develop your career. Filling in the gaps is easier than you think.

Once you start to fill in a gap go to your CV and list out what you are doing to fill in your gap. For example, suppose you have little or nothing to include under data. Then the minute you sign up for a data or bioinformatics workshop add it to your CV.

It is important that you view your CV not as a means of highlighting your deficiencies, but rather as a way of celebrating what you have achieved and projecting your enthusiasm for what you will achieve in the future.

Your CV is an opportunity to stand out. But you do not want to stand out in a flashy weird way. You should stand out in ways that capture the interest of those reading your CV.  There is so much potential in your CV. Get past the formatting frustrations and build a CV that you look forward to updating and will help you stand out. Perhaps, more importantly, use your CV as your roadmap for building your career and look at updating your CV as a means of patting yourself on the back for what you have accomplished.