Monday, 2 July 2018

CV obsession: why fixating on past experience is costing you valuable time and energy

Steve Joy

“Please will you have a look at my CV?” “The thing I’m most worried about is my CV!” “If we have a few minutes left, I was wondering whether you could have a quick look at my CV.” I long ago lost track of the proportion of one-to-one appointments, informal chats at conferences, and even phone calls with friends that have included these words. The CV seems to be the idée fixe of the vast majority of early career researchers I speak to. You probably think that it’s perfectly reasonable. But I have news for you: stop obsessing about your CV. It’s rarely the real question. It’s often a cause for self-doubt. It’s almost always a signal of not having the right mindset. And it’s energy which you can much better channel in more productive directions.

Let me explain.

Not the real question

The thing is, I don’t really believe 99% of the people who tell me that their CV is the thing they’re most worried about. Not literally. That’s because the real question, in most cases, is not “What do you think of this document?” but rather “What do you think of my experience?” – or, put bluntly, “Do you think I’m good enough to go for this job?”

It’s a soul-searching conversation to have with oneself. It goes right to the heart of our sense of self, not to mention our sense of professional identity. It’s perfectly sensible to ask yourself whether you’re “good enough”, but let’s at least be upfront about which conversation we’re really having, and let’s not get distracted by small talk about multi-level bullet points and whether you should avoid justified alignment (you should). Good, clean formatting is essential, but it’s not too difficult to get right if you have trustworthy advice.

Let’s not get trapped in the wrong mindset: past experience is valuable and important, but it’s not the only valuable and important part of a job application.

Be kinder to yourself

CV obsession fixes people’s minds backward, on what they’ve done or not done in the past. And it’s easy to see how early career researchers have become socialised to obsess about these things. The current metrics-mad climate of academia is endlessly enculturating us to fixate on, in a certain sense, the number of lines we have on our CV. But absolutely nobody’s CV is perfect.

If you simply don’t have a qualification or an experience listed as essential in a job description, then we need to talk about whether you should even be applying – it will really depend on the specifics. But in all other cases, your task is to present what you do have in the simplest, cleanest way possible. There’s confidence in that approach. But because people are preoccupied with the quantum of experience in their CV, they often resort to ‘padding’ when they worry that they don’t have enough of something. This is seldom a convincing manoeuvre.

And it’s probably unnecessary anyway: research has consistently shown that employers tend at least as much to have a forward mindset, i.e. they are equally focused on your potential to do good work. This is where the rest of the application comes in: it’s your space to convince the employer that you are proactive, intentional, and ready for what comes next.

Forward mindset

This is where many early career researchers fall down on the job market: they simply haven’t thought forward. Many candidates haven’t even tried to imagine what it would be like to carry out the job they’re applying for. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about academia, professional roles in higher education, or any other sector you can think of. You always have to use your expertise, your judgement, and your intuition to envision what actually doing that role would look like. Employers will want to hear this at interview, so you may as well start doing the thinking now.

This applies just as much to making up for perceived ‘gaps’. If, for example, you are going for a teaching position but don’t have any undergraduate lecturing on your CV, don’t fill out your teaching section with hourly paid secondary school tutoring. No lecturer will regard that as equivalent experience, because it isn’t. Don’t obsess with how to massage the CV: put your efforts into the cover letter or application statement, and tell me what your plan is for the next couple of years. Which courses could you teach for them? What new course could you introduce (and why would their students find it valuable)? Can you give an example of an innovative teaching practice in your subject and how you would incorporate it into your lectures/demonstrations/seminars?

Similarly, if you haven’t spoken at a major conference in your field, then don’t try to distract attention by adding every minor internal seminar you’ve ever spoken at; it risks giving the impression that you don’t know what, at established academic levels, is genuinely important. Think instead about the research plan. Does your new project lend itself to a presentation at a particular conference? Name it. Could you chair a panel on a theme that’s directly relevant to your new research? Identify it, along with the names of the people you would want to invite.

Time and energy

Having a forward mindset requires three things. Mental energy: to do the imaginative work required to picture yourself in a new role. Plenty of time: which is why trying to do it all the night before an application is due will be terribly stressful. And a certain bravery: if you put an idea out there, you expose it to the possibility of others’ disagreement. But without a plan, the employer has no way of knowing what you intend to do, or whether you have even noticed a gap in your experience.

It’s amazing how much more positively you can approach the application and, hopefully, the interview by taking a forward-looking approach – because it is itself a positive, proactive way of thinking. So, please, stop obsessing about your CV. It’s making you doubt yourself. Put your valuable time and energy into coming up with a strong, strategic plan.

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