Build Your Résumé From the Bones Up

Taking a fresh look at how you tell your workplace story may help renew your zest for research, affirm your value and steer you in the right direction, Victoria McGovern writes.

July 18, 2022
A page with "curriculum vitae" typed on it, with a magnifying glass lying on top.
(JLGutierrez/E+/getty images)

Summer is a good time for graduate students and postdocs to revisit their curricula vitae and résumés, updating them with what you accomplished in the academic year that has just ended and thinking about what you hope to do in the upcoming semesters. The summers of 2020 and 2021 were strange—2020 because of the COVID-19 disruptions and 2021 because of the continuing uncertainty. The uncertainty is still here, and the job market is still disrupted—but it is surprisingly in favor of the job seekers rather than those who hope to find good people. This year, taking a fresh look at how you tell your workplace story may help renew your zest for research, affirm your value to those who want to accomplish great things and steer you in the direction your heart wants you to go.

If you are planning to be an academic, it is useful to download a template for the CV maintained for tenure and promotion at the type of institution where you hope to work someday. Such templates are easy to find—limit your favorite search engine to documents hosted in the .edu domain and search for terms like “tenure CV template.”

I first saw a tenure-focused CV when I was a postdoc. A third-year assistant professor I was friendly with inadvertently left it at my bench when we were talking. It listed everything.

The CV that I had started as a graduate student listed papers that included a few I sheepishly described as “in progress.” The tenure template my friend left was eye-opening: it broke publications down into many types—refereed articles, unrefereed articles, scientific reviews, books, book chapters, book reviews, editorial commentary, unpublished reports, monographs and more. The list of document types was followed by space for recording patents and software.

Compared to my friend’s, my own template was nearly empty and glaringly devoid of whole categories of contribution that I had never considered: commissioned work, consulting, ghostwriting. Her template also broke funding into categories such as federal, private, local and institutional, and it listed both funded and unfunded proposals. It also listed published abstracts and, separately, the posters and conference talks that had resulted. Invited presentations at other institutions and other kinds of talks—for example, to community groups—each got their own list. Service roles, including to the university, college, department, professional societies and community, also had a place.

Once I understood what it was for, I got a copy of the university’s template and stored it in in a file still named “résumé bones.” Again, I recommend that you do the same. That said, however, when it comes to measuring your fit for a job, are the items a university wants to know the ones that quantify the whole story? Or do they have a lot more to it?

The Course of One’s Life

“Curriculum vitae” means the course of a person’s life. When you are collecting details for future tellings of your workplace story, you should think about your whole life, not just the part you have spent in academic pursuits. Many things that fall outside your scholarly life matter. Side jobs can teach you about serving customers well, meeting tight deadlines and improvising when things go wrong. Volunteering consistently for one nonprofit or a small number of them throughout your graduate training may give you valuable experience in organizing an event, working as part of a team or leading a substantial project. Serious hobbies may bring you opportunities to perform, publish or speak in venues that are not connected to your academic work. They may not belong in your academic CV, but marking down the milestones and achievements of your life outside academic work will make it easy for you to remember them when you introduce yourself to potential nonacademic employers.

Once you have built your own collection of résumé bones, ask people senior to you if you can see the CVs that they have used for potential jobs and in grant applications to various agencies. If you have colleagues who have gotten dissertation fellowships or independent funding for a postdoc, ask if you can see their application packet for an example. The grant narrative will be useful when you decide to seek funding, but in the meantime, their CV may give you a sense whether you are ready to write a successful proposal, or it may show you some gaps in your preparation. You can focus on filling those in the upcoming academic year.

Are You Ready Now?

Since 2020, when COVID-19 lockdowns disrupted many aspects of our lives, the job market has behaved differently than it did before. These days, job candidates are often in short supply, and employers are eager to bring on people who can help them accomplish their goals. It is a rewarding time for rethinking why you sought out graduate training and what you hope to accomplish by earning an advanced degree.

Related Stories

If you have come to think your training is not getting you closer to accomplishing the things that matter to you, spend some time reviewing want ads to identify a few positions that seem to describe your dream job. Apply if you would like, but if you do not feel ready, use your résumé bones to craft a picture of yourself—a new résumé—in which your experiences fit the job description. Are there gaps?

If you feel unable to spot potential gaps, informational interviews will help you and should be your next step. If you can see gaps but do not know how to fill them, consider working with a career counselor as well as conducting informational interviews. And if you know how to fill the gaps, just get started. Write down what you can you do over the next several months to prepare yourself, make contacts around the type of job you want, introduce yourself to potential employers, gain experience if possible and wrap up your degree.

Sometimes this process is helpful for showing you that, while you have options, advanced training in your field is the route to what you really want. If graduate training is taking you where you want to go, what a fantastic opportunity the present time presents! Talk to your adviser and other people in your field about your goals. If you are in the right place at the right time to accomplish something important, let people know it, and ask them to help you move forward.

Share Article

Victoria McGovern is a senior program officer at the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium—an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

Read more by

Victoria McGovern

Back to Top