CV Writing – Show Don’t Tell

Whether you’re applying for a post-doc, fellowship, promotion or other new opportunity, a key expectation is that you can “pitch” your skills, knowledge and experience through a well written CV, cover letter and / or application form. Most of us don’t find this easy and can feel uncomfortable with self-promotion, but it’s an important career management skill we all need to develop – the ability to demonstrate and show our potential value to a future employer.

Persuasively articulating your strengths and experiences through concise examples is increasingly important, especially as funders are starting to introduce new approaches such as the Narrative CV. (See here for further information about the Résumé for Researchers and Innovation narrative CV approach, a new format of CV, which aims to capture the quality, significance and impact of a broad set of researchers’ contributions and a previous blog post on Career Narratives here).

As professionally qualified Careers Consultants, based in the Doctoral College, Rana Marrington and I work specifically with PGRs and ECRs supporting the development of a range of career management skills. Through confidential 121 career consultations we help PGRs and ECRs to recognise and articulate their wide range of skills, strengths, and experiences, as well as identifying those skills and qualities which are particularly sought after by employers both within and beyond academia. Increasing self-awareness is important preparation when considering how you market yourself to prospective employers.

Before starting to write a CV or application, it’s important to analyse the role and use your research skills to find out as much as possible about the role, the department, and the organisation. As well as analysing the advert and job description try and to speak to individuals working at the organisation, if there’s a named contact for enquiries, get in touch – it’s a great opportunity to find out more about the role and notice what language they use and the areas they prioritise when they’re describing the role. You can often gain useful signals to what you need to emphasize in your cover letter and CV. Time spent researching the role beforehand really helps you to tailor your experience for the specific role.

Tailored CVs are the main tool to market yourself as you provide a concise summary of the relevant skills, knowledge and experience needed to be effective in the specific role. One of the biggest mistakes when writing a CV is listing everything you have every done, even if it’s not relevant; you don’t need to tell the employer everything, you need to show your suitability through your most relevant examples. Ask yourself why am I including this information? What does it show the reader about my suitability for the role? All too often we include lots of unnecessary information which gets in the way of the most relevant information standing out. Remember prospective employers may only spend 60 seconds deciding on your CV – so you need to make sure all the key information is clear.

With lots of CVs and applications to review, you need to make it as easy as possible for employers to see how you match their requirements. As with other writing, consider your audience, when writing your cover letter and CV, think about what’s important to the reader. Recruiters want to be reassured that you understand the role, that you can do the role and that you’re motivated to do it well. Think about showing how you can contribute to their ongoing success rather than telling them what you want to get from the role. Think about your prospective employer, what sort of language do they use – reflect that in your writing.

All CVs, including academic ones, should be laid out clearly for the reader so that they are easy to read. You can find further information on CV structure and content on Marketing Yourself – Writing An Effective CV the Surrey Pathfinder Careers Platform.

When writing your CV, it’s useful to share and gain feedback from others. As well as support from your supervisor / PI or peers, PGRs and ECRs you can book a careers 121 through the Doctoral College here or by emailing

Blog Post by Emma Francis, Careers Consultant at the Doctoral College. Emma works with Rana Marrington, Careers Consultant and together they provide tailored careers guidance and career development support for Postgraduate and Early Career Researchers and Doctoral College Alumni.