4. CV Mistakes

Have you applied for positions you believe you have ALL the requirements and skills for but never seem to get past the first hurdle – an invitation to interview? In this article, Dr Jeff McGarvey, identifies common mistakes made on CVs by applicants for job opportunities in his laboratory. Although this article is directed at science graduates, many of the points Jeff addresses are relevant to non-scientific disciplines.

I recently advertised an opening for a microbiologist position in my laboratory with very specific requirements including: minimum education of a BSc. (MSc. preferred), experience working with pathogenic bacteria (Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria etc.), and molecular biology experience (DNA extraction, cloning, PCR, DNA sequencing, etc.). After 3 weeks, I received about 35 CVs from candidates wanting the job. While the majority of CVs were well written, there were a few that did not serve the candidates well. Here are a few of the most common problems I encountered.

The most common problem with the CVs was their length. One CV was over 16 pages long! It also listed every type of equipment the candidate had ever used including: water baths, balances, pH meters, centrifuges, etc. If you have an MSc.. degree and over ten years of experience working in laboratories, it is a given that you can use a balance or a pH meter. While you should list your skills there is no need to state the obvious. List the skills you posses that are pertinent to the position – in this case working with pathogens and a list of molecular techniques. The CV in question also listed over 2 pages of posters that were presented at various meetings. You should definitely list any peer-reviewed publications you have, but I would not list posters (unless you won an award for one, then I would list it in an awards section). I realize the temptation for many new graduates and early career scientists to bulk up their CV, but in reality you don’t need to, and it will likely hurt you if you do.

Listing irrelevant training or unrelated previous work experience. One CV listed work experience at a fast food chain, another at a bar. While both of these jobs demonstrate that the candidate has worked in the past, it has little relevance to a microbiology position. One candidate stated that they had extensive training in neurobiology and wrote over half a page describing various experiments and procedures they were competent at. Again you should state your skills that apply to the position, but adding irrelevant talents will not help you and may hurt your chances as the reviewer may think you would prefer another type of job.

Another CV listed several positions that the candidate had in different laboratories that only lasted a few months. To me this was very suspect, why such a short time? Were they fired? And no reason for leaving was mentioned that would clarify the short duration. There may have been a perfectly reasonable explanation for this, but it left me wondering about the person’s work habits or behavior. It would have been better to leave this information out.

I was actually surprised by the number of CVs that came without a cover letter. The cover letter is your chance to demonstrate your passion for science, why you are uniquely qualified for the position or explain why you may have had a gap in your work or education. Providing no cover letter indicates that you are not very interested in the job position or that you are too lazy to write one. You should also make the cover letter specific to the position you are applying for.

A generic cover letter starting with “Dear Sir or Madam, I am interested in finding a position working in a laboratory…” may be as bad as no cover letter at all. I strongly recommend taking the time to write a personalized cover letter for each position you are applying for (bonus points if you state something specific about the laboratory you are applying to).

Some CVs either did not include referees, or referenced people who had no apparent qualifications to be a referee. A good reference would be one of your university professors who is familiar with you, or if you have a graduate degree, your graduate advisor or a collaborator. If you have experience of working in a laboratory, your previous supervisor would be a good reference as well. If you don’t have any of these then a supervisor at a company you worked for could at least attest to your work ethic, but make sure you list their position or relationship to you. I had more than one CV that referenced some apparently random person with no credentials or information as to how they were qualified to be a reference.

Lastly there are no reasons for spelling and grammatical errors. Almost everyone on the planet has access to a computer that has spell and grammar check, it is a really good idea to use them.

Dr Jeff McGarvey is a Research Microbiologist at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Research Service, Foodborne Toxin Detection and Prevention Research Unit in Albany, California, USA. Outside the lab, Dr McGarvey is also an editor for the Journal of Applied Microbiology and Letters in Applied Microbiology. He serves as a mentor for postgraduates and postdoctoral candidates at the annual American Society for Microbiology General Meeting.

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  1. This is an interesting objective. However, I never list referees on my CV. If you’re interested enough to want references from me perhaps you should interview me first.
    Additionally, computers can spell check but only that the word is spelled correctly, not that you have used the correct word. Furthermore, please don’t get me started on what computers pass for grammar!


    1. Thanks for contributing to the conversation Carrie. With regard to the point on references, I think it depends on the job application. Sometimes referee details are requested as part of the job application but references requested if candidate has been successful.


    2. Both good points Carrie. There is no one way to write a CV, and if you don’t wish to add references there is no need, but it makes it quicker for the reviewer to screen prospective employees. I promise never to bring up computer grammar…


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