Your self-promotion balancing act

skeptical look

Credit: Bubbles Photolibrary/Alamy

Sadly, recruiters, hiring managers, and human resources (HR) staffers these days regularly uncover falsified claims and misinformation on resumes and CVs. There have always been a bald-faced few who fabricate details on their resumes—a degree added here, employment dates manipulated there—but their numbers weren’t large.

Those numbers are getting larger. Today, more people than ever seem to be trying to perpetrate a bit of subterfuge just to get a foot in an employer’s door. Accomplishments are blown out of proportion, details are added, or, during interviews, stories are embellished, all in the name of seeming more hirable. How do we know this? We know because employers and recruiting firms employ professionals who contact references and verify the details you include on your resume.

Today, more people than ever seem to be trying to perpetrate a bit of subterfuge just to get a foot in an employer’s door.

It’s not clear why CV and resume fraud is increasing. Maybe it’s because the job search has become so much more competitive. Maybe the number of high-profile examples including journalists and political commentators has made people think lying about credentials is OK. Or maybe it’s evidence of our society’s ethical decline.

Whatever the reason, it’s surprising that even scientists, who really ought to know better, are getting in on the act. After all, this isn’t rocket science. The best advice could hardly be simpler: Sure, emphasize your strengths—you have to. Sell your credentials. But don’t make anything up, ever. In presenting your credentials just as in presenting your science, be meticulously accurate. Always assume that even small misstatements will eventually be uncovered.

When self-promotion becomes embellishment

Anyone can make a mistake, but that’s why we always check our work, right? Recently I was asked to write a biosketch. As I reviewed it, I caught myself tying two experiences together as if they happened one after the other. It really wasn’t intentional; at the time, it felt like I was just trying to write about it in a more powerful way. But if I hadn’t caught it, it could have been embarrassing for me. I did catch it, though; I read what I had written with a critical eye. My mistake never made it to the outside world. 

What happens if a mistake does get through? Usually nothing, because most job application packages aren’t looked at seriously. Companies don’t bother fact checking a CV from a candidate they’re not interested in anyway. But the further along you get in the process—the closer you get to being hired—the more likely it becomes that your CV will find its way to a fact checker. When that happens, errors and fabrications will probably get caught. And if you get caught in an attempt at deception, or even exaggeration, you’ll immediately be out of contention for that job and potentially for others as well.

Here are three areas where people often make errors, not only on their CVs but also in interviews. I’ll start with the most egregious.

CV infractions. The CV or resume is where the most outright fabrication shows up. Occasionally an applicant will fake a degree. More common is to tweak it a little: A biology degree with a chemical focus conveniently becomes a biochemistry degree. Feel free to emphasize the chemistry connection in the description of your work, but do not change the degree field! It’s not worth it. 

One of the easiest things to do is to fudge dates to cover up a resume hole. If you left a job (or finished a degree) in 2013, it can be tempting to extend it into 2014 to cover a brief period of unemployment. Even more subtly, you might be tempted to be imprecise about your employment dates, to leave out months and write, say, “2012 to 2014.” When an HR person or contracted fact checker finds out you left that job in January 2014, the employer may conclude that you’re trying to cover up something. It’s not unusual to be out of work for a few months—so why introduce grounds for suspicion?

If you’ve got a problem-free record, be proud of that and show the full dates on every element of your CV. If you don’t, be up front about it. Brief periods of unemployment are common. Longer periods spent caring for young children or aging parents are common, too. Properly presented, such things can work to your advantage. Hidden, they’re likely to become a problem.

Describing your accomplishments. In industry, people tend to work on teams, so what your team accomplishes is what matters most. But interviewers need to know what you contributed to the team effort. In my seminars, I often describe an accomplishment using “we” to show the members of my academic audience how little it does to help their cases: “In the Smith lab, we do work in the blah-blah field, and we’ve published, in several high-impact journals, a series of papers showing that blah-blah and blah-blah are interrelated.”

Step back from the “we.” What was your role in that story? You may not have given it much thought until now—so now, before you start interviewing, is the time. You don’t want your responses to seem canned, but you do need to be prepared to say what precisely you contributed to the effort—how “I” fits into “we.” So rehearse these stories, and ensure they give an accurate account of your individual contributions and of what your team accomplished. Claiming credit for yourself doesn’t mean denying credit to the team. 

Name dropping. Many of us are linked on social networks to hundreds or even thousands of other people, and your interviewers probably know some of them. If you’ve worked with a leader in your field, that can help you get hired (especially with a good recommendation from that person). But a LinkedIn connection is not a real relationship. Be careful never to imply a closer relationship than really exists. And don’t even mention the connection if you’ve never really worked with them. LinkedIn doesn’t count. An exchange of one-line emails doesn’t count. In relationships as in all things, be meticulously accurate in how you characterize them. Name droppers usually get caught.

Can this stand up to scrutiny?

Job seeking is tough. You have to promote yourself, but self-promotion is an art, and you’re probably a beginner. Young scientists tend to be bad at this, so they lean toward reticence and caution—but sometimes they overcompensate. 

Instead, stick to what you know. Set aside your aversion to self-promotion, but retain your scientists’ commitment to data integrity even (or especially) when the data is about yourself. Prepare examples that highlight both the “me” and the “we,” that sell you as a talented hands-on expert and a dedicated team player. Be prepared to cast yourself in the most positive light in interviews—cautiously. But be meticulous in both interviews and the written materials you submit. Integrity is a scientist’s most important asset. Show it off.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers