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From an Employer's Wish-List to Your CV, Part 1


Dear CareerDoctor,I would like some advice on CV writing, specifically for people who, like me, are planning to go into the biomedical industry.Rajeev

Dear Rajeev,

In this column I'll give you my strategy for preparing a CV and point you towards useful resources, but first of all let me assume that you are planning to start your career within the UK job market. CV styles vary across the world, and if you are interested in applying for jobs in the US, for example, you will find a lot of advice on the American version of CV writing elsewhere on the Next Wave site.

The first thing you will need is a blank page--don't be tempted to update an existing CV. However, you should avoid the temptation to start filling that page with details of degrees, previous jobs, or interests. Successful CVs need to match the employers' needs as closely as possible, so your first task will be to identify those needs.

I am going to use a recent advert from a large pharmaceutical company to illustrate what I mean, but bear in mind that not all recruiters make life this easy, so you may need to trawl through the employers' Web site, call them up, or talk to people in similar jobs. You may also check out the list of skills specific to different jobs in the Report from RCI Working Group on Training (look for Appendix 1) on the Universities UK Web site.

The advert reads:

"A position is available for a graduate immunologist to join our Drug Discovery team on the discovery of novel medicines for the treatment of cardiovascular diseases. Ideally you will have recently graduated with an upper-second class or first class honours degree in pharmacology, immunology or a related biomedical science and have an interest in learning more about the physiological processes which occur in CVS diseases and about the drug discovery process in the pharmaceutical industry. You should enjoy practical laboratory-based work and have an appreciation of the importance of both in vitro and in vivo studies in drug discovery. The position will involve setting up and running medium- to low-throughput in vitro assays, pharmacological profiling, and mechanism of action studies, using tissues, cells in culture, and expressed recombinant human proteins. It could also include animal model efficacy and therapeutic index studies. Along with a strong background knowledge of pharmacology or immunology, you should be a good team worker with excellent communication and organisational skills and the ability to work to defined objectives and timelines."

These few paragraphs tell you exactly what information you should convey, and more importantly, represent the checklist against which your application will be compared--and either short-listed or rejected.

So, how do you translate an employer's wish-list into a CV? On the left hand side of your blank piece of paper write down the skills, experiences, and qualities the job description explicitly asks for. Then on the right hand side write down evidence that shows how well you fit with the employer's criteria. To start with, you might get something that looks very similar to your old CV--things such as an honours degree in a relevant subject and general skills are at the centre of every CV. But looking more closely at the employer's list, you'll realise that more subtle qualities also need to come across--knowledge of specific techniques, interest in physiological processes, enjoyment of laboratory-based work, evidence of successful team work, and strong communication skills. Here are some tips to get these across in your CV.

Be up front about the level of expertise you have in the specific techniques the employer mentions in the ad (or elsewhere). Don't be tempted to overrate your technical capabilities or will be asking for trouble. By default, list those sills you have actually developed and include a comment about your ready ability to acquire new ones. This may be something that your referees can back up in their statement, so make a note to discuss this when you ask them for feedback. Also bear in mind what is realistic for the employer to expect from you at your level. The language used in this particular ad suggests to me that they don't expect direct experience but rather an understanding of the techniques.

To illustrate your interest use the choices you have made during your undergraduate studies such as your degree modules or the topic of your final-year project. Some highly tailored courses don't offer this flexibility--but then if you opted for one of these courses, then you must have been guided by a particular interest of yours in the first place! If your choices don't match the specifics required by the employer then you can always refer to them in your covering letter and emphasise your ability to follow your drive.

Enjoyment may seem rather difficult to convey but enthusiasm for the job should shine through on your CV. Having said that, if a smiling face is a must at an interview, until the day dawns when "txtng" is adopted by human resources, emoticons are not acceptable on a CV. So you need to liven up your CV with well-chosen words that are compatible with the profile given by the employer. Don't emphasise the value of intellectual freedom or the thrill of pushing the frontiers of pure knowledge when industrial research is all about product development. If you are stuck for inspiration click on a few careers sites such as ChemSoc or Prospects.

Other skills, those related to teamwork, communication, and project management, are also important and must be given the same consideration. At the graduate level your examples are more likely to be based on your involvement with societies or work experience. See my column on vacation work for links to sites that can help you identify the skills you may have developed through this type of activity. Don't feel that casual work develops "casual skills"--you may have experienced difficult situations, dealt with management issues, or shown real initiative whilst working in a bar or doing voluntary work.

Although my comments in this column are focused on graduates, if you are an applicant with a PhD or postdoctoral experience, the process is exactly the same. Of course you will have more to prove for higher profile jobs, but you will also have far more experience upon which to draw. The UK GRAD Web site and Swansea University's Career Development Planner for academic researchers will help you recognise your skills.

Once you have been through this process you should have gathered sufficient evidence that you possess most of the desired characteristics. If there are serious gaps then you need to think carefully about whether to apply for this particular post. Alternatively, you may find that your achievements are much greater than those demanded. Don't fool yourself into believing that it will make you a more attractive candidate; in fact it is just as likely your application will be rejected. The first stage of short-listing is pretty ruthless and HR departments are unlikely to redirect CVs to better suited jobs, so you are better off simply contacting the employer to ask about more senior positions.

If it looks as though your list of skills and the job description are a good match then you now have enough ammunition to start writing up your CV ... but that is another story, which I'll cover in Part 2! Meanwhile you can spend some time thinking about additional qualities that the ad does not explicitly require but that you think will give you an edge.

All the best in your career,

The CareerDoctor

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