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How to write an Academic CV for a PhD Application

Summary

  • The purpose of an academic CV for a PhD application is to provide a summary of your educational background and demonstrate the research skills and relevant experience you have that make you capable of undertaking a PhD.
  • It should be divided into nine sections: (1) contact information, (2) research interests, (3) education, (4) research and work experience, (5) teaching experience, (6) relevant skills and experience, (7) publications and conferences, (8) professional memberships, (9) referees.
  • It should ideally be up to two pages for a new research student, but can extend up to four pages if required.
  • The smaller details matter more than you think – write concisely, use consistent formatting, avoid jargons and general statements, check spelling and grammar, and have at least one academic to proofread it for you, ideally in the same area you are applying to.

Introduction

So you are nearing the end of your current degree or making a return to education, and you’ve decided to make your next step a PhD. While the road ahead will be filled with much excitement, you’ll need to secure your position first. This will all begin with a strong PhD application and an equally impressive academic CV and personal statement or cover letter.

Together with your personal statement or cover letter, your CV will show who you are as an individual and what you have to offer. It needs to be concise, correctly formatted and well written to convince your preferred university and supervisor that you are the right student for the project.

This step-by-step guide will get you on your way to creating an outstanding academic CV for your next PhD application. We’ll discuss the sections your CV should be structured into, what each of these sections should include, and how it should be written. We’ll also give you valuable tips that are sure to get your readers’ attention.

What Is an Academic CV?

When applying for a PhD position, it’s common for the university to request a curriculum vitae (CV) from you to accompany your application.

An academic CV may appear similar to a standard CV used for job applications, but they are two relatively unique documents.

Where a standard CV focuses mostly on what your previous responsibilities have been and what you have accomplished to date, an academic CV concentrates on your academic background, achievements and experiences. Your academic CV will be used by a PhD supervisor to determine whether you can meet the challenges associated with undertaking a demanding PhD research project, as not everyone can.

How to Write an Academic CV for A PhD Application

A good academic CV should be broken into nine section headings:

  1. Contact Information
  2. Research Interests / Personal Profile
  3. Education
  4. Research and Work Experience
  5. Teaching Experience
  6. Relevant Skills and Experience
  7. Publications and Conferences
  8. Professional Memberships
  9. Referees / References

Below, we discuss what each of these sections should contain and how they should be written.

1. Contact Information

Start your CV by providing your contact details. All of the following should be included:

  • Full name – Your name should be your document title, formatted in bold and centralised text.
  • Email address and contact number
  • Location – Your town/city and country, e.g. ‘Birmingham, UK’, will be sufficient; it’s not necessary to provide your full home address.
  • Profiles – Include a link to any professional profiles you may have, such as LinkedIn or ResearchGate.

NOTE: Some individuals include a profile photo but be careful before doing so. While this would be expected in some countries such as those in Asia, the Middle East and Africa, this would not be the case in other countries such as the UK and US. This is because it can lead to complications with labour and anti-discrimination laws and potentially cost you your application. We therefore strongly advise you to look into the norms and regulations of the host country before deciding to do so.

2. Research Interests / Personal Profile

For an academic CV written for a PhD position, your ‘research interests’ section will double as you ‘personal profile’. As a brief introduction to yourself, this will be an important section as it sets the first impression of you for the reader.

Use bullet points or a brief paragraph to summarise who you are, your relevant qualifications, your research interests and your relevant skills and experience. When writing this section, your focus should be on two aspects: demonstrating your ability to conduct a PhD and your enthusiasm for the project.

To create an impactful research interests’ section, adhere to the following:

  • Tailor to each research project you apply for: One of the easiest ways to do this is to read the project description attached to the PhD advert, identify two to three of the most prominent keywords, and incorporate them into your writeup.
  • Keep it short: This section is only an introduction, so keep it concise and punchy over long and detailed; 50 – 60 words is a good target.
  • Make every word count: As 50 – 60 words isn’t much, be as specific as you can. Avoid clichés such as “I am committed to research and have a high attention to detail” at all costs; not only are they generic and overused, they also don’t provide the reader with any useful insights into you.

3. Education

A PhD CV is all about academic achievements and qualifications, so your education section should be given high importance and form the bulk of your CV, especially as it will be used to determine if have the core skills required for the position.

Working in reverse chronological order, provide a breakdown of your current academic qualifications. For most of you, this will be an undergraduate Bachelor’s degree and a postgraduate Master’s degree.

When listing your qualifications, provide the full name of the degree, the degree type, and the duration in terms of its start and end year. You do not need to limit this to your past qualifications; if you’re currently studying or taking an external course, include them as well, but state that they are ongoing and provide an expected grade if you have one.

If your degree is relevant to the PhD project you are applying to, include a list of the modules you completed and your corresponding marks; the same applies to your final year dissertation project.

Note: If you list your relevant modules, streamline their names by removing any course codes. For example, “FN01 Fluid Dynamics” should become “Fluid Dynamics”. Course codes are only used for internal purposes, and each university will have its own system, so remove them to avoid any possible confusion.

Feel free to also list your GCSEs, A-Levels or other relevant academic qualifications if applicable to the field you are applying to, however, this isn’t necessary, and most supervisors will not ask for them. The exception to this is if your university degree is not directly related to the project you are applying for, but your previous qualifications are. In these cases, include them to help demonstrate the suitability of your academic background.

Finally, list any honours, awards and prizes that you have won or any other notable academic achievements that will help to strengthen your application.

4. Research and Work Experience

Your research and relevant work experience is just as, if not more, important than your educational background. This is because most applicants applying for the position will have similar qualifications, so your research experience can often be the deciding factor when all other things are considered equal.

Your research experience may include both paid and voluntary, full-time and part-time work, as well as university project work. However, in all cases, the experience you mention should be relevant to the project you are applying for or have helped you develop skills that make you a more capable researcher. For example, it’s not necessary to mention your time in retail, but any previous time as a laboratory or teaching assistant or teaching support absolutely will be.

If you any discuss research that you have done as part of your studies, present them as individual project listed in reverse chronological order, as before. You can also include research projects you are currently working on, regardless of how developed they are.

When discussing any projects, include the following:

  • What the project was about,
  • What research methods you used,
  • The skills you gained,
  • Any notable achievements or outcomes.

5. Teaching Experience

Since one of the main career paths after a PhD is an academic career, teaching experience can significantly strengthen your academic CV. However, it is generally accepted that not all applicants will have teaching experience, but if you do, include it here.

When discussing your teaching experience, state what level it was at, e.g. undergraduate or postgraduate, and what it involved, i.e. marking, teaching, supervising or organising.

6. Relevant Skills and Experience

This section should describe all other skills and experiences that will help strengthen your application.

They should be specific to the PhD project or demonstrate your potential to become a competent researcher. This includes:

  • Technical skills and experience, e.g. the use of computer software packages or research equipment common to the project you’re applying for.
  • Non-project specific courses you’ve sat, e.g. an academic writing and communication course.
  • Languages you know with their proficiencies noted.

7. Publications and Conferences

Most students won’t have academic publications, but if you do, list them here. Formal publications can include anything from journal articles, which is most likely to an adaptation of your final year dissertation project if you do have one, and published reports. If you have these, list them in reverse chronological order using the reference system adopted by the university you are applying to, as this is what the PhD supervisor will most likely be used to.

If you aren’t a published author or co-author, you can still include other text publications that you may have been involved in, such as online articles, magazines, newsletters and blogs. The topics of these publications should relate to your field or academia in general and be written in a formal tone that showcases your critical thinking and writing skills.

If you’ve ever given a conference presentation, include it here with details of the name, date and location of the conference, the title of your presentation and a summary of what it was about.

Even if you haven’t presented in conferences, you should still list any you have attended, including any seminars or talks. This is a useful way to illustrate your interest in the subject and your commitment to gaining new knowledge within your field.

TIP: If you haven’t attended many conferences or seminars, consider attending several upcoming ones relevant to the research area you’re interested in. Not only is this a great way to learn more about the field in terms of its latest developments and gaps, but it can also be an effective way to make your academic CV more relevant if it’s currently light on research experience.

8. Professional Memberships

Being affiliated with an academic group, society or professional body demonstrates your enthusiasm for your field and for connecting with other like-minded individuals within the community.

When listing these, include the name of the group, the associated membership dates and the position you have held within it.

9. Referees / References

Your references will form the last section of your academic CV.

Your PhD application should specify the number of referees you should include, but if it does not, try to include at least two, but ideally three.

Two of the referees should be academic, with most students choosing their personal tutor and their final year’s dissertation project supervisor. It can be other staff members, but the essential requirement is that it is someone who knows you well enough to be able to substantiate your abilities and character.

If you don’t have two academic referees, you can use a professional referee as long as they are still relevant to the project you are applying for. This will most likely be the case for those who have worked in industry for some time before deciding to return to education.

When creating your reference list, list your referees in order of relevance and how well they know you, not in alphabetical order. This is so if only the first referee is called upon, it will be the individual who can provide you the most useful reference. The following information should be provided:

  • Full name,
  • Professional title,
  • Name of current university,
  • Phone number and email address.

It’s imperative that you first seek permission from the individuals before listing them as a referee. It would also be beneficial to send them a copy of your CV, cover letter and application form so they can familiarise themselves with the broader details in case they are called upon.

Tips for Creating a Standout Academic CV

Research CV for PhD Application - Tips

No matter how impressive your academic achievements are or how much experience you have accumulated in your field, the PhD supervisor may never find out if your CV is too difficult to read. With this in mind, here are a few tips for achieving a high degree of clarity:

Formatting for Clarity

  • Highlight key information through the use of bolding, italics and underlining, but be careful not to overdo it so that it loses its purpose.
  • Keep your formatting consistent throughout, such as indentations, font type and font size, vertical spacing and margins.
  • Insert page numbers on each page.
  • Avoid jargon and abbreviations to maximise clarity.
  • Avoid splitting sections across two pages.

Keep It Concise

  • Try to limit your CV to two pages and not more than four. If you need to go over two pages, make sure the most important information is on the first two pages.
  • Avoid dense paragraphs, overly long sentences and generic statements. The aim is to pass on essential information in a way that doesn’t require the reader to have to extract it themselves. This leads to the next tip,
  • Use bullet points whenever possible, they’re easier to digest than paragraphs.

NOTE: Remember that you will also submit a cover letter or personal statement alongside your CV, so don’t feel the need to cover everything to a high level of detail here as you will have the opportunity to do so elsewhere.

Check and Revise

  • As a rule of thumb, the academic CV you submit as part of your PhD application should be the third or fourth version you produce. Try to keep a day or two between each version so that you always approach it with a fresh perspective.
  • Proofread for any spelling and grammar mistakes. Although this will seem like we’re stating the obvious, a small mistake can be enough to jeopardise your chances considering that there will be many other high-profile candidates for the supervisor to choose from.
  • Have your document checked, first by an academic such as your tutor, and second by a professional proofreader or by an advisor from your university’s careers team. The former will check for technical issues, the latter for common curriculum vitae formatting, spelling and grammar mistakes.

Save in PDF Format

If the submission method allows for it, convert your CV to PDF format. This significantly reduces the likelihood of compatibility and reformatting issues when opened by the supervisor.

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