Constructing your CV

What is a CV?

A Curriculum Vitae, or CV, is a fancy-pants Latin phrase for a resume geared towards positions in academia. If you glance at your intro physics professor’s CV you’ll notice it’s a lot longer than a traditional resume and it may look difficult to create. In reality, it’s not that big of a deal. If you start a document on your computer now and keep adding to it all the great things you do over the next 50 years one at a time, you too will end up with a huge CV.

In a CV, you want to include what’s most relevant to your application. For science research programs and graduate schools, this means you’ll mainly focus on research experience and other scientific endeavors. Show them that you have the experience and the drive to be a scientist! However, graduate admissions committees also care that they admit people who can teach classes, write well, contribute to the department community, and be leaders in their labs, so there is room to briefly highlight your other skills and accomplishments as well.

If you’re coming from a nontraditional background, your CV may look a little bit different than that of a 22-year-old coming straight from undergrad!  Let your employment and other life experiences figure prominently, especially if it’s been a while since you’re coming from college…take this guide with a grain of salt.

That is, start keeping lists now…Then whenever you need to submit a CV with an application, you can pare its contents down to fit with each specific program to which apply.

Here’s an example

How do I format it?

There’s no one “best” layout or style for your CV, but there are some things you should keep in mind in your design. It’s probably best to keep your font to a reasonable size (size 12 or 11). You also want to create a clean and professional layout that will make it easy for your reader to spot the details they care about most in your application. For example, you could try using bold font, underlining, lines that span the width of a page, or larger font for section headings.

What do I put on my CV?

As a general rule, your CV should be everything you have done only from your undergraduate years onwards. DON’T TALK ABOUT HIGH SCHOOL!  There are two exceptions to this rule. (1) When you’re a freshman or  sophomore, it may be acceptable to include pertinent information from high school if you don’t have a ton of extra information to fill in from college. (2) If you had a substantial college-level achievement in high school (e.g. a published scientific paper, dual-enrollment at a college), this may also be acceptable, depending on the context.

We’ll start to outline your CV from the top of the page downwards. Don’t worry if it ends up becoming “long”. Be positive about yourself and your accomplishments! You are your own best advocate.

This page is mainly geared towards undergraduates. Most of you will begin to read this and say to yourself, “Shoot! I don’t have this or that.” That’s okay! Most people don’t. But now you what opportunities to look out for that you can add to your CV.

Contact Information

This should be at the very top of your CV and take up 3-5 lines’ worth of space, depending on how you choose to format it.

  • Your full name (first name, middle initial, last name; you can include a preferred name in parenthesis if pertinent)
  • Current address (In grad school or beyond, you will probably end up listing your department’s address. In undergrad, home or your St. Louis apartment should be fine.)
  • Phone number
  • Professional email address (@wustl.edu)
  • Personal website (if you have one)

Education

List all schools attended. If you took summer courses somewhere, you can also list these. For each school you should at a minimum include:

  1. Formal school title and location (either “Washington University in St. Louis” or “Washington University, St. Louis, MO” )
    • write the country name too if applying internationally
  2. Dates of attendance (e.g. 2015-2019)
  3. The program you were in
    • for Wash. U., this means your majors and minors. If you’re undeclared, you could put “College of Arts and Sciences.”
    • if you want to list summer courses, then it’ll be a title like “Summer Session”
  4. GPA (only if you think will make your application sparkle)
    • you can also list your major GPA, if you want to calculate it

Research Experience (and projects)

The more research experience, the better!

(If you don’t have anything yet, don’t worry. We all started out somewhere. You’ll need to place a focus on science-related activities and achievements in the other areas of your CV. You should pay particular attention to building up the “skills” section, described further down on this page.)

In this section, you should include any experience doing scientific research with a professor or at an R&D internship in industry. Computer science students could also include information of a similar structure about major projects they’ve done. The point of this section is to demonstrate your ability to engage in original scientific work (independently or as part of a team).

General structure
  1. Institution name and location
    • College + Department (e.g. “Washington University Department of Physics, St. Louis, MO”)
    • Company + Division (e.g. “NASA Ames Research Center, Astrobiology Institute, Moffett Field, CA”)
  2. Dates you worked there
  3. Name of supervisor (if applicable)
  4. What you did!
    • this can be bullet points or a SHORT paragraph (2-3 points should be fine for one summer’s worth of work)
    • keep each entry short and sweet – your future employer/grad school doesn’t want the nitty-gritty details of every project. That comes in a research essay!
    • perhaps include one line about the scope of the lab’s work
    • emphasize your main contributions to the work — grad schools and academic employers want to know what you personally are able to do
Other notes
  • Graduate students: if you have a lot of publications in your thesis area, you might move this section later into your CV
  • if you’ve received any scientific grants (not to be confused with scholarships/fellowships), you may want to include a section for these as well
  • if you have attended workshops/research schools should include these in a separate section as well

Publications and/or Presentations

Change the title of this based on what you’ve done. You can break this up into two sections if you have many things to list in both.

  • Publications section: any journal articles and conference papers that you’ve been listed as an author on. If you are well into the process of writing a paper or you have a paper under review, it is acceptable to list that as a student.
    • Include the formal citation. Be sure to include the article’s title, and don’t abbreviate the name of the journal.
    • Put your name in bold font in the citation, for example:
    • A. H. Compton, S.P. Students, W. University, “How to write a CV,” Journal of Physics Advice 3, 14159 (2018).
  • Presentations section: seminars at other universities, talks and posters that you presented at national conferences, etc.
  • If you don’t have any of the above, then definitely list less-formal things, like reports written at the end of a summer, presentations given at the WUSTL undergrad research symposium, or presentations to student groups (like the SPS Choc Talk series). Something is always better than nothing.
  • If you do have major pieces of work, it’s your judgment call whether to include these other things on your CV. Take the not-so-subtle hints on application forms  like “list all presentations and reports” or only “list major research work”

Honors and Awards

Here are some possibilities that undergrads can list…

  • Scholarships and fellowships (WUSTL-specific awards, National Merit, etc.)
  • National awards like the Goldwater (and honorable mentions). Generally you don’t list things you have declined.
  • Department prizes
  • Summer undergraduate research funding awards
  • Math and physics contests
  • Recognition in the humanities, social sciences, leadership, etc.
  • Dean’s List (you don’t need to include this if this section is already long or includes major national awards)

Activities (that aren’t research)

If you’ve done a lot of activities concentrated in one area, you might want to split this area apart into multiple sections. Depending on to what you dedicated your college years, some examples of other sections might include:

  • Employment
    • This should have its own section and be placed much earlier in your CV if you’ve taken a major break from schooling at any point to be employed
    • If you’re a 22-year-old college student, non-research-based employment probably should not figure as prominently, unless it took up a substantial portion of your time during the year
  • Teaching experience (TA, grading, advising, mentoring, tutoring)
  • Service (university/department committees, science outreach, diversity/inclusion activism, community projects, etc.)

Teaching, university service, and outreach are a must on any graduate student’s CV. Undergraduates should pay particular attention to science outreach (in any of the many forms that could take) – you’ll be asked about this on most fellowship and some graduate school applications. Also, do not shy away from mentioning participation in activism, particularly related to science — no matter what some older professors may say, admissions committees absolutely do not see this as a negative on your application.

The point of this section is not to make a gigantic list of everything you’ve tried in college. Think about how you want to present yourself to an admissions committee: what’s most important to you, what you’ve dedicated the most time to, and what you have accomplished. Feel free to include bullet points about the activities to describe you involvement further. Some activities you might consider highlighting are:

  • Major time commitments (a varsity sports team, EST, etc.)
  • Leadership roles (student government, officerships in clubs, etc. Describe how you contributed.)
  • Other academic clubs (honor societies, quizbowl, math team, etc.)
  • Volunteering

Always keep in mind that the people reading a research application care mostly about your capacity to do research; no matter how great your other accomplishments are, they should not be the focal point of your CV.

Coursework, Skills, and Certifications

Remember context! Most of these sections aren’t necessary in a CV, especially as you go further on in your education. For example, do not include this information if it is already duplicated in some other part of your application. Do not include this information if it isn’t directly relevant to the purpose of your application (for example, lab skills are likely not needed on a fellowship application that requires a research essay).

However, depending on what you’re applying for, you may find it useful to include:

  • Coursework
    • include only the most high-level, relevant courses you have taken
      • if you’re a freshman, only list the science-related courses you’ve taken (and maybe some AP/IB courses from high school)
      • if you’re a senior physics major, it’s fine to list Quantum Physics and Electronics Lab, but you don’t need to list intro physics…
      • …though it would be okay to list something like Gen Chem if chemistry is relevant and that’s the highest level course you’ve taken
  • Computer Skills
    • unlike most jobs, Microsoft Word and Excel should not be listed here for science positions
    • stick to programming languages (C++, Python, HTML, etc.), typesetting methods (TeX…), operating systems (Linux…), and anything else you think might be of use to the specific position
  • Foreign Languages
    • Definitely relevant if you’re applying to summer internships in foreign countries; less relevant otherwise
    • Also important for some graduate programs (like math) that require students to get reading proficiency in a language
    • Include some description of your level of proficiency
  • Laboratory skills
    • What instruments do you have experience with?
    • Might want to tailor to the specific job you’re applying for
  • Certifications
    • this really depends on the fields you’ve worked in
    • for government jobs: prior security clearances
  • Anything else you think might be useful

Memberships

Some applications ask you to list if you’re a member of any professional societies. This isn’t necessary on most CV’s (it only looks fancy if you’re a fancy professor who’s been chosen as a prestigious “fellow” of one of these societies).

But if you’d like to join professional societies, we recommend you join the national Society of Physics Students (SPS) – for $24 you become a member of SPS and you get to join two additional national societies (we recommend you choose the biggest national physics society, the American Physical Society (APS), as one of them). SPS members can also join the National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP) and the National Society of Hispanic Physicists (NSHP) for free as well. This is a sharply discounted rate from joining the societies individually. You’ll also get a lot of really cool monthly physics magazines.

Washington University SPS