It’s not every day we get to start off a story with a sports analogy, so indulge us. You’ve probably never heard of George O’Leary. An accomplished coach of American football who made his name at Georgia Tech, O’Leary, 55, was hired to be the head coach of the University of Notre Dame football team. He was fired five days later. Why? Because O’Leary had lied on his résumé about a master’s degree he began but never actually finished some 30 years prior.
Strange as it may sound, the temptation to lie on a CV is something that plenty of people -- and scientists are no exception -- succumb to. Laurie Irwin, a recruiter for Fortune Personnel Consultants who specializes in biotech, says she sees scientists lying about their education more and more. “If [potential employers] do a background check and realize you do not have a master’s degree or are one course away from your PhD, you can never recover from that,” she says. (Just ask O’Leary. He wound up at the University of Central Florida, where the team lost every single game during his first year.)
But not all advice for your CV reads like a morality play. Irwin offers the following practical tips for polishing that all-important document.
Schedule a check-up. Irwin advises everyone to keep their résumé updated regularly: “Put it on your calendar for once a year,” she says. If you have a job already, schedule the update for just before your annual review so you can see what you’ve accomplished in the past year. Then the update also acts as a tool to help you in your review, Irwin points out.
Be detailed. In general, your CV should tell the story of who you are and what you’ve done. For each job you’ve held, list your accomplishments and responsibilities in a simple bullet form. You don’t have to write a novel, but include highlights, Irwin says. Job titles alone won’t help a potential employer get a sense of what kind of person you are. And don’t worry too much about the overall length of your CV; it doesn’t need to fit on one page. A two-page résumé is more common, and they’ll be even longer when a publication history is required, as it will be for most research positions.
Ditch the objective. While plenty of people advise you to include an objective on your CV, Irwin says it can actually work against you. “The objective can pigeonhole you,” she says, remembering one client whose objective was to get a “leadership role.” Problem was, he had no leadership experience, so it was unlikely that he’d be hired for the level of position in his objective. But his CV would’ve been passed over for more appropriate jobs because the hiring manager would see the “leadership” objective and think it wasn’t a good match. Instead, Irwin suggests leading with a professional summary listing your qualifications and key strengths. That gives a quick overview of your abilities without precluding certain positions.
Maintain order. After starting with your qualification summary, go directly into your professional experience, Irwin says. Include dates, titles, and responsibilities for each position. Next up, your education information — nothing before undergrad years, please — and follow that with your publications, if appropriate. If it’s a technical position, Irwin says, you will probably need to have a section for computer skills as well.
It’s not a personal ad. We’ve all seen résumés where people list their personal interests and hobbies, but that’s simply not a professional thing to do on a CV, says Irwin. “If you’re applying to be a VP of a bioinformatics group, do we care that you’re a gourmet cook? Maybe not,” she says. Include this section only if it’s directly relevant to your work, such as professional associations or an editorial board of which you’re a member.