Smaller science company? Tailor your CV for a manager, not HR

A recruiter receives a CV from a job seeker.

Recruiters look for certain things in CVs — but future colleagues have different priorities.Credit: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty

I started my career at large pharmaceutical companies (Sanofi and GSK), as a statistical modeller, before moving into consultancy. I eventually founded my own company that focuses on health economics and medical statistics — Delta Hat. Along the way I’ve seen literally thousands of CVs, most from recent graduates.

Many of those CVs would have been perfect for applying to larger companies, but just as your chances of success increase when you tailor your CV to a role, they will also grow when you tailor it to a company. This is because any application to a large entity is likely to go first to a human-resources department (HR), where it’ll get processed in a certain way, often being compared to the job description or checked for certain key words. Dates and details will be cross-checked in full for every role held, and references requested. There, the best CVs are those that follow a standard format, in which all the information that HR needs is available and stacked neatly into chronological sections.

But at a small or medium-sized company, your CV is likely to go straight to either a director of the firm or the hiring manager. All the CVs we receive at Delta Hat, for example, come to my inbox. Sadly, many contain insufficient information for me to make a decision. When I’m not sure, it will probably be a ‘no’. In a competitive market, others will get their CVs right by thinking both about the role and about the company and its size.

Here are my tips for avoiding a few of the major mistakes I see on CVs.

Don’t try to get the job with your CV alone. The oft-misunderstood purpose of a CV is to get an interview — the hiring decision is made after that. The CV needs to show enough to encourage a hiring manager to invite you to an interview, not bombard them with information on how you meet every minor point of the job description. Including lots of information works better with HR at larger companies, who are ticking off a list of requirements. At a smaller company, trying to tick every possible box still won’t get you the job without an interview, and it can lead to an overwhelming and difficult-to-read document.

Don’t include irrelevant information. Another common mistake is feeling that your entire history needs to be listed. In most countries, once you have a degree, your grades from secondary school no longer need to be listed individually. Similarly, ask whether older experience is still relevant; for example, you might not need to include part-time jobs once you have full-time experience. Carefully curate the information presented — there should be only two pages (we seldom consider longer CVs) and they need to be used wisely. This means making the average value of every word high. The things you don’t list in a CV can be used as examples in an interview.

Make information easy to find. In most cases, your recent experience is the most relevant, and should come first, so you should give your history in reverse chronological order, especially if it’s variations on a theme (for example, a series of postdoc positions). A recent PhD graduate will probably put their doctoral degree first, whereas a postdoctoral researcher should list postdoc roles first. It’s good to get across immediately why you’re suitable for a job — don’t make someone work to find out. In line with the previous point, you might also choose to omit or relegate information on a temporary job you’ve had since the last relevant post, to keep the story clear.

Include important scientific information. Sharing what subject you studied at university — ‘chemistry’ or ‘mathematics’ — is useful, but not enough. The content of courses can vary massively, especially in long or higher-level degrees. The person reviewing your CV will probably need more detail to get a better sense of your experiences and learn the subtleties: did you specialize in organic chemistry, or kinetics of chemical reactions, for example?

Don’t waste detail on irrelevant experience. In general, the largest ‘block’ of information on your CV should be your most relevant experience. I often see a single line given for degrees, and then multiple lines dedicated to voluntary activities at school five years before. With limited space, the information needs to be on the most relevant topics — even if it is hard to omit things you are proud of. Make sure you include the salient information that someone will need to assess your application.

Don’t be too prescriptive or forceful. Applications are made against a job description, but the recruiter has much more information about the skills they are looking for, which might not be what you expect. You might think that telling them about the leadership skills you developed playing hockey is a good idea, but perhaps they actually want someone to follow along and learn a complex operation — without attempting to lead until they fully understand. Avoid language such as ‘shows’, or ‘demonstrates’; simply list activities.

Include a sense of your individuality. Employers want someone who can add to their company. Especially in smaller teams, it’s important that you enhance the culture and are an individual, rather than an interchangeable body. Your colleagues will be working with you every day, so they want to be able to talk to you. Do you cook or fly hot-air balloons? Do amateur dramatics or walk your dog? I’ve employed people with all of these hobbies — it wasn’t because they did those things, but because they included a few lines at the end of their CV telling me about them. Information such as this helps me to see the person behind the CV, and gives a great starting point for conversation in an interview. Even if you think your hobby is unremarkable, give a little detail to show you care about it. I bake with my daughter. Boring? Maybe, but aren’t you curious what a ‘funfetti’ cake is?

Think about your cover letter. In the age of e-mail, the e-mail is the cover letter. Sending an e-mail with a cover letter as an attachment is missing the point.

Although the above gives some general rules, do not be afraid to flex or break them depending on context. For example, if the job demands secondary-school qualifications in maths and English, make sure to list them and include your grades. Much better than thoughtlessly following these rules would be internalizing the ideas behind them.

Remember, in small to medium-sized companies, the person reviewing the CV will be someone much like yourself, with a few years of experience at a company. They want to know that you understand the value of their time (which you can demonstrate by presenting information well); what you can offer (qualifications and experience); and why they would want to work with you (personality). You can best help yourself by showing how you can best help them.

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged. You can get in touch with the editor at [email protected].

Competing Interests

The author declares no competing interests.