Thursday, January 24, 2013

CVs : Windows into the Soul?

The results of the Fake-CV Contest are in.

I think we should call it a tie between Fake CV #2 (A. Lex) and #4 (Magical Robot Unicorn), with an impressive showing for Adolph H. Jones (#5). Thanks to all who participated in the vote and especially to those who submitted Fake CVs.

What have we learned? Anything? I think we already knew this: some CV pitfalls probably result from inexperience or no/bad mentoring and others represent a deliberate attempt to inflate a not-so-great record. The latter does not necessarily mean the CV-writer is a jerk. But it may indicate that.

A larger question is: Can a CV possibly be a reliable indication of who we are and one's ability to do creative, productive work, not to mention whether one possesses any relevant interpersonal skills?

Maybe, sort of for some things, but not for others.

For example, I think that most of us who read dozens/hundreds of CVs of various sorts in a typical academic year know that even the basic metrics of success can be misleading. More publications = better than fewer publications? Not necessarily. Are the papers in good journals? Was the individual in question the primary author (by whatever author-ordering scheme is the norm in that field) of most/some of the papers or an apparently minor co-author? Are these substantive papers or least-publishable units? And so on.

Those are 'knowable' things (just by looking at a CV). There are also unknowables (just by looking at a CV); for example, even if the individual was primary author on one or more papers, does that mean what it is supposed to mean? (the same could be asked of someone who is an apparently minor co-author).

Similar complexity may be involved in other classic CV components, such as # of invited talks, honors/awards, even grants. I have seen people list their advisor's grant in a category called "grants" on a CV. Does that mean the individual in question wrote the proposal or at least played a major role in the writing and development of the ideas? Perhaps. That certainly does happen and is worth noting. Or is this just the grant that supported them but they didn't help write the proposal or develop the ideas? I have seen that as well. These types of things need an explanation.

Of course, the CV is typically just one document among many in an application or nomination file and there are other ways to convey a more complete picture of an individual.

Nevertheless, one of my colleagues recently tried an experiment. He first read only the CV in each file in a large pile of applications and made a list of the "best" ones based only on his impression from the CVs. Then he read the complete files (statements, letters etc.) and found only a few cases in which his opinion changed relative to reading only the CV. [If that had been a real experiment, all names/places would have been removed so that first impressions (from the CV) wouldn't influence the second evaluation (from deeper reading of the file), but that's hard to do.]

What made a CV stand out in this case? From what I saw of his list, it wasn't prestige of the university or fame of the advisor, but mostly how interesting and significant the publications looked (from the title) to my colleague, and other publication-related factors (number of papers, number of primary-author publications, 'quality' of journal).

So, I think the CV does say a lot about us; these contain useful data. Are they a window into the soul? That is where I waffle and say: yes and no.....


Alex said...

I think we should call it a tie between Fake CV #2 (A. Lex) and #4 (Magical Robot Unicorn)

Nah, Magical Robot Unicorn beat me fair and square.

pramod said...

FSP, I'm a little hesitant to draw too many inferences from your colleague's experiment. The other experiment you suggest with "blinded-out" names would probably be more interesting and might give different results. As the Moss-Racusin study and many other studies have shown, there are a whole lot of factors, many of which we are not aware of, that influence our opinions. So I wouldn't be surprised if his viewing of the CVs first influenced his reading of the other documents.

I also think that you and your colleague are looking for really good candidates in a pool of mostly good candidates and this might influence how reliable an indicator of quality the CV is. My thoughts are not well-formed here but perhaps it is be possible that CVs work well for your scenario because all your "serious" applicants come from backgrounds which teach all them about creating "good" CVs. This may not necessarily be true for everyone evaluating CVs, so that's something to think about.

Anonymous said...

pramod, I'm not sure I think that CV-mentoring makes much difference other than helping remove some of the common problems (nicely highlighted by some of the fake CVs in the contest). If someone has an excellent publication record and someone else doesn't that seems pretty basic for evaluating one against another in a pile of applications.

plam said...

I agree with Anonymous @ 2:27. Once you're at the stage of sending your CV to various places, it's too late to go back in time 5 years and publish a bunch of good papers, which is the key criterion. CV-mentoring can be useful at an earlier stage, but that's not really specifically about the CV itself. Rather it's about what things are good to aim for when one finally has a CV to send out.

Of course it's good to avoid rookie mistakes too.

Anonymous said...

A good CV says a lot and is important. If we're doing a job search (Biology Department, with me on the biomedical science side) and want to get from 100-200+ applications to 15-20, I think the CV does a good job. I'd like to look at the rest of the package--especially research plan and letters than give insight into the persons thought processes, and provide information about intangibles- to narrow that to the five we'll invite.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I think CV's are a window into the soul. Not necessarily a clear window, but definitely a glimmer. You can often tell from a CV whether someone is a megalomaniac, how altruistic the person is, how energetic, how into appearances or not, how naive, etc. There are definitely things a CV can NOT tell you, but it can reveal some things about your personality.

Anonymous said...

I think CVs can be a window into the soul, but isn't that more the job of a cover letter, or personal/research statement? Those things are meant to reflect things about your personality that a list of accomplishments cannot.

Wes said...

I did enjoy A.Lex, to this day I still get contact emails from people like "" , always find it amusing.

What do you guys think about length of a CV? I'm careful about trying not to make it to long, but I'm also always paranoid that the things I leave off my selective publications or selective work experiences will make it look like I had a void in time. I don't think people will assume I have spent a year in prison for dancing in a town where dancing is banned, but I guess i have that Magical Robot Unicorn fear that they want to see you moving forward constantly.

Unknown said...

I didn't write a fake CV but I did write a fake cover letter for a supervillain league. I almost accidentally sent it to a place where I was applying for a *real* forensic toxicologist position. Would have been pretty awkward, lol