Wednesday, 23 January 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.....

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