Imagine you’re about to make a speech before a distinguished gathering of professionals. While you’re being introduced, you wait nervously—knowing that this introduction will make or break your presentation. Depending on what they hear, audience members will either perk up or tune out.
Your curriculum vitae has that same power. It can portray you as a desirable candidate or cause your reader to yawn and flip to the next applicant in the pile.
Whereas resumes are typically shorter and used for standard job applications, a CV is required for many fellowships, residencies, research positions, graduate schools and more. It’s also the standard job-seeking document for most health care professionals. Keeping an up-to-date version on hand can mean the difference between submitting an application early or scrambling to complete paperwork at the eleventh hour.
Part 1: What to include
Because it is so comprehensive, a CV is divided into sections. Academic history, work experience and research experience are standard, but other sections may also be included if relevant. Academic sections typically come before professional ones.
Information should be presented neatly and consistently. Begin each section, except for your identification, with a header. List dated entries in reverse chronological order (using a month/year format) and use alphabetical order for undated items, such as interests or skills. Sections include:
Identification: Include your name and contact information at the top of the page.
- Details to include: Your formal name, address, city, state, country and country code. Provide at least two means of contact: email address, home phone number and/or cell number.
- Tip: Be sure to include M.D. or D.O. next to your name so recruiters don’t have to hunt for it.
Personal statement: Some career advisers recommend including a personal statement about your goals, while others say a cover letter is a better place to relay this information. If you do choose to include a personal statement, keep it to one concise paragraph.
- Details to include: Two to three sentences explaining where you are in your career, what your goals are, and why you are a good fit for the position.
- Tip: Include a personal statement if you’re using a recruiting service, as it helps recruiters identify you and understand your strengths.
Education: Only include schools where you earned a degree or certification. If you transferred or withdrew from a school, you should omit this from your CV but be ready to provide details if asked.
- Details to include: List the institution’s full name, the degree/certification obtained, month/year bestowed, major and minor(s), thesis or dissertation (if applicable), city, state and country.
- Tip: Include the dates of your degrees. “This provides [verifiable] confirmation of your credentials and demonstrates experience or rank, often required for positions,” says Heather J. Peffley, PHR, FASPR, physician recruiter at Penn State Health in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
Professional certifications and licenses: List all of your current medical accreditations, certifications or licensures.
- Details to include: Name of the accreditation, state (if applicable), year it was bestowed and expiration date.
- Tip: There’s no need to include license numbers on your CV.
Awards and honors: List any honors and awards you have received, such as volunteer recognitions, academic distinctions, professional recognitions, military decorations and scholarships. Don’t overlook anything that might be relevant. “Were you a chief resident?” asks Peffley. “If so, include that.”
- Details to include: Name of the award/honor, the year you received it and the granting organization. Include a one-line description if necessary. If an item is self-explanatory, no elaboration is needed.
- Tip: “From a resident perspective, I wouldn’t go past college,” says Zachary Kuhlmann, D.O., OB-GYN residency program director for KU School of Medicine-Wichita. “For practicing physicians, I’d stop at college/medical school and residency.”
Professional experience: Provide a complete timeline of all your paid employment since medical school. If you served in the military, you can include it here or in a separate military experience section.
- Details to include: Dates, job title, employer name, city and state for each position. Describe the role—including clinical experiences you gained, skills you developed and results you helped to achieve. If you have changed careers, highlight skills that will transfer to the medical field.
- Tip: Use a month/year format for dates, advises Peffley. “This is a requirement for foreign nationals [who] require visa sponsorship and has been adopted as a best practice on CVs,” she says.
Research experience: List any research you have conducted or assisted with.
- Details to include: Dates, funding granted, the name of the research leader, your role/title and a brief summary of the project and your responsibilities.
- Tip: Review your research outcomes before your interview. “If you have research listed, be sure to know about it so if someone asks you about it, you can tell them,” Kuhlmann says.
Publications: List all published work you authored, co-authored or contributed to, including journal articles, abstracts or presentations. Your CV should become an archive of all your publications.
- Details to include: Title of article or presentation, type of item, your role, date presented or published and where it appeared.
- Tip: Jot down each presentation as it occurs, so you don’t forget. “In residency, you lose track of some of the presentations you may give,” says Stephanie Kuhlmann, D.O., associate professor of pediatrics at KU School of Medicine-Wichita. “You forget about all the little things you do. Even though they’re kind of small, they can get you a promotion. Every little thing you do can go on you CV.”
Teaching experience: Include any involvement in teaching, tutoring, classroom assisting, curriculum development or similar activities. Training fellow undergraduates, through peer mentoring or student orientations, may also be applicable.
- Details to include: Name of the institution where you provided instruction, your role, the subject and month/year.
- Tip: Teaching is a valuable skill in the medical profession. Adding teaching experience to your CV may give you an opportunity to talk about it later during your interview.
Volunteer experience: List unpaid work and community involvement. If your volunteer service includes sitting on more than one board or you have a highly relevant board appointment, consider creating a separate section for board memberships.
- Details to include: Name of the organization, type of organization (if necessary), your title, dates involved and a brief description of your contribution.
- Tip: Trim this section by including only the most significant or relevant positions. Including brief volunteer stints or unrelated items could detract from more impressive endeavors.
Extracurricular activities and interests: Include non-professional pursuits, such as participation in sports, music and art as well as any certifications.
- Details to include: List each item and be ready to discuss. These items also make good small talk over lunch or in meetings.
- Tip: Use this area to demonstrate that you are a well-rounded individual and to showcase relevant skills. For example, distance running can demonstrate self-discipline, and performing in an orchestra requires teamwork. “I’m OK with putting some eclectic things on a CV, but phrase it in a professional manner,” Zachary Kuhlmann recommends.
Professional affiliations: List career-related groups, committees or societies you have participated in.
- Details to include: Name of affiliation, dates involved and position or role.
- Tip: Typically, it’s best to focus on current affiliations. If you do include lapsed memberships, be prepared to explain the reason you left. It may come up in an interview.
Other qualifications: Provide non-medical talents or skills, such as foreign language fluency, cultural experiences, personal interests or special motivators.
- Details to include: List a brief summary of each item. Be prepared to verify and discuss.
- Tip: “When I reviewed CVs from medical students, what I remember most was their life experiences,” says Jacqueline Huntly, M.D., president and founder of Athasmed, LLC in Savannah, Georgia. “If you have experiences that aren’t typical or things you achieved or overcame, it can help give a feeling for you as a whole—not just data on a resume.”
Part 2: What to know
Some parts of preparing your CV are common sense, but other important considerations aren’t so obvious. Here are some do’s and don’ts to keep in mind.
Don’t go it alone
Even if you have first-rate medical credentials, grammatical errors or poor organization could jeopardize your chances of being taken seriously.
“If there are grammatical errors or inconsistencies in the personal statement or publications, you’ve got to wonder how that will reflect in basic care,” Kuhlmann says. “Will they miss something?”
Whether you enlist assistance from the start or do so later while reviewing your first draft, it’s smart to bring in a set of trained eyes. A career counselor or writing professional can make sure your material is polished. Plus, industry standards change frequently, and a professional will ensure your document reflects current best practices.
In addition, you should seek the opinion of one or two people who know you well. Consider family members, mentors or trusted colleagues. They can help you project an authentic tone and personality. They may even point out strengths and skills you’ve overlooked.
Perfect your language
Tone and word choice play important roles in shaping a reader’s first impression of you. Huntly explains, “[Your CV] must convey that you’re a professional with good use of language.”
Reviewing example CVs can give you a sense of the right language to use. Get samples by contacting your medical school’s alumni office, asking colleagues and mentors or looking online.
Some tips for achieving a professional tone:
- Use strong verbs. For example, “executed” and “spearheaded” make powerful alternatives to “worked.” To get ideas, consult a thesaurus or search online for “resume verbs.”
- Replace buzzwords or jargon with simpler language.
- Avoid repetitive phrasing or overused words. Variety will make your CV more compelling.
- Define project names and spell out acronyms.
- Minimize superlatives. Words like “very” or “best” rarely add value, and when overused, they reduce your credibility. “Don’t embellish. What you put down should speak for itself,” says Huntly.
Dealing with employment gaps
Your employment timeline is one of the most scrutinized sections of your document. Prospective employers hope to see a flawless record, beginning with medical school. But that may be unrealistic.
Instead of worrying or trying to hide lapses in employment, it’s best to address them, according to Kelly Sennholz, M.D., an emergency medicine physician in Denver. “Put it all out on the table, because it will come up,” she says. Two or three weeks are insignificant, but any lengthier gaps should be documented and labeled with a neutral or positive descriptor, such as educational travel, cultural pursuits, relocation, etc.
Early in her career, Sennholz took time away from medicine to start a company, which she documents on her CV as “time creating a business.” “I keep the description simple, so they can’t decide if they like or dislike it,” she says. “I have answers ready if they ask, and they always do.”
Be ready to talk about any employment lapse if an interviewer asks. Take the opportunity to present it in a flattering light. “For example, if you traveled to Africa and you toured some medical facilities, perhaps there’s a story or vignette you could use [about] what you were learning while traveling,” Sennholz suggests. “They’re looking for red flags, personal flaws, so don’t give them one.”
Even a less-than-ideal career gap can be presented positively. “It’s not a career death sentence,” says Zachary Kuhlmann of a gap. “But be prepared to discuss it and how you’ve grown and how that experience made you better.”
Scattered work history? Don’t worry
Not every physician follows a straight path from college to practice. Some start in a different area of health care, while others may initially pursue a non-medical career. So don’t worry if your work history seems lacking. Instead, put a positive spin on what you’ve done.
Some candidates feel non-medical employment isn’t worth mentioning, but that’s not always the case. For example, a former school teacher could emphasize teaching, multitasking and time management skills, all of which are useful traits for physicians.
If you’ve been hitting the books for several years without accumulating much work experience, you can still emphasize how you learned and grew during that time.
“There are ways to demonstrate initiative and leadership skills even though they occurred in an educational setting,” Peffley says. “Include details about your ranking, any accolades or awards you received, etc. These elements may be translated into skills also earned through work experiences.”
Whatever your background, the key is to shine a spotlight on your achievements and skills, while showing how you’ve spent your years productively. “Trust who you are and respect the decisions you’ve made along the way,” says Huntly. “Even if you’ve made a mistake, focus on what have you learned from it.”
What not to include
Though your CV is a highly detailed document, it’s not completely comprehensive. A few pieces of information are best left out. Omit personal details, such as age, sex, gender identity, family structure, religious affiliations or marital status. “By indicating this information, you are essentially inviting someone to make an assumption about you and/or your abilities—and not always in a positive light,” says Peffley.
Immigration status is another area that may provoke a biased reaction, but applicants requiring visa sponsorships may need to open that conversation anyway. Peffley explains, “You may simply add ‘citizenship status: requires visa sponsorship’ on the CV.”
Most experts suggest you leave off the names and contact information of your references. This protects their privacy and enables you to share the most current information with prospective employers. Including “references available upon request” is unnecessary, as it’s assumed applicants will supply references.
Finally, never include anything that’s not 100 percent accurate. False or intentionally misleading information has no place in a professional document and can permanently damage your reputation.
Part 3: The cover letter
In addition to your CV, you’ll need one other document: a cover letter. This letter should be uniquely targeted to every opportunity. Peffley suggests you consider it your personal sales pitch, explaining, “[Use it to] illustrate why an employer interests you, and how you may positively contribute to—more importantly, impact—their organization.”
Letters are usually one or two pages and have a friendlier, more personalized feel than the CV. They are organized in three sections:
The introduction: A short paragraph that explains where you are in your career, touches on your goals and identifies the opportunity you are applying for.
The body: One to three paragraphs that identify what makes you a good fit for this position, mention any mutual connections and highlight any unique qualifiers. Peffley suggests explaining where you get your motivation and drive. “Outlining what inspires you may prompt the reader to want to learn more,” she says.
This can also be the place to put a positive spin on any potentially questionable areas in your CV. “Letters can be an appropriate spot for addressing issues,” Huntly advises. “If you’ve followed a different path or changed directions, give reasons why that was part of your journey and convey that you are committed now.”
The conclusion: A paragraph thanking your readers for considering you, reiterating your interest and expressing enthusiasm about hearing from them.
As with your CV, a cover letter with grammatical errors, inaccurate statements or poor word choices will work against you, so it’s best to consult a professional. To save time down the road, formulate one or two generic versions, which you can later tailor to suit each application.
Loosely translated from the Latin for the course of one’s life, a curriculum vitae should be a comprehensive record of your noteworthy accomplishments. Creating this document can feel daunting. But if you reach out for help and update your CV annually, you’ll maintain a current CV that reflects your achievements and presents you as a desirable candidate.
Debbie Swanson is a frequent contributor to PracticeLink Magazine.