Styling your CV for graduate school

Good CV styling is difficult. It requires awareness of your audience, understanding of human perception, and familiarity with your design tools. You can minimize some of these barriers by commissioning or downloading a CV template, but you will be better off in the long run knowing how to style your own CV. I’ll show you how to do that by taking you through the process I used to style my own CV while applying to graduate school. I’ve also created a CV template you can download to get started.

Know your audience

Depending on the program you are applying to, your audience will vary. But your one sure audience is the potential supervisor you hope to work with. Making a strong first impression with your potential supervisor is important—they should want to work with you as much as you want to work with them!

Once you have a potential supervisor in mind, take a look at their CV. This is both a good place to learn more about their work and to draw inspiration from when styling your own CV. Look at the fonts, spacing, alignment, and ordering they use. Or make note of which information they emphasize in boldface type. Your potential supervisor’s CV is not just a record of their experience, it is also a record of the parts of their experience they think are most important.

Use this insight to your advantage. If there is any overlap in the sections and experience between your CV and theirs, consider following their example. If their CV starts with an Education section followed by an Awards section, you might benefit from doing that too. That way when your potential supervisor reads your CV it will be in a familiar format, making it easier for them to find the information about you they are most interested in.

Bonus tip: If any of your potential supervisor’s current students have their CVs posted online look at those too. They are in a similar career stage as you so their experiences will be more alike.

If you can’t find your potential supervisor’s CV online you can always send them a courteous email asking for a copy. Just make sure to express your interest in working with them as the reason for your request.

Be known by your audience

Speaking of emailing potential supervisors, you should send them an email expressing your interest in working with them regardless of whether you need their CV or not. And you should do this well-before applying to their program. This email can lead to a number of opportunities, such as:

  • Determining whether you should spend the time and money applying to the program
  • Making yourself known to your potential supervisor
  • Receiving invitations to chat with your potential supervisor’s students
  • Getting an interview with your potential supervisor
  • Informing you of other potential supervisors who might be a better fit for you
  • Learning insider information that isn’t posted on the program or your potential supervisor’s website

Because of the value your first email to your potential supervisor can have, you should put serious thought and effort into it. Below is a template I created while drafting my own emails to potential supervisors in 2019. Note that italicized words are placeholders describing what you need to fill in. Keep in mind that (1) it is fine to stray from this template; (2) the words in this template should be used sincerely; (3) this email should be sent to no more than three potential supervisors within the same program.

Subject: Starting Semester Prospective MSc/PhD Student Supervisor Inquiry

Dear Dr. LastName,

Strong opener (why are you writing to them?):

I am writing to you because I am applying to University’s MSc/PhD program in Subject (Subject Stream; if applicable) and am wondering if you would be willing to supervise me. I am pursuing graduate studies to prepare for a career as a Career Title, and am applying to the program because I am especially interested in working with you.

Show interest in their work (why are you writing to them, specifically?):

I find your leadership in Subject very compelling, as I am particularly interested in using Subject to solve Problems. Your focus on Topic also excites me, as this is an area that I am passionate about and have focused on during my undergraduate studies. I especially enjoyed your paper on Specific Topic—it did some positive thing for me. Have you considered following up this research by doing research idea that shows you have read their works and put thought into them.

Demonstrate fit (why should they be interested in you?):

I think I would make a great fit for the program and your lab! In addition to my educational experience in 2-3 subjects important for working in your potential supervisor’s lab, I have had research experience through several research projects and my honours thesis, and am proficient in valuable tools such as R or Python.

Call to action (they’re interested in you, where can they can learn more?):

I have attached my CV and unofficial transcripts for your consideration. Thank you for your time, I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,
FirstName LastName

Use human perception to your advantage

The goal of your CV is to communicate as much professional information about you in the shortest time possible. Your potential supervisor probably isn’t going to read your CV like a book; they are more likely to skim through it, making note of certain staples such as an Honours thesis, research experience, awards, and so forth. Because of this, you want these staples to be easy for your potential supervisor to find when they look at your CV.

Fortunately, it is pretty easy to do this by using the of Gestalt principles of design to style your CV. That is:

  • Grouping similar items together
  • Separating dissimilar items
  • Formatting items within a group the same way
  • Formatting things we want to stand out in a different way
  • Styling the overall document consistently

In practice this means using boldface, capitalization, alignment, and spacing effectively. I’ll illustrate this with two examples, one bad and one good:

Bad example

Bland, cramped, inconsistent…

Good example

Enticing, spacious, consistent!

Notice the difference? Here’s why I think the good example is better:

  • The document feels cohesive.
  • Important information pops out because it’s in boldface.
  • The information is easy to read because of the liberal use of white space.
  • The distinction between (dis)similar information is clear because of consistent alignment and lines or white space separating elements.
  • Headings are separated them enough to be obvious, but not so much as to become overwhelming, because they are written in all-caps instead of an increased font size.

The styling on the good example could still be improved further, but any further improvements would come from minor tweaks, not major overhauls.

Learn your design tools

There are only a handful of tools in your word processor you need to know about in order to make an attractive CV. I’ll go over them here:

Paragraph styles

Paragraph styles allow you to save and edit the style of text in a document. You can create multiple paragraph styles and use them for different sections of your CV. For instance, an hanging indent paragraph style for the body of your publications section, and a non-indented paragraph style for your other sections.

When you apply a paragraph style to a selection of text it becomes very easy to change the styling of that text in the future. For example, if you create apply a heading style where the text is bolded title case and apply that to all headings in your document, then decide you want to change your heading’s appearances, you can simply edit the style and it will update all the headings it’s been applied to.

Paragraph styles are very powerful—you can use them with most of the tools discussed below—and they will save you a headache later if you want to change your CV’s overall styling.

Guide: Microsoft Word, Apple Pages.

Spacing and Alignment tools

Character spacing

Character spacing is the adjustment of the horizontal white space between the letters in a block of text.

Guide: Microsoft Word, Apple Pages.

Line spacing

Line spacing is the space before each paragraph, between each line in a paragraph, and after each paragraph.

Guide: Microsoft Word, Apple Pages.

Tab stops

A tab stop is the horizontal position the typing cursor snaps to after the Tab key is pressed. You can also choose the alignment of text within a tab stop (left, centre, right).

Guide: Microsoft Word, Apple Pages.

Text alignment

Alignment determines the appearance and orientation of the edges of a paragraph.

Guide: Microsoft Word, Apple Pages.

Graphical tools

Font

Font determines the style of a typeface. I recommend using a standard system font such as Helvetica, Arial, or Times New Roman—these fonts are easy to read and, because they are so commonly used, they will not distract your audience from the content of your CV. That said, here is a list of free fonts for commercial and personal use if you need unique fonts for other documents.

Guide: Microsoft Word, Apple Pages.

Case

Case determines the capitalization of text.

Guide: Microsoft Word, Apple Pages.

Lines

Lines are useful for separating sections.

Guide: Microsoft Word, Apple Pages.

Wrapping up

Although good CV styling is difficult, it is attainable using the approaches and tools discussed in this post. If you’d like to dive deeper into the topic of document design, I recommend taking a design for print publication course at your university or picking up a book on design such as “The Non-Designer’s Design Book” by Robin Williams (this is the one I use). The skills and knowledge you will gain from these are immensely valuable as a scientist, going well-beyond CV styling. They will teach you how to design and communicate your scientific work in a variety of formats—including papers, posters, reports, and brochures—ensuring that your work connects with its audience.

If you are interested in a design post on a different topic, such as conference posters, let me know in the comments. Thanks for reading!
Michael McCarthy
Michael McCarthy
Researcher, Data Scientist, Musician

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