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How to write a confident-sounding CV

It’s important to present your academic self to the world with a confident-sounding CV, but CVs often don’t show all the effort and work that went into those achievements, just the end result, says Mary Beth Averill, academic writing coach, editor, and co-author of The Confident Academic: Overcoming the small fish, big pond experience… and other difficult matters.

“When you look at one person’s CV compared to another person’s CV, you really have no idea what those CVs are resting on,” she says. “What they’re resting on is probably a lot of tries, even a lot of failure.”

She suggests academics write a “CV of Failure” for themselves that includes the following list of items:

  • All the graduate programs that rejected you, and all the fellowships and academic positions you applied for and didn’t get.
  • Any journal articles that you submitted that were rejected or for which you got a revise and resubmit.
  • Any grants that you applied for that weren’t funded.

“The purpose of doing this is not to depress you but to make visible something that otherwise is usually invisible,” she says. “It only takes one graduate school to accept you, one university or college to offer you that job to start your career, and one editor to accept your article. Rejection is a normal part of life, and we need to get used to that.”

Some examples from her “CV of Failure”:

“When I started taking coach training, the ideal ending was to get certified by ICF, or the International Coaching Federation. I didn’t complete the coach training and I didn’t get certified by ICF, not because I wasn’t good enough, but because I decided that my clients really don’t care if I have certification or not, what they want is to work with me, not whatever document might be hanging on my wall.

In terms of professional experience, early on I didn’t get tenure at X College. Well, let me tell you, it was such a bad fit. I probably should thank them for not keeping me on, because looking back, I realize how miserable I was there. In terms of authoring, I wrote a book in the 2000s that’s still not published, and I don’t know if it’s ever going to be published. I’ve kind of lost interest in it. But what I will say about it is that it was a great learning experience. You become a better writer by writing. And I got a lot of experience in writing when I was writing that, and I’ve published three books since then.”

Once you realize how your present accomplishments are built on your experiences, both positive and negative, consider the following tips from The Confident Academic for actions to increase your CV writing confidence:

  • Begin constructing your CV when you start graduate school. Creating a skeleton will help you know what you need in the future. Begin a file with sections for publications, professional presentations, honors and awards, grants, courses designed and classes taught, service (e.g., committees, grant writing, mentoring, and advising), collaborations, research, and professional association memberships. Mary Beth has been surprised by working with academics who did not keep this information as they went along and had to try to remember their accomplishments later. Their accomplishments could have been presented more fully.
  • Take some time every year to review your file, add new information for things you might forget, and give yourself credit for all you have done. Use action verbs whenever possible to add these data to your CV.

Mary Beth AverillMary Beth Averill has been coaching and teaching academic writers for over 30 years. She wrote a dissertation in biology and an MSW thesis. This summer, she celebrated the publication of her third book, The Confident Academic: Overcoming the small fish, big pond experience… and other difficult matters. Mary Beth is the coauthor of How to Become an Academic Coach. The second edition of her second book, Scaling the Ivory Tower: Your Academic Job Search Workbook, is now available as well. As an adjunct Professor at the Smith College School for Social Work, she has taught Research Methods and Writing for Professional Publication. You can contact Mary Beth at As a follow up to her talk about strategies for academics to be more confident, Mary Beth and Hillary Hutchinson are offering a 4-week interactive seminar on The Confident Academic. For more information about the seminar,