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Research careers – changing the narrative for CVs

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by Cancer Research UK | Analysis

22 May 2024

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Recognising diverse skills and experiences in research is becoming ever more important – but how can we do that? With a narrative CV it’s possible says Mathew Tata, not only that – researchers and reviewers prefer it…  

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Research Careers

Researchers develop a hugely varied skillset over their careers – yet getting recognition of that can be difficult.

That is especially true when it comes to researchers chasing that next grant, seeking a promotion, or applying for a position at an institution. So, where’s the section on a traditional academic CV for that broader skillset, like patient and public involvement and engagement, for example? Or, for that matter, any other contributions that aren’t publications, patents and grants?

It’s time to re-think what we value in research, recognising a true breadth of contributions, and the tool or format we can use to do that.

Narrative CVs

Research assessment is steadily evolving. In contrast to the lists of conventional research outputs found in traditional academic CVs, ‘narrative CVs’ give space to describe your experiences and achievements. With narrative CVs, you write about how you contribute to the generation of knowledge (which can include conventional research outputs like publications), but also your development of other researchers and contributions to the wider research community.

Along with many other research funders, we’ve evolved our approach to research assessment in early 2022 by introducing a narrative CV as part of the application for nearly all of our response-mode funding schemes (Fellowship and bursary applications instead use a ‘Skills and Experience’ form, which requests evidence in line with our Fellowship Competency Framework).

With narrative CVs, you write about how you contribute to the generation of knowledge, but also your development of other researchers and contributions to the wider research community.

Since then, one of the most frequently asked questions across the research system has been “do narrative CVs work?”. That’s a very difficult question to answer – the actual benefit of capturing researchers’ diverse contributions during research assessment might take a few years to understand. But what is possible now is to measure how the narrative CV is received, to what extent it’s being adopted, and what impact it has on applicants’ and reviewers’ perceptions of research assessment and research itself.

We surveyed users of the narrative CV during the Autumn funding call in 2023 using a standard question set used by many funders. We received responses from 52 grant applicants and 54 expert reviewers.

The large majority of both groups support its use, with both emphasising its capacity to widen the range of research activities being recognised – the primary objective of introducing the narrative CV.

Value and feasibility of the narrative CV

Nearly three-quarters of reviewers identified different benefits of the narrative CV, such as providing more detail on the applicant’s career trajectory (15%) and their contribution to the wider research community (13%). Furthermore, compared to using a traditional CV format, only one in eight applicants and reviewers thought the narrative CV gives a narrower view of applicants’ skills and experiences, and around the same proportion felt it did not add any value.

Respondents largely considered it to be the right length (we set a maximum of two pages), although one in three reviewers found it to be more difficult to assess compared to a traditional CV format. This is understandable given that reviewers will have more to read and that applicants produce narratives with varying structures, but this is arguably the trade-off for building a more holistic picture of applicants’ contributions and achievements.



Guidance and support received

As a new format for many, the narrative CV needs proper explanation. And while CRUK has made efforts to help (on top of the guidance in our scheme application guidelines and in the application form itself, we provide a summary and FAQs on our website) it’s clear researchers will need training to draft a narrative CV and, though research institutions have begun providing this, it’s evidently not reaching everyone.

A handful of applicants suggested we provide example narrative CVs, but that’s something funders and institutions are generally opposed to doing. And there is actually a good reason for that. Providing example CVs risks setting a standard of what a narrative CV should look like, even of an ‘ideal researcher’, which is in opposition to the aim of facilitating diversity in the research community.

At CRUK the plan is to act upon applicants’ suggestions of providing more examples of activities suitable for inclusion in their CV by expanding upon the list of prompts found in the application form. We also encourage researchers to join the newly-developed Peer Exchange Platform for Narrative-Style CVs (PEP-CV), where they can seek a mentor (or even mentor themselves) on how to structure a compelling narrative CV.

Potential concerns

We also asked users whether they had any concerns about using the narrative CV, as part of our efforts to ensure it actually promotes equality, diversity and inclusion in research. We’re reassured that half of applicants (46%) and reviewers (48%) had no concerns whatsoever, but there were some issues that became apparent.

For reviewers, 9% and 7% feel it is ‘less clear than the traditional CV’ and ‘more time-consuming/wordy’, respectively. To help address this, CRUK are going to ensure reviewers have adequate time and guidance to carry out their assessment.

Applicants’ most common concern (12%) was a potential disadvantage to researchers who are either introverted, identify as neurodivergent, and/or do not speak English as their first language. These comments on writing fluency and confidence are important to note – and to mitigate any potential bias based on language, we will emphasise to our peer reviewers the importance of appraising narrative CVs based on their content, not their tone or choice of words. A well-written narrative can help clarify a researcher’s journey and skillset, but we will ensure that our reviewers look for evidence of achievements.

Cultural norms and attitudes about ‘what research is’ will still be present when preparing and reviewing a narrative, and those values take time to adjust.

Next steps

Very few respondents were opposed to the narrative CV and most users are comfortable with its introduction into our research assessment processes. After all, narratives have always formed part of a funding application, but may have been restricted to the perceived career story that reviewers formed of applicants from a traditional CV.

Looking at the demographic data, it’s clear the main trend for marginalised groups (for example, women, researchers from ethnic minority backgrounds, non-native English speakers, those with a long-term condition) is again the lack of support to prepare a narrative. This tells us we need to work with institutions  to ensure equitable access to support for preparing a narrative CV, given it is intended to facilitate recognition of these groups’ diverse personal and professional backgrounds.

Around a third of users feel the narrative CV could entirely replace the classical list of research outputs. Given we are still early in the journey towards a more holistic appraisal of researchers’ experience and contributions, this is promising. Yet, only 20% of our reviewers used it more than the lists of research outputs to assess applicants’ track record. So, it’s clear we still have some progress to make to before the narrative is seen as the main tool for communicating an applicant’s achievements.

Narrative CVs are just one piece of the puzzle in reforming research assessment. Cultural norms and attitudes about ‘what research is’ will still be present when preparing and reviewing a narrative, and those values take time to adjust. But we’re pleased that the cancer research community is adopting the narrative CV, and look forward next to analysing the different experiences and activities applicants choose to include.

Explore narrative CVs

Mat Tata


Mathew Tata

Mat is Funding Policy and Governance Manager at CRUK

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