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I am an undergraduate student preparing to apply for PhD programs and I am currently refining my CV for this purpose. I understand that a CV for PhD applications may differ in focus compared to one for job applications, and I'm seeking advice on what elements are most crucial to include or emphasize.

Specifically, what aspects of my background, experiences, or skills should be highlighted to make my CV stand out to admissions committees in the PhD application process? Are there certain experiences, such as research, internships, or specific coursework, that are particularly valued?

Also, how should I approach the presentation of these elements in my CV to best demonstrate my potential as a PhD candidate?

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    You may find more specific answers if you specify a (general) field. I am sure the answers vary between disciplines.
    – gabe
    Jan 17 at 5:11

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In STEM fields (I am thinking specifically of physics, but I imagine this applies to others), a CV is typically looked at for

  1. Prior research experience
  2. Internships or other projects completed
  3. Relevant coursework

In roughly that order of precedence. Graduate programs are very different than undergraduate, and require a different although related set of skills in order to succeed. You are training to be an independent scholar or researcher in your field, as opposed to only acquiring a set of knowledge regarding an academic subject. They are primarily project oriented, in that you can expect to spend a large portion of your time planning and carrying projects to completion (i.e., your research and thesis). Therefore, reviewers assessing applicants want to ensure that admitted students will be able to do this, and the best way to show that is by highlighting past undertakings that demonstrate these skills.

Most relevant would be past research projects, as these are most similar to the types of things you will be doing in your graduate career. Better yet if the research is relevant to the field you are hoping to enter, but even if not, highlighting this experience demonstrates that you understand what is required in a PhD, that you have begun to develop those skills, and that you might be a safe investment of faculty members' time and grant money should they mentor you. Highlight any deliverables that came from these projects, such as papers or conference poster.

After research, internships and even independent projects (in certain instances) can be important to highlight for the same reasons. While they do not show familiarity with the field or specific scientific skills, they do demonstrate your ability to complete work deemed valuable by others, work collaboratively, and learn new skills on the job. Independent projects, if they develop skills likely to be used in research, can be helpful to mention as well. For example, programming related projects can demonstrate useful skills even if they are unrelated to the field of study in question.

Coursework can be useful to highlight, especially if other areas might be lacking, but it is not the most important thing on a graduate application. If you have taken and done well in advance courses, this can further assure reviewers that you "have what it takes", but on its own it does not demonstrate you will succeed in a PhD program. In any case, curricula vary between institutions and it can be hard to assess coursework, especially when there are many applications to be reviewed. It can sometimes help calibrate reviewer's understanding by mentioning textbooks used in certain courses, as that gives an idea of the level of the course taken. But do not dwell on it or use up to much space here, it is not the most important aspect and you will likely be expected to take graduate courses anyway.

Finally, parallel to these topics and not falling into this hierarchy, it can be useful to highlight outreach and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives you may have taken part in with positive effect. But especially on a CV, where space is limited, I would not make these the main focus.

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  • I can confirm this answer also applies to biology/biomedicine. Jan 17 at 8:31

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