Narrative CVs – a good idea?

17 July 2023

In the upcoming ERC grant competitions, the applicants will be asked to write a narrative curriculum vitae. ERC grantee Anja Leist took part in calls where this type of CV was required and she also reviewed proposals with narrative track records. She shared with us what she learned.   

What experience have you had with research assessment during your career?

Already in my 2018 ERC Starting Grant application, I commented - qualitatively - on some of the items I included in my CV. There was always the possibility to write why this or that was important or innovative or at the frontier of science. We were asked not about the total number of publications, but rather we had to choose only the most important ones. That was already a step in this new direction. In 2020 I acted as a reviewer for the Dutch Vici scheme. At the Dutch Research Council (NWO) they had already implemented the principles of Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA). As reviewers, we received guidance, for example, not to comment on the number of publications or the impact factor of the journals the researcher had published in.

What types of experience have you had with narrative CVs?

The first time I really prepared the narrative CV for an application was in 2021. I was part of a group seeking a grant from Luxembourg’s national funder: the FNR. The FNR itself provided quite detailed guidelines and a substructure of the narrative CV, including for example a separate section to describe the applicant’s contribution to wider society. We also had support from our host institution’s research support department. There, the research facilitator checks narrative CVs before submission. It was a new experience. It was very different from filling a CV in the old style. With the narrative CV, it took some time to think about what I wanted to present. I shifted around different items and then tried to stress the most important. Ideally, you would provide examples for the contributions you made or impact you generated – the more tangible and concrete, the better. That took some time. These aspects are something people should factor in.

Did this narrative CV allow you to show your broader achievements more easily?

Many items are already visible on the traditional CV. If you worked on a scientific advisory board or if you are an expert reviewer for the WHO, this is something that would show up on your traditional CV anyway. You were always able to mention prizes and other honours.

It all comes more naturally with a narrative CV because you write it in an explanatory mode. The narrative CV is good for explaining things that wouldn't be visible in traditional forms of metrics measurement like my contribution to the open science movement...

However, it all comes more naturally with a narrative CV because you write it in an explanatory mode. The narrative CV is good for explaining things that wouldn't be visible in traditional forms of metrics measurement like my contribution to the open science movement or how a Japanese colleague from the nursing sciences improved dementia care practices in ‘real world’ settings.

I also found it helpful to be able to explain that I'm working at the intersection of several disciplines. I'm a psychologist by training, this has helped me understand cognitive functioning and the methods to explore cognitive functioning. I'm using sociological concepts, but I also have a public health perspective by using population-based data. These disciplines would all require different approaches on how to present my research to others. I could speak about this kind of interdisciplinary work more clearly in the narrative CV.

The take-up of some of my publications was a bit easier to explain in the narrative CV as well. The impact on research and impact of different outreach events, for example, would be at the very end of the traditional CV, but it was quite prominent in the narrative CV. The final result reflects better what I'm doing, especially since I’m in the social sciences where you don't publish in Nature or in the very high-ranking journals. I found that the narrative CV helped to justify individual decisions of where I chose to publish my research, and how I reach my target audience.

Did you encounter or do you imagine any potential problems with a narrative CV?

One problem is that native English speakers and those researchers who have the support of their host institution to polish their CV will have an advantage. So, to some extent the benefits depend on language skills. When it comes to reviewers, they will need to be given very specific guidelines on how to evaluate track records. We all need to be conscious of potential biases, both as applicants and as reviewers. I feel these things should be monitored. Finally, cultural differences could play a role. In Southern Germany we have a saying “if you don't say anything, that's enough praise”. We're very self-critical and feel we ought to be modest, so we don’t easily utter words like “fantastic” or “superb”, which might be more commonly used in the United States for example.

Do you think that changes to funding application evaluation processes reflect a wider change to what is being expected of researchers?

Considering a more global view of a researcher’s career is for the time being just a noble intention. However, if you look at how the Coalition for Advancing Research Assessment (CoARA) is progressing with over 500 signatories, then you see there is a movement away from bibliometrics and towards a more complex research assessment.

Researchers of my age, in middle adulthood, form part of a “sandwich” generation. Up until recently, we were building our CVs on the traditional indicators. This is particularly true for medical and life science disciplines. At the same time, we have generated output on the “new” research assessment dimensions, displaying so-called societal impact or policy impact. If you are looking at the traditional excellence indicators, then some of us won’t have enough to show, because we spent part of our time on other outputs. Whereas if we are only evaluated under the “new” research assessment dimensions, then we may not score that highly either. It could be that we are penalised by both types of evaluation.

Would the new narrative CV format encourage you to apply to the ERC? Or does applying mainly depend on other things?

Of course, it would be fantastic to have an ERC Advanced Grant, so I will certainly apply in the future. Before applying for my first ERC grant, I heard one of the former members of the ERC Scientific Council say that before they look at the CVs of researchers, they look at the proposals. I would say this is still applicable: most of the effort should still go into the proposal. However, I definitely found it novel to work on an accompanying narrative CV. I guess I'm not the only one in research who would consider this an interesting challenge!


Anja LeistAnja Leist is Associate Professor in Public Health and Ageing and Vice-Head of the Institute for Research on Socio-Economic Inequality at the University of Luxembourg.

She was also recently appointed as special adviser to the university’s rectorate, for the topic research assessment. Her research focuses on cognitive ageing and dementia from a social and behavioural risk reduction perspective. Specifically, together with her team,

Anja identified relevant contextual-level influences on cognitive ageing and dementia related to inequalities in educational opportunity, socioeconomic conditions, and sex/gender. Prof Leist serves on several Scientific Advisory Boards, and regularly reviews for journals and funders.