How to Write a Professional Biosketch
A guide for people in university, health care, government, and nonprofit work.
Posted May 22, 2019
As someone who reviews a lot of grant applications, conference submissions, and internship applications, I read a lot of “biosketches” (brief descriptions of professional identity) from people at all career stages.
Unfortunately, many people do not put their best foot forward and sometimes don’t even seem to recognize their key professional strengths. Even distinguished senior professionals sometimes use very dated biosketches that do not communicate their status in the field.
Biosketches are yet another of the many “soft” professional skills that do not get taught in school, but are important for professional success. When you search the internet for guidance on writing a biosketch, the hits mostly take you to very business-oriented examples. Those are fine for corporate settings, but the culture in psychology and related human and social services is different. People who work in anything related to education, health, government, or social justice-oriented nonprofits need a biosketch that fits those professional cultures. If you work—or hope to work—in one of those settings, read on.
What Is a Professional Biosketch?
A biosketch (or sometimes shortened to just “bio”) is a one-paragraph description of your professional identity. It is generally no more than half a page long (single-spaced), and usually ranges from 50 to 300 words.
The main purpose of a professional biosketch is to identify the professional community to which you belong, and to briefly describe the steps you have taken to join that community. As you develop professionally, it also becomes important to describe the ways that your work has been recognized by your professional colleagues.
How Do Biosketches Compare to Other Professional Documents?
Professional biosketches are just one of several different types of personal descriptions that you might come across in human and social services: In addition to biosketches, there are also resumés, “curriculum vitae” (usually shortened to “cv”), and reflexivity statements (also called in positionality statements).
Biosketches are different from resumés or “curriculum vitae,” which are both more detailed descriptions of your work history and professional accomplishments, with dates and locations and other specifics. People in psychology and related fields say “cv” more than resumé, and cvs are usually much longer. My current cv, for example, is 22 pages long, and even at that length omits a lot of details from earlier in my career.
[Note: the National Institutes of Health has a short cv form that they also, unfortunately, call a biosketch, so you’ll sometimes hear people refer to an NIH biosketch. Those are four- to five-page versions of people’s full cvs. Although they look more like resumés or cvs, what they have in common with other biosketches is that they focus on highlights of your work, in this case those most relevant to the grant proposal. If you apply for federal grants, you can learn more about completing those here, including seeing a sample here.]
Reflexivity statements are also more detailed than biosketches, but focus on how your other personal, social, and historical characteristics can “situate” your work—exploring how your experiences growing up, or as a parent, or someone with a particular health history, for example, change the way you approach scientific questions. They are still work documents, unlike autobiographies, because the goal is to make you a better scholar or therapist.
When Do You Use Biosketches?
Some common places you will see biosketches:
1. Websites for universities, medical schools, government agencies, nonprofits, and other organizations. Most university departments have individual pages for each faculty member, and these often include biosketches. For other organizations, you’ll often see an “About Us” page that provides a brief description of key personnel.
2. Conference submissions and other presentations. If you are a student, researcher, or professional trainer, it is increasingly common that you will need to provide a brief biosketch as part of a conference or workshop submission. Many agencies that certify continuing education credits are now required to collect this information, to show that the people delivering the content have the appropriate education and training to do so.
More advanced professionals will also need a biosketch for such things as giving an invited speech or joining an advisory board. I have more than one version of my biosketch, adapted for whether the audience is more research-focused or provider-focused, and also versions for different topics I speak on. For example, sometimes I give talks that are more focused on resilience and other talks are more focused on violence or a specific type of violence, and I’ll adapt my biosketch to emphasize my experience that is most closely related to the topic I’m speaking on. You can see examples of a couple of different versions of my biosketch here and here. The first emphasizes my scientific credentials, the second my writing experience.
3. Grant applications. One of the most important parts of any grant proposal is the “why us” pitch, and there is always a section to describe the key personnel or team who will conduct the project. Each person will need a one-paragraph description of why they are well-suited for their role. This includes federal grants that also require the five-page biosketch form—you will still need to put a brief description of your credentials and why you are a good person to conduct this study in the text of the grant application (do it whether they explicitly ask for that or not).
What Goes in a Biosketch?
For most people, the biggest challenge in writing a biosketch is getting comfortable with what I call “the fine art of blowing your own horn.” I totally get that—my family’s roots are in rural Appalachia, where puttin’ on airs is just about the worst social crime you can commit. I still have to work at graciously accepting compliments—I don’t know if I will ever get over that ingrained discomfort. Nonetheless, the only way for people to find you and recognize that you’d be good for their job or conference or whatever is for you to tell them something about you. I have found that putting it in writing is easier than dealing with the same challenge in a face-to-face setting, so it can be good practice and can give you some lines you can use in interviews or similar situations.
Opening. The opening should introduce you and situate you professionally, by giving your name, degree(s), and current institutional affiliation. Stick to your main affiliations, but it is OK to list more than one (I do). Usually the wording is in the third person. For example (hypothetical made up example), “Maria Vasquez, M.A., is a graduate student in clinical psychology at Awesome University.”
Where You Fit in the Professional Universe. The next couple of sentences should identify your main areas of focus. If you are a senior person, you should communicate that experience. So for example, for me, I emphasize that the major focus of my work is on violence and that I have addressed this problem in multiple roles over the years (researcher, therapist, activist).
If you are a more junior person starting out, then it would be good to get a little more specific about the nature of your interests. For example, “My research interests focus on the impact of childhood neglect on academic achievement.”
If you are a more senior person, then you should stop saying what your research interests are and start describing your research accomplishments. You might think that this seems obvious, but it is probably the single most common mistake I see in professional biosketches—that some distinguished person still sounds like they haven’t finished their first research project. A lot of people will use the convention of saying what they are “best known for,” such as “Dr. Brown is best known for his work in preventing adolescent substance abuse” or “Dr. Han is best known for creating a school-based curriculum in social-emotional learning.” [Again these examples are made up.]
The first half of your biosketch is also a good place to note any accomplishments regarding these topics, especially if you were the first person to develop a program or pass a law or study an issue. If you are an experienced person, then it is good to say that you “have more than 10 years’ experience providing expert testimony” or “Dr. Brown has authored or co-authored more than 100 publications on substance abuse.”
Your Relationships With Professional Organizations. The second half of your biosketch is a good place to describe some of the ways that you have interacted with or been recognized by professional organizations.
The organizations you emphasize depends somewhat on the purpose of your biosketch (and probably one of the main places that it might make sense to have different versions for different purposes).
If you are applying for a grant or submitting to a research-oriented conference or, for whatever reason, trying to impress university professors or other people in academia.
In these cases, it is good to mention sources of grant (aka “external”) funding that you have received, especially for research. If you are a student or junior professional, these can include funded fellowships or assistantships as well as small grants from your own university. If you are mid-career or senior person, then it is best to emphasize larger research grants from Federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health or from large nonprofit foundations such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
This is also a good place to mention any awards.
People often ask me about how far to go back on awards, and a good rule of thumb is to go back no more than one role or career/developmental stage. So, for graduate school applications, yes, put down undergraduate accomplishments, but most high school accomplishments should roll off both your biosketch and your cv or resumé. Once you have a college degree, no one wants to know that you were president of the chess club in high school. The only exception would be if you have some extraordinary high school accomplishment, such as being an Olympic gymnast.
If you have a graduate degree and are looking for a professional position such as professor or therapist, then most of your undergraduate accomplishments should roll off both your biosketch and cv. Again, unless they are exceptional. For the rest of us, it’s better to emphasize your more recent accomplishments.
If you don’t have any awards (yet), this section can still be a good place to note professional affiliations, professional licenses, or involvement with national organizations, such as chairing a committee or something like that.
The last type of organization to consider is media organizations. When I am giving talks to audiences that more mostly practitioners, students, or members of the general public, I often mention some of the news outlets where my work has appeared. This can be a way to show that your work is the kind that “breaks through” and gets outside of the ivory tower.
However, this same approach may turn some reviewers off if you are submitting a grant or a conference proposal. Unfortunately, some academics are quite proud of the fact that no one outside academe reads their work and they look down their nose at efforts to communicate science to the general public. They are wrong, of course, but sometimes you have to play the game before you can change the game, so I’d add these references cautiously, especially if you are not sure of the audience.
Playing with the content or pushing the boundaries of how personal to get. More and more, I see people experimenting with the content of biosketches in much the same way that people have re-vamped obituaries so that they are more personal. I think this is a great movement and I support it when I can (you’ll see some of the biosketches from ResilienceCon are anything but stiff). I encourage people to try to push those boundaries so that there is a bit more of our full true selves in our professional personas. However, I personally also recommend a pragmatic approach. If you are working on your first Federal grant, that is probably not the time to play with the traditional format, because you risk looking uninformed instead of revolutionary.
With a little practice, we can all learn how to put our best foot forward.
You can see some examples of professional biosketches here and here. Some of my colleagues' biosketches are here. Click here for examples of biosketches for students and more junior professionals from ResilienceCon scholarship winners.