Our biggest achievements and struggles are not on our CVs

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They say that your curriculum vitae records what you’ve done in academia. That might be true, but it doesn’t say what you’ve gone through.

For a lot of folks, simply persisting is the greatest career achievement.

My path hasn’t been the roughest, but I’ve had some obstacles. There’s no place on the CV for all of these bumps in the road. Where can I put on my CV that a nontrivial amount of my time as a postdoc was spent in recovery after an emergency surgery? You won’t see any place on the CV to describe the difficulty and effort of caring for aging and sick family members over several years.

There’s no place to list on your CV that whether a workplace was healthy or toxic. There’s no way to list whether you’ve had a supportive chair or a chair who was working to undermine you. Survivors of sexual assault don’t list this fact on their CV. Targets of retaliation don’t have a place to explain how this has harmed their career. I’ve had colleagues experience the sudden death of a spouse or a child, others who have had their homes swept away by a tornado, others who lost credit for years of work because of unscrupulous supervisors, and many are survivors of cancer. These aren’t things that you put on your CV, and are things that you don’t readily volunteer in casual conversation, but they’re a big part of who we are.

Some folks keep a ‘failure CV‘, listing all of the things that they applied for and didn’t get, and all of the rejections and failed experiments. Just to show the effort and persistence behind the visible success. I like that idea. We should keep in mind, though, that some of the biggest setbacks and failures are not academic things that would appear on any CV, and nobody lists on their CV how their proximity to power provides them access to career-building opportunities.

Some lines on CVs can be the result of hard work, and others can be opportunities that fell in one’s lap — and it might be impossible to tell the difference. There’s no place where you’re required to list on your CV whether a student volunteered for a cool fieldwork experience, or whether they had to competitively apply for one of the few paying positions. When students list their standardized test scores, does anybody explain whether they had access to a special test prep course? Some middle authorships might consume months of our lives, while other middle authorships take an afternoon of effort, and it’s often impossible to tell. Some Co-PIs made a substantial effort in writing a proposal, while others merely had their name slapped on it.

Come to think of it, this web site occupies just one line on my CV, but for most academics, this is how they know me and my work.

While working from home during this pandemic, some folks are having a relatively easy time, and others are going through some extended trials right now. And it’s not easy to tell on the face of things who’s going through their own challenges. I think it’s a good reminder that this has always been true, with or without a pandemic going on.

I’m proud of the things on my CV, but I’m far more proud of what I’ve accomplished: all the students I’ve taught and done research with, the discoveries I’ve made, the opportunities I’ve worked to foster, the communities I’ve helped build. The CV doesn’t really paint the picture.

The things I’m most proud of are the ones that don’t belong on my CV at all, because they have nothing to do with my academic career. And they don’t belong on this academic blog, either. Likewise, some of my biggest professional and personal struggles involve relationships with other people, who have a right to privacy, so I just don’t discuss them at all.

In academia, we spend a lot of time sizing one another up. So much effort is spent in deciding whether academic work is valuable, or whether the people behind that work get to be selected for something. I realized that over the past year, I’ve spent more of my time evaluating other people and their science, than I have been able to do my own science. I think this is a function of my career stage. In the past year, I’ve been on grant panels, reviewed for journals, edited for journals, chaired the departmental tenure, served on a search committee, and an award committee, I wrote a bunch of tenure letters, and such. (And I’ve submitted how many manuscripts in that period of time? Not nearly as many as I’ve wanted to.) It’s humbling and sad to realize that all of this effort put into measuring science and people are so imperfect. There is so little we know of the roads that others walk, and alas, evaluation and judgment are the coins of the academic realm.

3 thoughts on “Our biggest achievements and struggles are not on our CVs

  1. In Canada, the application for an NSERC Discovery Grant (the backbone funding in STEM) has an explict place for “Delays”. Many of the kinds of things you mention, like medical issues or family-care obligations, go there, and they are considered during panel deliberations. I’m not sure how universal this is with other agencies (and I know it’s not quite what you’re talking about, but it’s related).

    • A once heard from a colleague in New Zealand that their evaluation at their institution was explicitly about “achievement relative to opportunity” and that it’s far more okay to explain these things because of that.

  2. I make a point to go over my personal failures in my career (jobs not obtained, grants not obtained, manuscripts not accepted, my heart disease issues affecting my career, issues raising teenagers affecting career advancement) with each of my research fellows so that they can understand that life is more complicated than just the CV. Sure, I have had many wonderful, positive aspects to my career, but life interferes and that is normal and should be accepted.

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