A recent Tweet from a Princeton academic has been making the rounds. The academic, concerned about feedback he was receiving from his grad students about their lack of success, created a CV of his failures (after hearing that Melaniel Stefan had done the same) – all the applications for funding that were denied, the courses he wasn’t accepted into and the journals that declined his articles. He thinks that we should be having a conversation about the way a CV gives an impression of an endless line of achievements, without any setbacks.
Postgraduate students across the globe praised his bravery for admitting something that we all, deep down, knew all along – CVs only tell half the story. The longer you’re in academia (or any job for that matter) the more successes you have and the more impressive your CV can look. But for those starting out a short CV reflects a recent history of rejection and failed attempts at success.
This made me think about what my own CV of failed attempts, sometimes called a ‘Dark CV’, would look like. Frankly, I think it’s quite impressive! What my Dark CV would show is a person who has thrown their hat into the ring for a number of opportunities in various settings. Sure, many (if not most) were failures, but I learnt something about the administration game, organisations and how to sell myself at each stage in the process. My successes have also helped me realise that the old adage ‘you’ve got to be in it to win it’ is 100% accurate – many of my successes are as much the result of a very small pool of entrants as they are of my own skills or expertise.
But then a friend pointed me towards another article, one which talked about a different side to the Dark CV. This article posed some serious questions about the nature of individuals and academia. There is a growing body of literature that argues that women in academia are systematically undermined in their career progression. The case is no better for anyone else who doesn’t fit the academic archetype – that is white, heterosexual and from a middle-high socioeconomic background. The Dark CV also doesn’t reflect on the fact that this Princeton academic probably entered academia when the number of people competing for positions was lower and the number of positions available was higher. In short, the Dark CV of the Princeton academic could be inspirational because the number of ‘failures’ was somewhat offset by the number of ‘successes’. In a twenty first century job market the truth is that a Dark CV could become the only kind of CV that some members of the population will be able to generate. And what does a long list of failures without an associated list of successes tell someone about their own value?
Personally, I think it’s a lovely idea to reflect back on the full suite of experiences people have had. But just as equally I think that the Dark CV might hide something even darker: the continuing lack of opportunities that might exist in our workplaces. The truth is that a discussion about CVs, Dark or otherwise, will not address any of the systemic issues in twenty first century economies. In fact, many of these systemic issues might be contributing to the normalisation of a ‘list-based’ attributes set seen in CVs (dark or otherwise) – think about the proliferation of unpaid internships for people desperate for experience to place on a CV, non-functional boards for people to sit on and look impressive and predatory journal publications for people to get their name out. Our employment practices focus so wholly on the ability to define the value of a person via a set of nominal ‘experiences’ that the actual capabilities of a person may be overlooked.
How do we solve this? I’m not sure… but I think having work places commit to longer-term contracts or permanent positions, and therefore invest in finding the right person for a job, rather than the right list of experiences, could be a good place to start.