Write a Grad Student CV of Failures | Celebrate Risk Taking

Should grad students compile their own CV of Failures and what should it include? That was my question when I read about Princeton professor Johannes Haushofer posting his CV of Failures (or Shadow CV).

YES! is my answer. Maybe I love this idea because my career has been littered with job loss, abandoned projects, disappointments, and tears. These days, I am helping teach workshops applying design thinking (“fail early and often”) to grad student’s lives and career planning.

Why Write Your CV of Failures?

There are four reasons why grad students should keep an on-going CV of Failures.

Develop Resilience

Comparing the documented record of what you have tried (the Shadow CV) and your accomplishments (your formal CV) helps you remember all of the struggle that leads to each success. You also see that some efforts never pan out. The next time you face a setback, you see it in context. This strengthens your resilience. Knowing you are resilient helps you get through future calamities.

Other professions put failure in the open, Melanie Stefan noted. Athletes lose in public. In Silicon Valley, where I live, entrepreneurs trumpet the number of their start-ups that closed their doors. A MOOC on Creativity assigned a Failure Resume.

Inspire Others

Correcting the false impression that successful people don’t experience setbacks is the primary motive cited by the faculty posting their CVs of Failures. Haushofer, the Princeton professor, said:

“Most of what I try fails, but these failures are often invisible, while the successes are visible. I have noticed that this sometimes gives others the impression that most things work out for me.”

Melanie Stefan, then a postdoc, proposed the idea in Nature Jobs (2010), which inspired Haushofer:

“As scientists, we construct a narrative of success that renders our setbacks invisible both to ourselves and to others. Often, other scientists’ careers seem to be a constant, streamlined series of triumphs. Therefore, whenever we experience an individual failure, we feel alone and dejected.”

Grad students are also role models. Undergrads approaching grad school can benefit from learning that you persist despite apparent catastrophes. Older grad students can normalize the struggles of newer grad students, providing crucial motivation. Remember, Grad School is Hard, and you can help smooth the path for others by sharing your ups and downs.

Document Your Progress

There is little feedback in a PhD program, so it is hard to see your progress. Noting everything that you attempt (not just the occasional milestones of success) are trail-markers on your climb. Earning a PhD requires baby-steps up Mount Everest. Turn around and see how far you have come. A Shadow CV maps your progress.

Academic Culture Hides Failure

Experienced hiker on Torres del Peine, Chile

Experienced hiker on Torres del Peine, Chile

Shadow CVs combat the culture of academia that celebrates success and hides failures. The norm in academia is to present yourself as successful. Negative findings are rarely published. Stanford undergrads call it the Stanford Duck Syndrome, where everyone is gliding along on the pond, but paddling furiously (and invisibly) under the surface. It looks like everyone else has it all together. You feel like the only one struggling; it’s a lonely feeling, and a form of Pluralistic Ignorance.

Academic values, however, would argue for openness and making our setbacks public. Nick Hopwood, published his Shadow CV on his blog in the spirit of these core values:

“The values I see reflected in presenting a public Shadow CV are ones of honesty, openness, and trust. My Shadow CV actually isn’t that shadowy: it shows me to be resilient and determined. I never claimed to be a perfect academic. Success in academia is not about never failing, never being rejected. It is about bouncing back. If I preach this but don’t have the gall to match generalizations with concrete detail, I should just shut up.”

Outline for a Grad Student CV of Failures

Grad students need different categories than do senior academics. Here is an outline to get you started. The categories evolve, of course. Early stage grad students haven’t written or submitted publications yet. Nor have they applied for jobs or postdocs. But there are lots of things that you are expected to do, and in most cases, you do them badly. At least at first. At least a few times. The “try-fail-adjust-try again-fail differently” cycle is how learning happens.

My personal experiences are interspersed in italics.

Degrees (not admitted)

  • Universities and degree programs
  • Workshops and special educational programs

Courses and Assignments (flunked, took incomplete, or got bad grade)

In one course my second year we had to write a literature review. I had no clue what that looked like. I had to redo the assignment. Over 20 years later I still remember the comment on the second version, “What a delightful difference.” I had learned a new skill!

Grad School Milestones (failed, all or in part)

  • Qualifying exams. In my program we had to write a Qualifying Paper (QP). About half of us passed on the first try, the rest of us had to rewrite. Those that had to rewrite were the first to have their dissertation proposals approved (the QP was a first draft). Early success slowed the rest down.
  • Dissertation proposals
  • Committee meetings/research progress reviews
  • Lab meeting/presentation

Research (failure is inherent)

  • Projects (ill-conceived, never finished, undoable)
  • Data generated (unusable)

Conferences

  • Submissions (not accepted)
  • Presentations (devastating critique or sparse attendance) With a colleague I “presented” a session and no one came. Zero. None. We left. Later, we laughed.
Hemingway's typewriter

Ernest Hemingway’s typewriter

Manuscripts and Chapters

  • Writing is a skill that requires effort, revision, rethinking, and feedback.
  • Manuscripts are rejected or require extensive revision.

Funding (not received)

  • Fellowships and scholarships
  • Travel funds
  • Research funds
  • Funding for workshops

Teaching and Mentoring

  • Impact harder to assess; student learning is a continuum. Sometimes we plant seeds that pay off much later.
  • The elements of teaching (lectures, discussions, labs, assignments, sequencing of topics) require practice (see Teaching Development for All Doctoral Students).

Job Search. Later in the game, you begin a job search. There are so many opportunities for rejection in this stage (as Professor Devoney Looser notes in her Chronicle of Higher Education essay on Shadow CV). Most people apply for many positions; often over several years. Postdoc labs, permanent jobs, temporary jobs, part-time jobs, internships, Fellowships. Every job search generates far more rejections than offers. So this part of your CV of Failure will be full. (Remember: having a record of past efforts will inspire you to keep on trying.)

My biggest failure was losing my job after my third year review as a tenure-track faculty member. I wasn’t denied tenure; I never even came up for it. “Thank you for playing.” This is considered an Epic Fail in academic circles. I tell you this to assure you that life goes on.

Interpersonal. Personal things don’t belong on a CV, and interpersonal disasters (even when they are hard to forget) don’t belong on your Shadow CV.

  • Stupid questions. The aphorism is that there are no stupid questions. But sometimes it feels like we ask really dumb things. In public. Don’t put these on your Shadow CV. Asking engaging questions takes practice. Admitting that you don’t know something takes courage (and helps you learn).
  • Your list of anti-achievements shouldn’t include entries that are caused by other people. Even though you remember them and they can sting. Other people can let you down: don’t meet commitments, says something mean, give unhelpful feedback, make contradictory requests, or discourage you from doing something you want to do. But these don’t belong on your list. (Alexandra Roshchina includes personal catastrophes in her Resume of Failure.)

Final Considerations

How long should a student’s CV of Failures be? The longer the better, in my view. The more risks you take; the more times you fail. Failures become a proxy for risk taking. For learning. For stretching. For creating options. Postdoc Veronika Cheplygina compiled hers and reported in her blog that: “It was comforting – the list wasn’t too long after all, and the inevitability of the list expanding in the near future didn’t seem as daunting.”

Should you make it public?  Maybe not. Most of the other published CVs of Failures are by established faculty, such as Jeremy Fox, Bradley Voytek, and Kean Birch. They are, by most measures, successful in a profession in which it is difficult to succeed. To be sure, that is one reason that they are refreshing to read.

The primary audience for your Shadow CV is you. To inspire others, share it with peers and those coming after you (a great way of Networking Across and Down). Jacquelyn Gill, a grad student with a Shadow CV, said she would make it public when she got tenure.

A CV of Failures isn’t magic.  Keep in mind that academic success is not solely a result of grit and hard work. Luck, privilege, and access to resources are also part of the story, as noted by Sonia Sodha and Anna Peak. Nevertheless, I think that graduate students should all compile their own.

 

I challenge you to start your CV of Failures. If you do, let me know!


“The Iceberg Illusion” illustration is by Sylvia Duckworth used under Creative Commons license.

Posted May 3, 2016

14 comments

  1. This is an intriguing idea. I would be curious to hear from current students/postdocs who try this: does it offer closure to the “failures” you include? does it provide a space for reflection on what you are learning or skills (such as resilience) that you are gaining? does creating/maintaining the list cause further stress?

    I do think there is great value in successful PhDs-in any career path–sharing bumps or major challenges they faced. When we surveyed students about why they changed their career preferences through the course of graduate training (2011 CBE-Life Sciences Education), most reflected on challenges in the academic research setting: difficulty of getting grant funding (and how this impacts stress and lifestyle), etc. One action that mentors could take is discussing more openly with their mentees how they handle the stress, their emotions and attitudes when they learn their grant will not be funded, how they move forward constructively.

    Similarly, in career panels on campus we ask panelists to describe challenges and unexpected turns in their career trajectories. Stories told range from being fired to being scooped to working with an incompatible advisor to applying for a year for jobs. This brings a dose of reality, and a sense of relief that everyone experiences setbacks, including senior leaders in our field or careers of interest.

    1. Cynthia, thanks for the thoughtful comment.

      I am glad that you ask panelists about their challenges. The analogy I sometimes use is that from a distance, many careers look like upward trajectories, but up close the lines are very jaggy up and down. We see our own ups-and-downs, not not other peoples’.

      That sense of relief you describe is one of the reasons that I think we should all be open about our setbacks and how we recovered from them. I had a good conversation recently about how to “course correct” when things go really wrong: needing to switch advisors for example. We may try to collaborate on a blog post on that point. If you have thoughts on startegies for doing a reboot, I would be eager to hear it.

      Chris

  2. In so many ways I think that graduate school is about learning how to fail. Things don’t always work the way we think they should. Sometimes they don’t work at all! This idea allows grad students to put conscious thought into learning this valuable lesson. Doing this mentally or actually writing it out is incredibly valuable!

    1. Pete,
      Thanks for the comment. I am so glad that this resonated for you. Do you have thoughts about how to get students to be conscious about this process? In part it is about building in habits of self reflection. It sometimes seems like time wasted, but isn’t. Do you have any strategies for helping students learn these skills? How did you learn them?
      Chris

  3. Hi Chris,
    Our PhD students scheduled an event this month during which they will “share some stories and talk about ways we can turn these failures into opportunities for growth and resilience as individuals and as a graduate community”. I shared your blog post with them. Serendipity my friend. Thank you.

    1. Val, That is a great activity for them to undertake. I hope that more students plan that kind of thing. Please encourage them to share the idea widely to inspire others. — Chris

  4. Hi Chris,
    Great post! I also really love the image of the iceberg illusion of success. (I wonder if the artist, Sylvia Duckworth, is somehow connected to Angela Lee Duckworth, author of Grit?)

    I also appreciated Cynthia Fuhrmann’s questions and comments. It would be great to hear from grad students to see if this exercise provides some closure, space for reflection, etc. I also agree that it would be great for mentors to more openly share their struggles and failures, and how they cope with them. I think mentors can tremendously help their mentees by being role models and being vulnerable. We had a grad student here at UC Davis organize a panel of 5 faculty who openly shared their failures and struggles, which was great. I was pleasantly surprised that the grad student was able to find and convince these faculty to talk openly and honestly.

    I also recently finished reading a book (Strong and Weak, by Andy Crouch), where he writes about the importance of authority (the ability for meaningful action) working synergistically with vulnerability (exposure to meaningful risk) in order to truly flourish. He writes from a religious, Christian perspective, but I think it’s accessible and helpful, even if you don’t share this perspective.

    Thanks for writing these posts!

    1. Hi Steve, I really appreciate your thoughts. I don’t know if the Duckworth’s are related, but looking at their photos on Twitter (not to over priviledge that) there is not a strong biological resemblance. In fact, I just ordered the Duckworth book, and I hope to write about it.

      I love the session that you describe. As I think about adding more workshops to my portfolio, I have been thinking about the CV of Failures as a starting point, perhaps incorporating work on resilience, too. Right now this is just cooking in my mind.

      Of course, if you would like to write a post together sometime (like I did with Jeff Schwegman about Perfectionist Gridlock), or have suggestions, I would love to hear them.

      Thanks for the encouragement, Chris

      1. Hi Chris – Sure, I’d be glad to collaborate on a post together. I’ll contact you separately to discuss further.

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