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.
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.
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.”
“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
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.
“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)
- 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.
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.)
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