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Building a Shadow CV

I often look at the CV’s of researchers whose careers I admire to get a sense of their trajectory, and to build a rough road map of goals and objectives. How many papers do I want to put out in order to be as competitive as possible for a particular kind of job? How much grant money does the average faculty member generally pull in before tenure? I generally think it’s better to compete with yourself rather than with others, and I would prefer to be driven by good questions and careful science than aggressive CV-building. But I do find it useful to see the range of development of scientists through time (especially in terms of research themes and the kinds of papers published at different career stages).

Over at The Professor Is In (an incredible resource even if you have an amazing advisor and mentors, like me), a commenter on a recent post mentioned that we all have a “shadow CV,” that list of grant and paper rejections, awards not won, jobs passed up for.  Failure and rejection are not a part of the narrative of science or Academia– at least, not the Grand Narrative. When I look at the CV’s of the rockstar scientists I admire, I see a litany of successes. You never see failures, ever.

What would happen if people– and by “people” I mean established, successful, tenured researchers– published their Shadow CV’s on their websites? I think it would be incredibly valuable for early career scientists to see that for every paper in Science or Nature, there were a dozen (or more!) rejections from those same journals. That what is now considered a seminal work was once rejected by Awesome Journal of Awesomeness. That the first three grant proposals they ever wrote were rejected. That their job at Badass University was actually the 35th application they submitted.

Not all of us are going to make it in academia. A certain amount of realism is a good thing. But learning that everyone gets rejected, and everyone fails– even Dr. Perfect– sends two important messages. First, rejection is common. You don’t have to be perfect to succeed. Your first, second, or even third failures, even in this challenging market, don’t necessarily mean it’s time to give up.

Secondly, both science and scientists are imperfect. We have flaws. We make mistakes, we make poor judgement calls. Sometimes legitimate brilliance is overlooked, and we’re ahead of our time, but we’re certainly not always right. Historians of science have long been onto this, and we scientists (and the public) would be better served if we all did a better job of acknowledging it, too. I really believe that normalizing failure as a natural part of science and Academia would be really healthy for our community.

Today, I started my own Shadow CV. I’m going to add to it, rejection by rejection, along with the successes I add to my regular CV. When I get tenure someday, I’ll share it.

Update: Jeremy Fox has shared his Shadow CV over at Dynamic Ecology!

Categories: Academia Commentary

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Jacquelyn Gill

24 replies

  1. Hi Jacquelyn
    Thank you so much for this thoughtful reflection. I really love this and it is motivating. Amon


  2. I don’t know how Pingbacks work, so I thought I would let you know that I linked to this and quoted you in the blog post I just wrote about why grad students should definitely start a CV of Failure and keep it up. I also provided an outline of categories. I would love your feedback!


    1. Definitely not! I was just thinking that it would help helpful to see the shadow CVs of folks who had made it, academically (so we can see that even successful people have failures). Also, you’re in a less vulnerable position once you have tenure, so people might be more likely to actually share that information!


  3. Hi Jacquelyn. I am still being an early career scientist (or at least thas the way I think on myself) so I dont have many wise advices. But I think I can advice about this question of yours “How many papers do I want to put out in order to be as competitive as possible for a particular kind of job?” my opinion is that you dont need too many. In fact a couple of influencial papers is enough ( prioritize quality over quantity…in the long term will be better). and you already staterd to walk in that direction.
    david nogués-bravo
    PS. I like your blog. I read it sometimes


  4. I love this thoughtful and reflective post. As a ‘culture,’ academia banishes talk of failure behind a veil of shame. We would all be so much healthier if we publicized and shared it instead. Thanks for linking to my site. I will be writing more on the blog about this subject, and linking to this post, soon.


    1. Thank you! I think your blog (and your site in general) is doing a lot of important work to highlight the unhealthy or dysfunctional areas of academia in really productive ways.


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