What Our CV's Don't Say

Brian Taylor

January 22, 2013

These days I look at my CV a lot. It's disconcerting to realize that search committees won't see what I see.

When examining my CV as I prepare yet another job application, I often cannot help but conclude: It looks pretty good. It's certainly well rounded: an M.A. with honors, relevant industry experience at a prominent institution, summer research jobs, eight stand-alone courses taught, a dissertation in communications successfully defended at a top research university, two renowned scholars on my committee, and, to top it all off, two single-author, peer-reviewed publications.

Those are the bare facts. Yet they mean so much more to me than to a search committee. When I glance at my CV, I don't just see the words; I see the effort and anguish suffered before I could, in good conscience, add each and every line. I remember the months it took to prepare applications to doctoral programs; the anguish of the long wait; the exuberance at acceptance (now I could quit that industry job that was hacking away at my soul); and the far-reaching consequences that admission to a graduate program entailed for my personal life, as I found out over the next few years.

When I see my dissertation title, two years of my life pass by. I can again feel the freeze of the Midwestern winter greeting me at 5 a.m. because I could not sleep until I got those research results.

In contrast, search-committee members are more likely to note that the dissertation is not (yet) under contract with a reputable publisher. When they see my dissertation title, their eyesight might well be somewhat blurred from scanning the CVs of 67 other job candidates who also expended effort and anguish in order to be able, in good conscience, to add another line to their own vitas.

Committee members do not read my CV like I do; they compare it to other vitas. Without a doubt, that makes it easier for people to notice the holes in mine, like my lack of paper presentations at big conferences or the fact that I never made one of those lists of excellent teachers. The readers are the bachelorette; I am but one more contestant. Yes, he has nice blue eyes, but isn't he a few pounds overweight?

Then there is all the labor that never makes it onto a CV. By now I must have spent a couple of months applying to jobs. All I have to show for that effort on my vita is an "invited lecture" entry, that is, a job talk. I can't make up my mind if I am bending the unwritten rules of CV-writing by including that line. But I certainly feel it's a meager result for those months of labor.

Add to that the paralyzing anxiety we all experience as the notification deadline approaches for that great job for which we made it to the final round. In fact, right now that's what's keeping me from starting my next peer-reviewed article.

Academic labor is a strange beast. So much of its payoff is either in the future or impossible to gauge.

When I informed a friend back home that I had defended my dissertation and was now in the process of rewriting chapters into articles, he supportively replied that I would thus be making some extra money in the coming months. Unfortunately, I had to explain to him that academic articles have no immediate monetary reward. They are produced for the love of knowledge—I added half-cynically—and for the hope of a payoff in the future in the form of a tenure-track job. In short, they are produced for another line on your CV.

My CV includes contact information for my references. Yes, that renowned scholar is willing to write a letter of recommendation for me. What did I have to do to get it? I took three of his graduate courses and sweated over his preliminary examination for which I read roughly 25 books. We're talking months of hard labor. Could I, I wonder in hindsight, have taken only two of his courses? Did that extra course make a discernible difference in the letter he wrote for me? I remember running around for a whole morning to get hold of an article that he asked me to find by the afternoon for a graduate course he taught in which I was enrolled. In relating to him what I'd had to do to get the article, he told me I had gone beyond the call of duty. I postponed or spent less time on other urgent activities that day. Does the letter he would write me two years later noticeably reflect the extra effort? Do the positives outweigh the negatives, not just on that occasion but on many others? It's impossible to tell, and there is no way I can put all of that on my CV.

Nor can I list on my vita all of the intense, high-quality conversations that I have had over the past few years with fellow graduate students. Presumably those exchanges have sharpened my mind, which should have had a positive impact on my scholarly output and teaching. Yet the extent of those benefits for my career is hazy at best. Perhaps I should have excused myself from some of those conversations and picked up a book instead.

What of the tears I shed when my love ended up in the intensive-care unit of a hospital? I cannot reproduce them on my CV, which could have been a few lines longer had that simple operation not gone awry. On my CV it looks like just another semester. That's because I managed, with extreme effort, to keep all the academic balls in the air despite some severe psychological distress. I could not have done so without help from my friends. Too bad they cannot put their valiant efforts on their CV's.

The CV genre is inordinately strict. Just the facts, ma'm. Or better, just the outcomes. Behind those simple lines lurk my life, my triumphs, failures and defeats. No wonder that while scanning my CV I feel a sense of pride at overcoming all those invisible obstacles. I guess that's natural.

It cannot be but that we tend to overestimate the impressiveness of our own CV's. Maybe that hubris motivates us to keep sending out job applications. Surely a CV like that will pay off somehow in the end.

Martin Holstijn is the pseudonum of a doctoral student in communications who recently defended his dissertation at a research university in the Midwest.