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You know you’ve got one. Everyone has one.

There is a drawer in your kitchen or bedroom that is a catch-all for anything and everything. The place where we throw things quickly to clean off our counters. A quick glance in mine this morning revealed at least 30 pens (some of which worked), rubber bands, random ointment from a bout with poison ivy, my son’s dismantled action figure, as well as a variety of sticky notes, safety pins and paper clips—all in different sections of the drawer. This kaleidoscope of functional and nonfunctional items in my junk drawer is a treasure chest of gems and memories … as well as my good scissors.

Your career journey needs a junk drawer, too. Perhaps it doesn’t belong on your CV—and definitely not on your résumé, a lean and focused document used for specific pursuits. Furthermore, it is not quite right for LinkedIn, either! Instead, let me encourage you to nurture a new document: the junk drawer CV.

The junk drawer CV is a magical document: an easily accessible file that is tucked away in your storage drive where you record high points and low points among your career endeavors. The pages of the junk drawer CV are filled with an assortment of experiences: the class that inspired you and why it was amazing, the technique you learned once, the undergrad you mentored who successfully figured out the new cold room protocol, or the volunteering session that really unlocked your love of teaching. Writing down these highlights, lessons, instrumentation and techniques may just seem like tossing them in the junk drawer, but upon seeing them later, you may realize that they fit together nicely to help you solve your career puzzle.

What Does a Junk Drawer CV Look Like?

The best thing about a junk drawer CV is that it can look like whatever you want. Categories could look similar to a traditional academic CV: research experience, education, coursework, honors/awards, mentoring and teaching experience, presentations, publications. But the junk drawer CV’s formatting may be a little messier, because the document is used quickly and is more accessible. A few notes after each entry may help remind you that you had insightful conversations at the bench or the name of your instructor for that particular module. Where a traditional academic CV feels like a formal and dry listing of your scholarly achievements, the junk drawer CV elaborates on each entry to help remind you why these achievements are meaningful.

You might also add a few more sections that you would not normally see on a traditional CV: networking receptions attended, specific details about a mentee, a listing of program management software or techniques you used to pursue a project. One great category for the junk drawer CV would be seminars attended, with titles, dates and speakers. A particular seminar on a topic not in your discipline may spark a new interest or networking connection.

Journaling for a Purpose

During your training, you may feel as though you are flailing about, with no subset of activities that is showing any trends at all. But it may take time to see where pursuits are more relevant and what is collected as you move along.

For example, looking at the number of students you mentored over the years or how many visits you received at your office hours may very well indicate that you are not only skilled in mentorship, but that you are also passionate about it—something you may not have expected when you first started graduate school. Just throw it on there! Perhaps you may not know where it will lead, but you can make sense of it later.

As academics, we know that tracking results and collecting data can reveal patterns and answer questions, so when we gather our own experiences in a catch-all document, such documentation points to trends that highlight what our skills are, what is important to us, what interests us and where our values lie. But don’t let the data fool you. While some of those experiences are particularly inspiring, some odds and ends collected in your junk drawer may be just that: junk. Some of those junk drawer knickknacks may only be a collection of fond memories, and that’s OK.

Where Are the Good Scissors?

The data may also show gaps in collection. A particular student of mine recounted how his CV looked particularly thin during a fall semester of his graduate training, only to reveal that he had forgotten about the extracurricular volunteering he did to help others after a hurricane devastated his region. These are important data points to draw upon for your career story. But much like the lost pair of good scissors, you may need to spend some time reflecting on your experiences and refilling the junk drawer regularly.

Tools for Interview Prep and Recommendation Letters

At this point, your junk drawer CV has gone a long way in helping you craft a résumé and apply to the jobs you figured out were perfect for you. Now it’s time to use the junk drawer CV for your interview prep. While behavioral interviews continue to be the trend, preparation for them can be tough. But the junk drawer CV will provide a plethora of great examples that you can use to show that you really did have “a time when …” you truly learned something. Having five to seven stories to bring to the interview will greatly help you share how you are the right candidate for the job.

These stories can also be particularly helpful when that dreaded question comes across your inbox: “Will you write me a recommendation letter?” Mentoring relationships are fruitful in so many ways, but after a few years pass, the junk drawer can be helpful to senior postdocs and junior faculty who may not remember the stories and anecdotes that shape an excellent graduate school applicant or lab manager who worked with you a couple of years ago.

On the rare occasion that you clean out your junk drawer (once a year, maybe?), you can throw away all the lint, dried-out gum packets and pens that don’t work. Toss out the protocol that didn’t end up working, the paper that evolved into a different collaboration or the class that had to be rescheduled. But you can keep that really great keepsake from the Seattle Space Needle or the odd coin you found on the sidewalk that you just don’t know what to do with. Because it doesn’t really belong anywhere else, and, by golly, you don’t want to lose it!

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