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Three résumés on top of one another, each a different color and the top one with a slightly different image

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As newly minted Ph.D.s across the country cycle through a discouraging job market, some will be advised to create for themselves a “failure CV” alongside their job-hunting CV in an attempt to remind them how much they’ve overcome. First popularized more than a decade ago by an article in Nature, the idea of the failure CV took hold in academe, particularly after one Princeton University professor’s failure CV went viral.

The idea of a failure CV is that the standard CV obscures the failed experiments, rejected manuscripts and unscored grant applications behind each entry. Academics, especially graduate students, junior faculty and research trainees, need to be encouraged to continue striving for success, so remembering what they’ve overcome and seeing that others fail, too, should be inspiring.

But as a researcher who enjoys less privilege than many of my colleagues, I believe the failure CV is harmful to those outside the mainstream image of researchers and those who carry invisible burdens. For such researchers, I advise a “shadow CV” instead—one that chronicles all the various external challenges they have had to cope with and obstacles they’ve had to overcome.

How does the shadow CV differ from the traditional failure CV? The failure CV is a mirror image of the standard CV. Instead of a chronological list of achievements, the failure CV is a comparable list of botched attempts. Advisers within and outside academe have encouraged the writing of a failure CV as a symbol of resilience and perseverance.

Yet most of the failure CVs percolating across the internet aren’t really about failure—they follow the traditional progress narrative, in which discrete units of failure are framed as stepping-stones on the path to research triumph. Quantifiable failings, such as rejected publications or grant applications, serve as motivation to try harder and do better science. Work hard, overcome past failures, and success will come. This is the American dream.

But this is also a problematic reflection of the neoliberalism of modern research, where success or failure depend entirely on “grit,” determination and other individual traits. And the truth is, not all the failures that derail academic careers fit neatly on the lines of a failure CV.

The course of life outside the professional sphere can be better conceived of as the shadow CV. This shadow CV travels with each of us, bringing with it a host of situations that cannot be surmounted by simply working harder or spending more time analyzing data. Too often, we must deal with financial woes, family and childcare difficulties, acute or chronic illness, inadequate housing, and limited access to education resources. We must grapple with inequity, discrimination and marginalization. We are confronted with racism, misogyny, homophobia, ableism, fatphobia and much more. Each of these casts a penumbra, a shadowy puppet master that acts upon goals and dreams in ways that the standard and failure CVs don’t account for.

People fail in ways that are truly out of their control and do not fit into the failure CV paradigm. Research, for instance, is now often far less driven by the pursuit of knowledge than by grants, productivity and the H-index. High-profile grants, a high publication rate and high-impact citations are the consummate markers of prestige. But the opportunities to meet those requirements are granted less frequently to women, underrepresented minorities and disabled people. The failure CV is a privilege allowed those who are able, by status or by sheer good fortune, to cultivate a CV that enables one to be ultimately labeled a success.

Thus, many of us may well find that writing a failure CV is unlikely to be inspirational. The failure CV is yet another reminder of the obstacles that have inhibited our progress and derailed our dreams. Instead, I recommend that we all write our shadow CVs.

We also need to share those CVs with others. But in academe today, rather than finding space to talk about our experiences and learn from each other, researchers and scholars are often encouraged to hide their shadow CVs and continue onward like wounded soldiers. In science and medicine, especially, trainees quickly learn that the shadow CV is a liability. Health-care researchers who venture to share, for instance, the health struggles, financial pressures or discrimination that they confront often find themselves marginalized and even pushed out of research altogether. Valuable contributions to the scientific body of knowledge are sacrificed to the machine of toughness and productivity.

But what if the shadow CV were destigmatized and shared alongside the standard CV? Detractors may argue that the shadow CV has no place in the professional arena and will only perpetuate a sense of victimhood or fragility. Yet there is great strength and resilience in sharing our stories and acknowledging this CV, the one that reflects the true course of our life. The healed wounds, scratches and bruises that we describe on the shadow CV have impacted our progress just as significantly as professional successes and failures.

Fortunately, some community and advocacy organizations have begun the process of creating a space within which people can feel comfortable telling their stories. That said, even with such support, sharing the shadow CV with fellow researchers will require true courage and bravery.

But the advantages to revealing and discussing these real-life, systemic challenges could be enormous. Scholars would be able to bring their full selves to their jobs and not struggle under the altogether unhealthy effects of guilt and self-blame. If we want healthier, more sustainable conditions in academe, the shadow CV could help bring pressing systemic challenges into the light.

Cyrena Gawuga is a health services researcher and public health social worker and a Public Voices Fellow of @AcademyHealth in Partnership with The OpEd Project

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