Skip navigation
Career Advice

Success and failure CVs: Academic accountability or smoke and mirrors?


A lot of attention has been paid recently to the notion of a “failure CV” after Princeton University professor Johannes Haushofer posted online a list he called his “CV of Failures,” (PDF) with headings like “paper rejections” and “research funding I did not get.” Many academics will have chuckled at the familiarity of the story, as we encounter such defeats with unsettling regularity.

CV stands for curriculum vitae, which roughly translates to “a course of one’s life” and yet so much of one’s life is unrepresented on a CV. For example, I once served on a tenure committee where one woman’s CV, while strong in most respects, had a perplexing gap in publications over a span of about three years. External assessors commented on “the gap.” The tenure committee discussed “the gap.” Eventually, one of the departmental representatives sheepishly reported to the group that the candidate had two children and thus had taken two years of maternity leave. No more mystery gap.

Since then, I have advised pre-tenure colleagues to include such leaves on their CVs, although most job candidates do not. I interviewed one man for my research while he was on parental leave and waiting for his tenure results. He spoke sympathetically of the problems women have juggling children and qualifying for tenure. I asked if he intended to put his parental leave on his CV. He replied, “I don’t really want to, because my CV’s strong and it doesn’t really matter for me now.”

What life events do we withhold from the CV and why? Withholding details runs the risk of tenure and promotion committees speculating incorrectly about “the gap.”

In a recent study of Ontario social scientists – conducted by Michelle Webber, an associate professor at Brock University, and me – the annual performance review emerged rather unexpectedly as a focus of concern, especially for women, professors of colour and associate professors. A pervasive complaint concerned the need to account for the hours of work involved in one’s teaching, research and service. Participants felt this did not convey the nuanced quality of their efforts.

For example, one woman said she spent hours with each student while her colleagues might be off writing more articles. She found that activities such as community service, mentoring and other contributions were hard to compress into the required formats. Moreover, for many, the exercise was like “shovelling paperwork into a void,” no meaningful feedback was received, only a form letter or a simple grade.

In another instance, an assistant professor described the meeting she had with senior colleagues that was part of a probationary review. They told her that she should be applying for the big grants. She explained that she had applied, but had not been successful, and she didn’t know where to put those applications on her CV. Rather than encouraging her to find a way to showcase her efforts, the committee chair responded, “I probably wouldn’t put them in either.” Time spent filling out applications simply goes up in smoke.

The really honest CV is a logical impossibility as more and more such work arises. Should we list all the student reference letters we write? Should we log the time involved in unjamming the photocopier or trying to fathom an online submission form? Should we indicate how many revisions were required for an article eventually published? Does more time invested mean we are meticulous or simply inefficient?

We would not need even to think about the failure CV were it not for the pervasive performance and audit cultures that distinguish today’s universities. In Canada, we are relatively lucky not to have a national government department of education that can prescribe sweeping research evaluation exercises. In countries like the U.K., where there are individual and institutional penalties for performance that fails to reach a certain (fluctuating) benchmark, academics have experienced great stress.

Our local version of individualized academic accountability lies in the repeated assessments made at times of probation, tenure, promotion and annual reviews, as well as the (often negative) results of grant applications, publication efforts and submissions to other competitive forums. Perhaps we could stop thinking of success and failure as polar opposites and accept that there are inevitably shades of both in every career. Or maybe the failure CV belongs to the university, not to the hard-working academic. Currently, the shame of rejection continues to haunt many (all?) of us, notwithstanding the mirror-like facade of the acceptable CV.

Sandra Acker is professor emerita in the department of social justice education at the University of Toronto.

Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Click to fill out a quick survey