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Careers Café

The secret CV: documenting work experiences that don’t seem relevant, but are

The secret CV doesn’t contain things you want to hide, but rather things that you’re proud of, and haven’t yet found a way to articulate.


As failure CVs make the rounds, they confirm that even very successful careers are built on a series of missteps and losses. It’s not the only kind of atypical CV that can help you to reconceptualize your career. If you’re making a career transition, you may also want to have a secret CV.

The secret CV doesn’t contain things you want to hide, but rather things that you’re proud of, and haven’t yet found a way to articulate. It can also house experiences that don’t seem to be relevant to your next move, but profoundly matter to you.

The time for a secret CV to be created is when you’re struggling to write a resumé for a new line of work. Writing a resumé for an untested career path can feel like you are playing dress-up while simultaneously discarding parts of yourself – sometimes, the most interesting parts. The accomplishments on your old CV have come about because of your time and effort, and represent the skills you’ve built and the relationships you’ve gained along the way. Summing up, say, a dissertation in one bullet point can be painful. Leaving it off altogether can be more so.

None of your experiences are lost in actuality, for the very same reason that makes them painful to leave off your resumé: they are part of you. They will continue to inform your perspective, your abilities and your future work, whether or not they appear on a resumé or are detailed in your interviews.

As you work through each experience on your resumé, ask yourself what you want your next employer to understand about you. That might mean rewriting the section on your dissertation so that it focuses on the independence of the project, your ability to communicate with people of varying levels of expertise, your volume of research output, or things that are seen as more tangential within academia – like your successful funding applications.

Your dissertation’s main argument, its methodology, and its importance to a body of scholarship will likely not make it onto a non-academic resumé. However, instead of seeing your experiences as “wasted,” express the transferrable elements that are most easily articulated on your resumé. Honour the experiences that are important to you, but more challenging to express, on your secret CV for the time being.

Your secret CV experiences will continue to be part of you, but they never will be the whole. Honour them, but always keep a fresh page open.

Liz Koblyk
Liz Koblyk is the associate director of the Wilson Leadership Scholar Award at McMaster University.
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