Make the C.V. Great Again: An argument for a short-form C.V.

This is the second post in a sequence called Strange Rumblings in the Meritocracy.

Oh god, more title clickbait. I’m going to lose this guest blog gig if I’m not careful. But please, allow me a moment. Like the “campaign” slogan that I’m riffing on, I’m sure this title makes you wonder things like, wait, what exactly do you mean by “great?” And when exactly was the C.V. ever “great?” We should probably be answering those before we get to this “again” nonsense. And, like supporters of the referred-to campaign slogan, you’d probably be hard-pressed to come to any sort of consensus about when and why and where were the salad days of the CV. For many of us, I suspect, the CV is one of those taken for granted bits of technology, that more or less unreflexively (except when we’re being hounded by the furies of the career center or harassed by the specter of The Professor is In) gives a sense of who we are academically. And if we’re to follow Rex’s thematic, it probably always sucked in one way or another. Moreover it’s the thing that presumably allows a hiring committee to make a snap judgment about whether any particular person will get more than a fleeting review before joining the party in the trash can.

So, against this natural- and normal-ness I’d like to suggest that the CV as it currently works allows for two things that are anathema to open scholarship: a privileging of authority and seniority; as well as a credentialed elitism. I’ll also suggest a “Short-form C.V.” that should mitigate some of this. And again, yes, the C.V. is a bit player given the larger structural problems of the academy: the over production of Ph.D.s and the conversion of the academy into a majority non-tenure-track work place to name two. But the C.V. is the place at which we tell the professional story about ourselves which we think our colleagues should know. Perhaps for this reason, the not-so-humble C.V. deserves at least a blog post.


I recently had the occasion to go through the C.V. of one of my mentors. This mentor is a very senior professor whom I quite like, with whom I enjoy working, and whose scholarship I’ve read a lot of and respect. This mentor also happens to have a 16 page C.V. To take one indicative section, “Professional Presentations,” it runs for three single-spaced pages and has North of 60 entries. What are we to make of this? Were we on a hiring committee or granting committee I don’t believe we would read all of these presentations. I doubt we even could get a hold of them without asking my mentor to dig through old files. But there they are, marching back into the past, one after the other, after another.

Let’s take another section, “Articles.” “Articles” runs for more than 2 1/2 single spaced pages and contains North of 40 entries. Academic, peer-reviewed articles are supposed to speak to our scholastic abilities. They’re written for an audience of scholars and have endured the blind scrutiny of our peers. And yet, can we conceive of a situation in which any review board would systematically read 40 articles and book chapters? We haven’t even gotten to whole books, lectures, and so on.

With both “Professional Presentations” and “Articles” we’re not so much faced with a list that allows for substantive review, but rather we’re faced with an argument by accumulation or enumeration. A review of ideas or scholarship would entail careful reading, logical analysis, and some form of criticism. Enumeration simply demands a respect for the judgment of others and the accumulated weight of symbolic capital. It also allows a backdoor to a number of inequities. Enumeration begets more enumeration–presentations rely on the resources to travel to conferences; granting agencies like that you’ve received other grants, and so on. Even a successful string of peer-reviewed articles suggests that you’ve found a place within a larger disciplinary conversation that will vouch for your work (and that is not threatened or confused by your ideas). Argument by enumeration, particularly in a C.V., takes all of these advantages and amplifies them. It also allows people to evaluate academics without ever actually engaging with their work. It is almost as though, from this point of view, we value tokens of seniority over intellectual vitality (not that they’re necessarily exclusive).


In the past year, I heard an excellent lecture by a relatively junior scholar who is well on their way. I was curious about what else this scholar had published, so I went to their University profile. At the profile I found a link to a C.V. Take heart, this one only ran five pages. Unlike the senior scholar above, this anthropologist is only at the beginning of what should be a long career. It should be apparent by this point that C.V.s are formulaic. They all have sections on education, jobs, publishing, disciplinary participation, etc. They also tend to talk about grants. This junior scholar is one who seems to have won all the grants–external and internal; university, foundation, and government. And as I looked through this list I came across something I had never seen before: declined grants. In addition to the long list of of money accepted to fund research, were several multi-year fellowships declined.

This is a curious artifact. Listing grants won is already weird as they suggest that you’re good at convincing people to give you money for research you plan to do. Keep in mind, because it is a grant, you haven’t done the research yet. Most simply, you’ve convinced a committee of mid- to senior-scholars (or administrators, or bureaucrats) that you will eventually do some good research. Put another way, winning grants, shows your symbolic capital, shows you can flex, as it points to how gatekeepers think about your career future. Declined grants emphasize this habit of thought. So many people think I’m going to be great, that I can’t even accept all of their money.

Enumeration of grants and other credentials introduces another curious oversight of the C.V. In anthropology in particular, we recognize that we cannot account for what we will discover across the vagaries of our research endeavors. At least in social and cultural anthropology, very often, the experience of doing long-term research makes any given proposal into a well-crafted lie. Perhaps more charitably, Robert Merton and Elinor Barber (2004) note that serendipity and chance discovery are often that which leads to intellectual breakthrough. You very often don’t know what exactly you are looking for when you’re doing research. Taken together, this contradicts the implicit narrative of granting agencies–proposal equals merit, then funding, and then discovery. It also suggests that, perhaps counter-intuitively, we ought to be more impressed with people who do good research without the consecration of grant money.

Biases towards seniority and elitism in the writing and reading of C.V.s gets at a more general issue in academia–overproduction. Publishing for the sake of having lots of publications. Applying to too many grants. Spangle a C.V. with anything that smells like merit. In turn, all this leads to a lurid embrace of audit culture, that is making ourselves legible to people who are incompetent in our particular are of scholarship. One might imagine a dean muttering, “I can’t evaluate the merit of these ten articles but I sure can count ’em!”

And so I offer the “Short-form C.V.” as a small, partial antidote to these tendencies. Here is what I think it should look like:

The Short-form C.V.

Reading the papers themselves! What a quaint idea! How medieval! I remember when I first heard from Jochen Shulte-Sasse that at the University in Bochum, West Germany, when a candidate for a job was under consideration the whole department would read all the candidate’s writings and then debate them. No wonder European universities have not kept pace with their American rivals! [Waters 2004:20]

The point of the Short-form C.V. is to strip away the accretions of elitism and enumeration as virtues in and of themselves and offer a reasonable way to evaluate the competency of an individual for an academic position. I hasten to add that, strictly speaking, I don’t even think this is necessary. Just about anyone with a Ph.D. in a relevant discipline could have a successful career, build a department, and collect any number of accolades. Many of my mentors did just that (I’m not even sure if their Ph.D.s were done when they started working). One in fact told me that at the start of his career in the late 60s, his adviser told him not to, “clutter up the journals.” Did someone order salad days?

Cover page

Please attach a cover page with your name and contact information. Please, do not put your name or contact information on the C.V. document itself, or on any page aside from the cover page. We want to review you and your work blind.

1. Education

Please list the degrees that you have earned as well as your major or area of concentration (for example M.A. Cultural Anthropology). Please do not list your school(s), your adviser(s), or your name.

2. Scholarship

Please list the titles of no more than two representative pieces of scholarship, preferably written in the last ten years. These need not have been published and can be of any length. One may be your dissertation, or representative chapters therefrom. Please also attach electronic versions of these pieces of scholarship. If your scholarship has been published, please attach plain versions, that list neither journal nor publisher. Also, please list your
name on a separate cover sheet so that we might read your scholarship blind.

3. Teaching

Please list the title and a brief explanation of 2 classes you are ready to teach or have taught. If possible please select a general interest course as well as a course in your specialty. Please also attach their syllabi, with your name on a separate cover page.

4. Service

Please list and briefly explain (no more than 2-3 sentences) two examples of service, either to your university or your community.

5. Miscellaneous

Please take this opportunity to list and briefly describe two or three things that may help you do the job to which you are applying (e.g. any relevant languages you might speak). Note, there is no need to complete this section.

NB: Should we receive more C.V.s than we can evaluate for the current position, we will select at random the maximum number of applications that we can review and proceed accordingly. If, after this first draw we have not selected anyone, we will repeat this process.

Again, the C.V. is a minor, though ever present, part of the academic universe. I have singled it out because I feel that it is a site that is both within our own control, and through which we can strive to be the types of scholars we would like to be. I also feel that, particularly for junior scholars and graduate students, the drive to accumulate lines on a C.V., in emulation of senior scholars, often motivates a careerism that eclipses the scholarship we wish to produce. If junior scholars could be assured that inane grants, or hypertrophied over-publishing will not be rewarded in the academic hiring process, perhaps we might feel a bit better about the actual research we do, and feel we have the time to develop it.

Merton, Robert K. and Elinor Barber. 2004. The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Waters, Lindsay. 2004. Enemies of Promise: Publishing, Perishing, And the Exlipse of Scholarship. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm

16 thoughts on “Make the C.V. Great Again: An argument for a short-form C.V.

  1. I have been on several hiring committees, often reviewing hundreds of CVs quickly. I don’t mind longer CVs if they are easy to navigate and I can skip quickly to the most relevant parts. This short CV is missing crucial elements and would not help me review applicants for a tenure-track hire. Minimally, I need to see a date of completion of the PhD and where, or defense date if not awarded yet (and the adviser I can contact to confirm with). I also need evidence of published peer-reviewed articles and scholarly books. This is the most important thing–lack of publishing is the most common way tenure cases fail. Then, depending on the kind of job, there needs to be other information as well, particularly courses taught (or proposed) and grants received. A tenure case is built on publications, teaching, sometimes grants, and service. The CV is there to show the record of potential of the applicant in these areas. A short CV for a TT job without these items on it would not get sorted into the pile of 50, it would go into the pile of 200.

    This blog entry is a good-humored attempt to change things, but please don’t take the advice if you are seriously pursuing a TT job in the US.

  2. Hi John,

    Thanks very much for the comment! You’re 100% correct! Job applicants should definitely not unilaterally adopt the short-form C.V. I hope there is not much danger of this, though. I was writing more for folks like yourself on hiring committees. I’m aware of how academic hiring works, as well how tenure cases are made. Any change in hiring norms would only work if the department posting a job requested this type of information. Only that sort of deescalation would make things less crazy for applicants.

    One quick follow-up question (and it’s a dangerous one, so I understand if you ignore it entirely): why do you need to know where someone got a PhD, particularly if you’ve seen samples of their work? Presumably, if our self-governed, regional accrediting agencies are doing their job, there shouldn’t be a practical difference between one PhD and another. After all everyone does research and writes and defends a dissertation before a committee of academics. At that point, we’re all scholars, so what’s the difference?

  3. Just to add to John’s and your (Daniel’s) respective comments, it is important to keep in mind that we write different kinds of CVs for different kinds of purposes. The short-form CV is just fine in some contexts–a good way to share more information about the writer of blogs and op-eds to readers. However, we tailor our CVs according to promotions (the longest and most detailed version), to grant proposals (short and targeted around the topics that relate to the project), and in other formats and lengths when we represent ourselves on faculty webpages, and other such social-academic media sites.

    Having served on a number of search committees, it is very important to know where an applicant got their PhD, the year of completion, and at least the dissertation mentor/advisor. The sad truth is that enough people try to game the system and get in the door before the dissertation is complete. Of course, we could require applicants to submit a link to their dissertation that includes all the details that you’ve argued do not need to be on the CV.

  4. I observe that John and Walter’s comments confirm the central thrust of Dan’s argument, that elite credentials and enumeration are the name of the game.

    As I am over seventy years of age and a self-supporting independent scholar, I have no skin in this game. As a business person, I would rather see a carefully crafted one-page letter in which the candidate presents him or herself to the best of their ability, the literary equivalent of an elevator speech. A small set of candidates who passed the original screening based on this presentation of self could then be asked for further details.

  5. This is just one way of addressing a very hard problem in science & research generally: how do we know what good work is? Psychologists like Kahneman and Gigerenzer who study decision-making argue that people tend to use heuristics to make decisions when we can. When quantity of publications or citations is a rough-and-ready shortcut to evaluating the importance of work, why wouldn’t we expect hiring and tenure committees to substitute difficult decisions–what work has more intellectual merit?–with easier ones–which scholar has better numbers?

    Walter & John, I feel as though the comments you’re making don’t address this core point: that lengthy CV’s can encourage more shallow evaluation of scholarly contributions. Over in psychology, Uri Simonsohn made a suggestion at a talk a couple years ago along these lines that I liked: ask individuals up for a new hire to submit their 1 best publication to be read, and those up for tenure to submit their 3 best. This creates a manageable workload for committees, while giving more prominence to quality over quantity. (Although there may need to be other processes to whittle down the hiring list.) As I read the argument about the short-form CV, it’s not “advice”, it’s a way of encouraging academics to reconsider our own values–and how they are reflected in our own particular rituals.

  6. Even Shorter

    Daniel makes an excellent argument for cutting to the chase of evaluating scholarly work. That shouldn’t be about names of schools, advisers, or journals. It should be about the difficult (and always elusive) search for a kernel of brilliance, a hint of genuine and productive originality. What good, really, is served by the hundreds of volumes of the American Anthropologist that weigh down bookshelves in department offices? What do they contribute to the millennia-long polylogue of social thought, of the human mind engaging the fundamental questions of existence?
    With that in mind, I’d like to suggest extending Daniel’s recommendations to graduate education. Forget about hiring, grants, and tenure for a moment: How are new graduate students brought along to the point where they have to worry about such things? Hence my proposal for an even shorter CV – in this case, a student transcript. Suppose professors forget about qualifying or comprehensive exams, forget about the individual professor marking student papers. Organize graduate education along the following lines: When you enter graduate school, audit which courses you choose, read which books you choose, and at the end of your first semester submit to the graduate department as a whole two or three pieces you’ve written during that time, along with a sort of crystal ball look into the future of which problems / questions you regard as of crucial importance and want to pursue. These are the only materials that should be evaluated in recommending a student continue on or exit the field of anthropology.
    Hey, sauce for the goose . . .

  7. “Short form” CVs are used in many disciplines, and there is a good template — the NIH Biosketch — that is very useful. I often see it from anthropologists, and if anyone was put off by the old 4 page limits, the good news is that it is now up to 5 pages. But I also recognize the point made by Walter Little, that different purposes need different CVs: my own Dean and Provost like to see those 30-40 page CVs, the bulk of which is a physical representation of the weighty reputations embodied in those documents. The worst case I’ve heard of? A former chair of Harvard Medical School’s Department of Medicine, a world-renown cardiologist, was meeting with a group of medical students many years ago, among whom was my husband — the senior physician asked his secretary to bring him the second volume of his CV, to look up an article. As Dr. Famous flipped through page after page of bibliography, my husband was intrigued (and brave) enough to ask how many publications he had on his CV — flipping to the end, Dr. Chairman found over 6,000…. A different world, of course, and one in which the NIH biosketch was especially welcome…

  8. Reading the word itself? What madness, Dan! But seriously, thanks for this post. I’ve been wanting to see someone take on the CV, and this post is a great first salvo.

    Alexander D wrote: “As I read the argument about the short-form CV, it’s not “advice”, it’s a way of encouraging academics to reconsider our own values–and how they are reflected in our own particular rituals.”

    Ya, I read Dan’s post in much the same way, as an attempt to push us to rethink the values that we create and participate in via the CV. It’s one of those things, as Dan says, that we tend to take for granted, and we join the fray and start doing things because that’s how things are done.

    John S wrote: “A tenure case is built on publications, teaching, sometimes grants, and service. The CV is there to show the record of potential of the applicant in these areas. A short CV for a TT job without these items on it would not get sorted into the pile of 50, it would go into the pile of 200.”

    Sure, yes. This is how tenure cases work. But does the CV really show the “potential” of the applicant? Or is that just a story we all tell ourselves? Does it demonstrate success, or, alternatively, does it encourage a certain approach to academia (quantity, etc) that we then turn around and award? A CV is a proxy measure, of course, but how good is it, really? In some ways it reminds me of the problems with standardized tests–we accept them as measures of success and aptitude, but too often we don’t look closely enough at what these things really do tell us, and what they don’t. I get the need for shortcuts and all, but I do think it’s important to keep a close eye on what we’re losing in the process. And I like the suggestion that we could, potentially, do something better.

    And, by the way, Lee’s suggestion sounds, at least, like a good replacement for the qualifying exams in grad school.

  9. Daniel: 6,000 publications was long before he retired…. I have no idea what the final count was.

  10. I am not sure if johnmccreery’s comment about a large research team was directed at my anecdote, but I’ll assume it was and clarify that this very senior physician got his name on all publications that came out of his lab, which was a highly productive one — no students, but lots of medical residents, post-docs, basic scientists and physicians. The down side to this kind of ‘authorship’ is that one can become responsible for what is in every one of those publications. If you want to see an example of how this backfires, google John Darsee, where you’ll find links like this one:

  11. Barbara, thanks for the clarification. But isn’t it still fundamentally the same situation, a senior figure with lots of underlings who gets cited as co-author on their projects. I note that this may be be fair, in so far as the underlings’s publications may depend on research made possible by the senior figure’s teaching, guidance, and access to necessary funding.

    Where this becomes problematic is where lone-wolf researchers, like most of those in the humanities, get measured by the same quantitative scales as those in STEM fields, where large-team research is common.

    Possible solutions include separate scales tailored to different definitions of productivity for different disciplines, which are likely to become a political nightmare or — I know this will send shutters up many spines — anthropologists and other humanists changing disciplinary norms to follow STEM norms and embrace large-team projects.

    Just brainstorming, but what do you think?

  12. jlmccreery: well, yes to the first part of your note, and I assumed that was clear to everyone — apologies if it was not. My follow-up was prompted by a concern to indicate that students were not being abused here; if anything, the string of 4 or 5 names on each article gave any students as opportunity to get a ‘publication’ on their CV for a modest level of effort.

    As for the second part of your note, I’m not so sure. I am unaware of any field in the humanities or social sciences that measures productivity by the standards set by any other discipline, especially not STEM fields, and each understands its own conventions for authorship, etc. The “separate scales tailored to different definitions of productivity” is exactly what we do now. I write this as someone who has guided or participated in numerous tenure/promotion cases, either as a department chair or as a member of a dean’s promotion committee — every chair’s letter laying out the case for promotion describes the standards for and definitions of productivity for that discipline, and in anthropology that could even be 3 or 4 different scales for cultural versus archaeology versus biological anthropology (or linguistics). The latest University if Chicago alumni magazine has an interview with one of the physicists who first detected gravity waves, and he commented that the article describing this discovery had 1004 authors — I gather that is common in some areas of experimental physics — and a promotion committee composed of English Lit, Psych, and History faculty would certainly want to know how to assess the significance of that one name among more than a thousand.

    Anthropology’s specific problem is related: we have so many single-authored publications that a second (or, heaven forbid, a third) author raises questions of who is the ‘real’ author, though that may mean different things in different publications.

  13. Barbara, thanks again for the clarification. Not being employed in academia and based on my British friends complaints about their current “audit culture” I assumed greater uniformity than there may actually be.

Comments are closed.