The theory of the “shadow resume”: A tip for grad students

There are a few facts that every graduate student must come to terms with:

  • Adjunct teaching is exploitative.
  • There’s a very real possibility that one will ultimately be unable to find a suitable academic position.
  • Having a PhD can seriously hurt one’s “civilian” employment prospects.

I developed a strategy to address all these problems simultaneously, which I called the “shadow resume.” Basically, I worked on a freelance basis in the “civilian” sphere during grad school (and beyond, as it turned out). This had several benefits. First, the work was better-paying and less time-intensive than adjuncting would have been — and I could work from home for the most part, meaning it didn’t really interfere with my classes, etc. Second, and perhaps most crucially, it gave me a plausible resume for the “civilian” world, one from which I could omit my overeduction while not thereby creating a huge inexplicable hole in my employment record. Finally, it created a “lower bound” for my stress levels, because I felt like I had alternatives — it wasn’t a choice between a tenure-track job and Starbucks.

Now whether that was really the case is unclear, since I did not actually have to make use of my “shadow resume.” Just trust me, though, when I say that there were concrete possibilities presented to me. So I think this is something to consider.

In terms of making this work, you first need to think about the skills you have as a grad student. You have research skills. You have writing skills. You are basically an information processing machine. You hopefully have some language skills. Depending on your discipline, you might also have some advanced math or stats skills — in any case, you probably know how to use standard office software better than the average office worker does. You’re almost certainly anal-retentive when it comes to grammar and usage. These are things that don’t take any pre-existing special skills, and there are plenty of companies that need help with all of that. (And if you do have pre-existing special skills like programming or web design, then that’s just another advantage.)

As for how to get hooked up with this kind of work, all I can say is that you almost certainly do know someone who is one or two “degrees” (in the Kevin Bacon sense) removed from someone who makes decisions about who to hire in these kinds of capacities. If you keep an open mind about what you could possibly do, you can find some kind of supplemental income at least — and you’ll probably wind up picking up some unexpected new body of knowledge or skills along the way as well. And if you feel like you’re selling out, it seems to me that slaving as an adjunct for a corporatized university is not self-evidently better than doing some research for a law firm or whatever.

Finally, you may be thinking: but doesn’t this work look bad to potential academic employers, making me look like I’m not fully dedicated to the field, etc., etc.? But I’ll give you a pro tip that is essential to making this work: the “shadow resume” works both ways. Just as you are planning to hide your academic indiscretions from “civilian” employers, so also should you hide your “civilian” employment from academics. (Indeed, you may notice that I have not even mentioned the specific nature of my shadow resume in this very post!)

So in conclusion, you should try to find work during grad school that is better-paying and less time-intensive than adjuncting. It will probably allow you to finish faster at the same time that it improves your job prospects if the worst-case scenario comes to pass. As far as I can tell, there are no significant drawbacks to this strategy. All you have to lose are your chains!

26 thoughts on “The theory of the “shadow resume”: A tip for grad students

  1. Seems like omitting aspects of your higher education could be considered dishonest and or grounds for termination and or trivially uncovered with some basic google searching. Do you know anyone who has actually done this or is it just a crackpot idea you had?

  2. The technical aspects of it aside, it seems like any employer worth working for would Google a prospective hire. This could lead to uncomfortable questions about the authorship of an article in the Journal of Medieval Slavic Literature.

    In seriousness, my gut is that education and experience are different sections of a résumé and subject to different expectations. The sense in which one’s undergrad degree is “relevant” to employment is probably similar to one’s PhD. I would personally question the degree to which having a PhD hurts one’s chances for civilian employment. You’ve made the case for the general benefits of it.

  3. I guess the entire goal is to give you options. If you’re in a situation where an employer is going to look askance on a PhD, then you have the option of not mentioning it. (Managing one’s Google profile is somewhat more difficult and obviously not something I’ve devoted a lot of attention to in this regard.)

  4. Agreed here. It’s also partially how I survived grad school in two different-but-related fields of employment. I still keep two very different sets of application materials. In both cases, I list ‘relevant work experience’ (for which both sets tend to be continuous). I also tend to leave out my education completely when looking for non-academic appointment (or leave off the MA and PhD). The people for whom I’ve worked don’t mind it at all, and I tend to mention it once hired for a job if they ask what my ‘day job’ is. In November, I was a finalist for a non-academic job at a university in which my having experience working with university departments became a plus. Now, I’m a finalist for an academic job in which my having experience working outside of the university while doing coursework is a plus. It’s all about tailoring the application for the employer. It’s not normally considered ‘dishonesty’ unless the employer requires it (or the resume explicitly says that’s the extent to one’s education). Otherwise, it’s just the applicant editing a resume to be relevant for the job advertisement. In my experience, leaving out graduate level education is seen much like people not mentioning working at McDonald’s when they were 18.

  5. Interesting thoughts on working through grad school, Adam. Definitely something to keep in mind. Fortunately, when I was 5 years old I saw this coming and decided to start taking violin lessons and to continue until I had the minimum certification required to teach. There is definitely a market for private violin teachers and it is an enjoyable, well paying job. I have counted on it as a side-job and would definitely consider it for a fall-back.

  6. Adam is correct. I knew 2 professors who dumbed down their resume’s to get non academic jobs where PhD.s would have hurt their chances of employment. In one case a Ph.D. anthropology professor (She was a friend also and pursuing a M.div at Seattle U.) applied for an entry level job at Boeing and left her Ph.D. off the resume, and got the job. I am an employer (electrical contractor) who is actually looking to hire, and I would hesitate to hire someone who may only work for me a short while until a position in teaching opens up. As much as I would love to have someone with a Doctorate in Germanics to chat with at break time, I don’t want to invest time and training in someone just to have them quit as soon as their dissertation on Marx’s “Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei,” finds a publisher. Obliged.

  7. I did this as well throughout graduate school. I was hired as a researcher/archivist and later hired as a editor rather than teaching, which paid more than double. I do list that on my CV, but it becomes front and center on non-academic cover letters. Hopefully I won’t have to write more of those anytime soon…..

  8. I am as yet unaware of an actual situation in which the possession of a PhD, in itself, hurts a person’s chances at employment. This would be a difficult thing to establish, at any rate.

  9. Hill,

    My causal discussions with employers and many other forms of anecdotal evidence establishes otherwise. I have faced this situation myself more than a number of times. It doesn’t apply in every case, but a person with a PhD should hide the fact if they are applying for certain positions, especially ones where the employer is worried that the person will not remain in the position because they will move to a better one. But since many employers will make that inference, it actually can lock you out of employment despite the fact that the more educated person may be able to perform the task far better.

    It is not difficult to establish; it is difficult to generalize, but graduate students should be aware of the scenario so that they may adopt if they suspect it is a problem.

  10. Who wouldn’t leave their current job if a better one were offered? I still don’t think this rises to the level of being statistically relevant, and if it does, the average intelligence of the universe is even lower than I had imagined.

  11. I should write about this another time, but I have found that the Ph.D. definately hurt me in my first job search as an ordained minister, but this is a situation where having a Ph.D. in theology is relevant to the job, or it would be in theory. I think that this was because my first job search was a first call situation (not interviewing for elite pulpits) and while candidating for associate pastor positions the doctorate made the possibility of threatening easily-threatened senior pastors more acute.

  12. Hill,

    Many people do not have the choice to leave for one reason or the other. There’s the infamous “two body problem” of academics, but anyone can have the problem of not wanting to move their family, or leave their parents, or leave their current home. Among some groups of Americans, many give no thought to chasing jobs, whereas others do not want to destroy their local roots but a few times in their life if that.

  13. Wildly different Adam. Most people that I know who didn’t go into academics make vastly more money as consultants, IP lawyers, in chemical industry jobs, etc. and they had no problem getting jobs. Consulting firms actively recruit science PhDs, not because they need people who know about chemistry, for instance, but because getting a PhD is freaking hard, and if you can pull it off, you are generally pretty smart.

  14. I assumed that the same things that a science PhD indicates about a person’s ability to organize large amounts of information, endure hardship and accomplish a long term goal would hold true across the board. I feel like it probably does, and I wonder what the disconnect is. I’ve only seen humanities PhD programs for the outside of course. The general strengths you highlight in the post seem to be obvious, and indeed they are in the context of the non academic job market for science PhDs.

  15. Hill,

    Perhaps you should just trust that people who have actually gone through the experience know what they’re talking about, at least on an anecdotal level?

    To make a deeper point, modern bureaucracies are implicitly founded on claims of certain kinds of expertise. That is, modern people nearly all accept claims of expertise founded upon claims of understanding certain types of knowledge. That knowledge is explicitly designed to be based upon an certain model of how modern natural science works. Thus, someone who is a modern natural scientist (or pretends to be one in key respects) has, in our society, preferred claims to rule (i.e., have higher status within a hierarchy).

    This is why we would see something like a person who can perform mediocre, bog-standard correlation studies of marketing situations be regarded as massively preferable to someone who can actually understand why the whole structure of the analysis is problematic – to the point where the first person is regarded as the greatest hero of modern industry while the later is openly regarded as either a parasite or a traitor or worse.

  16. To give an anecdotal example to BurritoBoy,

    I was chased after when I had a BS in Computational Mathematics. Now, with a humanities PhD, I chase after them. Did I become less capable? No, I became less marketable. I was told that would happen, but now, years later, I understand how much of an under-statement that was.

  17. Consider myself unstuck from my guns. I still think it’s probably pretty hard to tell going in whether a PhD hurts or helps you, but that it isn’t universally acknowledged as a sign of general competence is beyond me.

  18. I wonder how much of this difference is due to the fact that a lot of people think the very idea of serious study in philosophy/theology/english is bullshit, while very few hold that view of physics/chemistry/computer science. So where a PhD in the latter is viewed as many years of difficult study, a PhD in the former can look like years spent hunting for unicorns.

  19. Even though may would agree that unicorns are mythical, the fact that some have succeeded in hunting them is downplayed in contrast to the brave who examined things that everyone knows already exist. It’s the exact opposite of a Discovery Channel show in which they find experts who have hunted Big Foot, Nessie, unicorns, leprechauns, etc. Perhaps that’s it: humanities PhDs are supposed to be the crackpot experts on Discovery Channel shows and then discarded once their fifteen minutes of fame ends.

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