The “Shadow Resume”: A Career Tip for Grad Students

Adam Kotsko is Assistant Professor of Humanities at Shimer College and the author, most recently, of Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide to Late Capitalist Television. He blogs at An und für sich where this was originally published.

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!