Sarah Kendzior

Writer at Al Jazeera English

Professional Identity: A Luxury Few Can Afford

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Last month KellyNoel Waldorf, a senior at Duke University, published a poignant essay on the challenges of life as a student of modest means among the wealthy elite. “While writing my résumé, I put McDonald’s under work experience,” she recalls. “A friend leaned over and said, ‘Do you think it’s a good idea to put that on your résumé?’ In their eyes, it was better to list no work experience than to list this ‘lowly’ position.”

When I posted Waldorf’s essay on social media, other students from elite campuses responded that they, too, had selectively edited their résumés. Some, like Waldorf, had eliminated service jobs. Some had removed mention of their Ph.D.’s. Some had dropped both. They all did so in response to a belief that something was wrong with them, that their professional background was shameful, and that a potential employer must not discover it.

In a post-employment economy ridden with arbitrary credentialism, a résumé is often not a reflection of achievement but a document sanctioning its erasure. One is not judged on what one has accomplished, but on one’s ability to walk a path untouched by the incongruities of market forces. The service job you worked to feed your family? Embarrassing. The months you struggled to find any work at all? Laziness. The degree you began a decade ago for a field that has since lost half its positions? Failure of clairvoyance. Which is to say: failure.

Scholars leaving academia in the hopes of other lines of work agonize over how to sell themselves in a market that finds them somehow both overqualified and undervalued. Media outlets proclaim that the national employment crisis is caused not by a lack of jobs, but lack of candidates with the skills to fill them. According to NBC, “employers are complaining about job candidates' inability to speak and to write clearly.” According to Time, employers cannot find candidates who are “problem solvers and can plan, organize, and prioritize their work.”

If that is truly the cause of the unemployment crisis, one would think that Ph.D.’s would be in a position to solve it. After all, clear communication, independent problem-solving, and strong organizational skills are necessary to finish the degree. Yet Ph.D.’s are frequently cautioned to leave their doctoral degree off their résumé. The struggle with the transition to nonacademic work is so fraught with anxiety that there are multiple consulting groups dedicated to helping scholars through it.

According to journalist Simon Kuper, this anxiety is not particular to academia but part of a broader anguish over identity in an era of unemployment: “With the economic crisis and technological change, ever fewer of us have satisfying jobs or stay in the same profession for life. People are ceasing to be their jobs. That is forcing them to find new identities.”

The market advantage then falls to those born immune from market forces: the independently wealthy, representative of what Kuper calls “a class divide [that] separates people who choose their job from people who don’t.”

People who “choose their job” are people who can afford, quite literally, to choose programs and positions that give them an unwavering, consistent ”professional identity.” Privilege is recast as perseverance: It is no coincidence that 80 percent of companies bemoaning the surfeit of “unqualified” candidates prefer them to have completed at least one internship. But the consistent professional identity that companies and universities value is one that most of us cannot afford if it means a series of unpaid internships and low-paid positions.

“I now recognise the fight-or-flight skittishness that ran through my 20s as the erratic rhythm of poverty—not just poverty as financial fact, but poverty as culture,” writes Alexandra Kimbell, a journalist who was only able to become a journalist due to a surprise inheritance. “I was following the money, playing a kind of vocational Whac-A-Mole.”

“Following the money” is what most people do in order to survive. In prestige industries, survival is sold as shameful. So résumés are padded and erased, achievements recast as embarrassments, degrees dropped in an effort to tread that fine line between qualified and unthreatening.

This is not new—résumé manipulation is as old as résumés. But there is something far more damaging going on in this era when both contingent employment and “skills gaps” are suddenly on the rise, when technological “disruption” is divine but career disruption is a sin. Being ashamed of who we are has become the ticket to who we are allowed to become. That is true both in academia and outside it.

It is almost impossible to reconcile the cruelty of a system that punishes you for self-preservation with the material need to survive within it. But the least we can do is not internalize its failures as our own. You are not your job. Do not let your job—or lack thereof—convince you otherwise.

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