Suppose a postdoc spent 3 years going through a heavy divorce but was still working full time. But it meant he didn't focus on good career development. Can and should he include this in his CV when applying for assistant professorship jobs?

Sometimes in applications they ask "include details of career breaks". But this doesn't count as a career break.

  • 6
    Since one of the answers points out the local culture may play a factor, would you please provide the country where you apply to?
    – Nobody
    May 12, 2023 at 11:40
  • 4
    Maybe this can go into the cover letter but not the CV.
    – Nick S
    May 12, 2023 at 22:07
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    Put it in the cover letter, and then do it like you're supposed to, which is tear off the cover letter. Ain't no one got time for that. You résumé is to be a single, one-sided sheet of paper.
    – Mazura
    May 12, 2023 at 22:24
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    @Mazura not in academia. A CV is different than a resume and often several to many pages depending on seniority.
    – Reid
    May 12, 2023 at 23:59
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    There's no point, everyone goes through stuff like this in their life so it doesn't belong on a CV.
    – Tom
    May 13, 2023 at 9:24

4 Answers 4



I understand you are trying to get the equivalent of a golf handicap, with the hope that you will be evaluated on your potential and not your actual production. The problem with that approach is that almost nobody lives a 'clean' life: if you were to poll all postdoc applicants, you'll find that they all have gone through at least one major setback: serious illness, divorce, death in the family or of a close friend, abusive relationships, unwanted pregnancy or miscarriage, mental health issues, estrangement from parents (e.g. being cut-off from financial support), etc. There's a misconception, particularly in US culture (where I live, I don't know where you live) that everybody has a 'clean' life and a few, the exceptions have setbacks. This attitude is not as common in other countries, e.g. countries in Latin America or Germany, where people more openly talk about their problems.

Trying to get a handicap because of a stressful divorce might work against you, because it will mark you as the type of person who wants to be evaluated on potential and not results. A prospective employer will then ask themselves what will you do when the next thing happens, e.g. when one of your parents inevitably dies, your child goes to the hospital, you end up in a bad relationship, etc. Will you be the type that sends an email message mid-project saying you will take a month-long "mental health break" (this has started to become more common in the past few years)? This is not to say that you should not take time off work when you need it, but that presenting yourself as someone wanting to be evaluated on potential and not results is a big red flag.

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    The first paragraph of this answer contains some truth. But some people (especially postdocs in their 20s or 30s) will have experienced no major problems in life, some will have experienced several, and some will have experienced problems that are much worse than the ones you list. There is a great variety and it is not right to imply that everyone experiences a similar level of difficulties.
    – gib
    May 12, 2023 at 17:37
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    There's no implication that the level of difficulty is the same for everyone. How could that be true for anything?
    – Cheery
    May 12, 2023 at 19:00
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    @gib For the purpose of answering the question, there's already enough level of detail necessary.
    – iBug
    May 12, 2023 at 20:33
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    @LamarLatrell Colleagues may mention that in a laudatory speech after that person gets a prize. However, while a person still needs to prove themselves, they will be measured by what they have to offer. Nobody at that level of academic career wants a compassionate job offer. People want a job offer because they think they can do this job. May 12, 2023 at 23:17
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    I wonder whether the expectation of 'clean' lives is another reflection of how everyone is 'supposed' to have had nice days. Kind of toxic if you'd ask me. May 13, 2023 at 19:12

No, I would say this is unlikely to reflect well on you. There's a chance you might get someone sympathetic to your situation. However, it very well may also reflect badly on you - the person reading the application may infer that you are difficult to get along with and cause conflict, or that you make excuses when things don't go as planned in your career. Whether these interpretations are fair or not is immaterial if the person reading the application believes them.



Your prospective employer doesn't need to know this and generally you want to avoid providing any superfluous information that could be a cause to discriminate against you.

That's not to mention that what an employer cares about is your ability to do your job regardless of everything else going on in your life. It's your output that matters, not your output modulated against how hard your life has been.

It sounds unfair, but everyone has their issues and it's the only fair way to do it. How could an interviewer reasonably assess whether Person A who has some great evidence of being an above average employee but has no life drama is better for the job than Person B who was an average employee but their dog died and their brother was hit by a car that year? For all the interviewer knows, Person B is a complete sociopath who hated their brother and doesn't care about their dog whilst Person A is actually, unbeknownst to them, secretly suffering through depression. The only thing you can go off is evidence of ability to do the job.

Now, if you did actually take a career gap and it was questioned in the interview, you could reasonably excuse it by saying you were dealing with family issues and they should say no more about it. However, you didn't take a career gap.

  • 1
    Definitely. Discrimination based on marital status is a real problem and something a company could be sued for doing (under UK equality law it's a protected characteristic). So many companies won't want to know, as it could expose them to legal action. It would be like putting your religion or race in your CV.
    – Stuart F
    May 15, 2023 at 14:02

No. If necessary, mention it in the application cover letter. But not in the CV.

  • 9
    I wouldn't even mention it in a cover letter. Hiring committees want to know about your ability to do the work. May 12, 2023 at 12:58
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    @XanderHenderson I have been in hiring committees and seen applicants providing personal reasons in their cover letter explaining why they have had a "gap" or an unproductive period in their career. When evaluating candidates, I have found such information useful, and it has certainly been to the applicants' advantage that I have known this, rather than having me speculate about it.
    – Sverre
    May 13, 2023 at 15:49
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    I'd mention some things in a cover letter e.g. serious illness, caring responsibilities, or being held captive in the South American jungle, but saying you couldn't work properly for 3 years because of a divorce raises more questions than it answers. Like it or not, there are social conventions about how long it takes to deal with major life events (marriage, divorce, having children, bereavement, etc) and if you don't match those, then it would require more explaining than a cover letter can do. It's probably better either to lie (blame something more understandable) or keep quiet.
    – Stuart F
    May 15, 2023 at 13:57

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