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I am currently completing a PhD studentship, and I'm aiming to complete by the end of the year. After this, I'm looking for a postdoc position in academia or industry. At the moment I'm working on my CV and applications.

One thing I'm unsure about is how to describe my previous research experience. Specifically, I previously (around 11 years ago) took part in a PhD program, but unfortunately did not complete it.

My question is, how should I describe that time period (4 years) on the CV / applications?

  1. Be honest, call it a PhD studentship, but don't list it on my completed education/qualifications (the implication being that it wasn't completed).
  2. Give a vague position title (e.g. 'scientist') - not technically untrue - and be prepared to answer questions in the interview about what that actually means.
  3. Give a specific position title (e.g. RA) - less honest, but less likely to invite questions.

Which approach would be best? I would prefer not to have to highlight this with potential employers, if possible, but I also don't want to be dishonest on my applications. As a potential employer, which would be the lesser of the evils to you? Would you be more likely to throw out a CV at the shortlisting stage based on a historic uncompleted PhD?

For context, I have other research experience and fairly extensive lab skills. I also have various outputs including (mostly middle authorship) papers, talks and posters and have won competitive prizes and travel awards. I will also hope to publish at least one first author original research paper on my PhD work.

  • Is it necessary to list it at all? Many resumes only go back 10 years in work experience, especially for early career positions (and as you say, no need to list in under education since it wasn't completed). – cag51 Sep 25 '18 at 11:04
  • If you are applying for jobs, and those potential employers ask about your decade-old failed PhD attempt, then either your current work has got some problems, or you don't wanna work there. – Mad Jack Sep 25 '18 at 12:06
  • @cag51 Sorry I wasn't clear in my original comment. The PhD started ~11 years ago, so cutting it out completely would leave a gap of ~3 years from my previous 10 years' experience described on the CV. Would that be ok? There is also a year's industrial experience during my undergraduate that I would like to include in research experience, as it was at a fairly prestigious centre. Although I could just include that in the education section. – James Wilson Sep 25 '18 at 12:42
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    @MadJack Do you mean to say I should be open about it and not worry? Or something else? – James Wilson Sep 25 '18 at 12:45
  • I mean to say, you went on and got a PhD a decade later somewhere else, and you are looking for a postdoc position, so why on earth is anyone, including you, worried about that now? – Mad Jack Sep 25 '18 at 15:14
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I think this is a non-issue. When I review resumes from new PhDs (note: for non-university research positions, not post-docs), I rarely care about anything that happened prior to grad school. Any of these are likely to be fine. Still, my thoughts....

I think the most elegant way is to omit it completely.

  • Under education, you can list your completed degrees. As you say, anything impressive that you want to highlight from earlier years can be bullets here.
  • Then under work experience, you start with the first position after leaving the unsuccessful PhD.

That will take your work history back 8 years and give a reasonable explanation for what you did between undergrad and grad school. No need to account for every single year during that time.

Your option #3 also seems reasonable, though I don't see the upside.

  • It is perfectly honest -- that was your title, and the technical staff will immediately see what happened (they shouldn't care)
  • Non-technical "resume screeners", who are more likely to be off-put by this, are less likely to pick up on it
  • But, this reduces your signal-to-noise ratio (you want your resume to pack a punch, not list irrelevant details), and you won't get many points for transparency.

I see even less upside for option #1, though my analysis is basically the same as for #3.

I would avoid option #2 -- it has the same upsides above, but could be seen as deliberately obfuscating (which is basically true) or trying to oversell.

  • Thank you for your reply. I appreciate it might be a small or non-issue, but still I'd like to maximise my chances of success. It's also a source of embarrassment for me, so I guess it feels like more of an issue to me personally. My reservation about removing that PhD completely is that it would leave me with only two research positions, covering the last four years (one year as a tech, then three years on this PhD) of work history. The remaining time was spent in non-science jobs, which I'd rather not have to put on the CV to fill the time gaps - but would it be necessary to list them? – James Wilson Sep 26 '18 at 9:21

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