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How do I count years of experience as a physician changing jobs?

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Q:I’m an MD about two years out from residency. I’ve been heavily involved in research throughout my training and current job, including several publications and a grant. I have been looking at jobs in clinical trials monitoring for drug companies. A lot of the jobs say they want 3-5 years of experience or something like that. My question is, what exactly does this mean – years after residency? Or years since graduating med school? Or years doing only research?

A: Years of experience can be difficult to quantify for physicians, since we have so much training during which we’re technically practicing medicine and gaining experience in the field. Moreover, for those with a career that has involved some combination of patient care, research, administrative work, or other responsibilities, your total years of professional experience will surpass your years of experience in any one of these job areas.

So how do you tell if you meet the “years of experience” requirement for a position? Here are some tips.

You can usually count years in residency as years of experience

Convention is to count your years of residency as years of professional experience as a physician. You can make it clear you’ve included your years in residency by using the phrase “post-graduate experience.” However, look out for job requirements that specify the type of job experience they are looking for. Some may say “experience in clinical trials” or “or at least 3 years conducting study monitoring,” for example.

Employers looking for specialists may say something like “5 years of experience in oncology.” This would most likely include time spent in an oncology fellowship, but wouldn’t include your years in internal medicine residency prior to that.

Be descriptive about your experience in your cover letter

Your cover letter is an excellent place to explain what your professional experience has entailed, and justify how it fits with the job requirements. Perhaps you don’t have full-time experience in clinical trial monitoring. Describe that you do have several years of experience as a physician during which you were responsible for devising, carrying out, and reporting on research studies. If possible, you can use percentages here to give the employer an idea of how much of your time was spent on certain activities. For example,

While in this role, 20% of my time was dedicated to conducting research in partnership with the Center for Castleman’s Disease Prevention.

Also, use the rest of the job description and your own knowledge of the company to explain to them why your experience and skills are relevant and make you a good candidate.

Don’t discount a job ad based on the years listed

Often times, there wasn’t a whole lot of thought put into determining the years of experience that’s listed in a job ad. It’s possible that the hiring manager didn’t even weigh in on this decision, and that the HR staff put in a number that they felt was reasonable.

The worst that can happen is that your job application is rejected because you don’t meet their experience requirements.

Of course, use your judgement on this. If a company is looking for someone with 10-15 years of experience, but you’re just a couple years out of medical school, it’s probably not a good fit for you. Or, if a job ad uses strong language when describing necessary experience, take it seriously. For example, “At least 5 years of experience in directly supervising clinical trials is mandatory.” It’s pretty clear here what they are looking for. If you have 4.75 years and feel like the entire job description was written for you, sure – go ahead and apply. But if your research experience has been solely doing Western blots in a lab full of Erlenmeyer flasks, probably best to keep looking.

Large organizations with high volumes of applications are more likely to automatically reject your application based on formal years of experience than smaller companies. It’s kind of like certain medical schools rejecting any applicants with a GPA below a certain number – they have to draw the line somewhere.

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