how to calculate how much work experience you have

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Here are two questions about how to calculate work experience.

1. How much do part-time internships count toward work experience?

Looking at job listings that say they require a certain number of years of experience, I’m a bit unsure of how to figure out how much “experience” I have.

For example, if I did an internship at 10 hours a week for 6 months, does that count as 6 months of experience even though it wasn’t full-time or even part-time?

If I did two 10-hour/week internships over 6 months, is that 6 months of experience, or could it be counted as a year since I was working at two different places?

Well, no, 10 hours a week for six months isn’t really the same as 6 full months of experience. Technically it’s about a quarter of that. You are, after all, getting far less experience when you’re there 10 hours than when you’re there 40 hours.

And two 10-hour/week internships over 6 months definitely does not count as a year, for similar reasons.

But that doesn’t mean that you need to count it as two months of experience when it stretched out over six months. It just means that you need to understand that you’re less experienced than someone else who was working full-time for a similar length of time.

The more important thing to know, though, is that this stuff isn’t really about precise formulas. No one is going to strike you dead or even call you epithets for applying for something that requires more experience than you have. The worst case outcome is that they might not interview or hire you. But in some cases they will, if you can make up for lack of experience in other ways — impressive accomplishments, a strong work ethic, an engaging personality, a compelling cover letter, an obvious smartness. Sometimes that stuff overcomes the lack of experience, and sometimes not. You can’t really know when it will and when it won’t until you try.

2. How much can schoolwork count as work experience?

I recently (December) graduated from a master’s program and have been on the job search since the beginning of the year. Besides graduate school, I do have work experience with one professional job and a highly sought after internship with the Department of State abroad. I would like to add some experiences from graduate school as “work experiences” but am not sure how of if I can do that.

Most of my courses were pretty standard with theory lectures and grades were given based on exams or research papers. A few of my courses required the completion of major projects. These projects were done for external organizations unrelated to the university (a local non-profit, a large hospital, and a federally funded government initiative). I feel that these projects are beyond the standard realm of education experience but maybe fall short of true work experience. Combined, these three projects equal almost a year of experience, and all of these projects were implemented in the organizations.

For example, I was applying for a federal government job and one of the assessment questions asked if I had experience locating and interviewing subject matter experts to extract facts and translate complex material into non-technical terms. In all of my projects, we (or I) worked heavily with subject matter experts to develop training manuals on complex issues for non-technical audiences. Can I truthfully answer “yes, I have the experience” or would I still have to answer “I have the education but not work experience”? If so, how can I relate this experience on my resume? I was thinking of adding a “Related Experiences” section to my resume to convey my experiences with these projects.

Definitely list those things on your resume. They count. But you’re right to list them in a Related Experience section rather than lumping them in with work.

The reason for that is that while they count, they don’t count quite as much — for most hiring managers — as if you had done them through a job. The reason for that is that when you do projects as part of your job, there’s generally a higher level of accountability. Someone has determined that you’re fit to do the work, they’ve assessed it as its going along, and they’ve held you some particular performance standard. Some of that is true when you do it through school, but it’s different.

So they don’t count quite as much, but they do still count. (And yes, you can answer “yes” when asked if you have experience doing things that you do, in fact, have experience doing. Unless they specifically ask you whether it was through work or school, there’s no reason you have to add a “but it was school” footnote.)

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. PEBCAK

    If you are using your professors as references, I would also tell them that it would be helpful if they can highlight your experience in X.

    Reply
  2. AB

    OP, goes without saying that I agree with everything AAM said, but I’d just add, as someone who frequently has to hire for positions for it is important to have “experience locating and interviewing subject matter experts to extract facts and translate complex material into non-technical terms”, that your experience would count practically as much as if it was achieved through a real job.

    Definitely put it under related experience, and practice talking about how you went about getting the information you needed from experts for your interviews (what questions did you ask, how did you overcome any obstacles you had to get the experts to talk to you or explain things in an understandable way, etc.). This is a valuable experience that will make you more attractive to potential employers.

    Good luck!

    Reply
  3. LPBB

    Are internships generally assumed to be part-time, meaning 20 hours or less?

    I recently finished an internship that ended up lasting a year in which I was working 32 hour weeks. So I usually did 4 8-hour days per week. I consider that to be a year of experience since I was almost full-time, but I wonder if people look at my resume and assume that it was more along the lines of a 10 hour week internship.

    Reply
  4. Joanne

    For my first out-of-grad-school resume, I had no work experience (except being a TA, which isn’t related to my field) besides internships and the like. I did not have a “work experience” section on my resume, but had a “counseling experience” and an “office experience” section. I don’t know if something like that would be acceptable for other fields, but I never had any problems with getting interviews with my resume (of course, I suppose we can assume that the employers who didn’t like it never called me). My interviewers always took my experience seriously, nevermind that it was unpaid.

    Reply
    1. Kat M

      When I switched careers from education to massage therapy, I did something like this on my resume. I had a “massage experience” section that included volunteer work and internships (since I obviously wasn’t permitted to practice professionally before receiving my license), that was separate from my “recent work experience,” which consisted of my (massage industry) writing job and my last three teaching jobs. The more I do, though, the more difficult it is to put together a coherent resume!

      Reply
  5. Dan

    The whole “skills vs experience” thing is a real tough one. If you are dealing with an organization (such as the federal government) who has a hard-line stance on *time* spent in a position, you can’t get your school work to count. Not that it should, but “one year of experience” with your butt sitting in a cube doing the same thing over and over again from 9-5 isn’t the same as taking a class, or for that matter, two semesters worth of full time studies.

    That said, if the employer is looking for demonstrated proficiency with a particular skill set (such as interviewing SME’s and translating technical material into things laypeople can understand) then school work definitely counts.

    I had a huge section on my resume called “applied coursework” and would spend the majority of time in interviews talking about my masters thesis. All they’re looking to see is that you have a head on your shoulders, had to figure out a bunch of things for yourself, and didn’t have your hand held. In analytics fields, they’re looking to see that you’ve had experience manipulating particularly large data sets, and also working with “dirty” or incomplete data.

    If you can demonstrate those kinds of things, you won’t be able to claim “mid-level” experience, but you certainly will arise above the “fresh college grad” pack.

    Reply
    1. Elizabeth West

      Ooh good idea. I’m changing fields, and will be starting school next month (again! Groan!). Also, I got a job where I might actually be able to do my internship at work. (Haven’t checked, but it’s feasible given what I know about the company now.) I’m going to mark your comment for future reference, along with this post.

      Reply
  6. Dan

    When I got out of grad school in 2008, I started looking for jobs within my field. I got a phone call from a cruise line, and the HR person at the other end went straight to my work experience — which had nothing to do with my academic studies or cruise lines. Her *first* question concerned a job I held from 2001-2002 (six years before the interview!): She wanted to know if that was a full time or part time job.

    I think I mumbled something along the lines of WTF — with the limited time we had available, you’re telling me that *that* is the most important thing you have to talk about?

    Reply
  7. Em

    Is counting internship time as “experience” really something people do? It never occurred to me to count my year-long 20 hr/week internship as “experience.” I’m now 7 years out of school… does that mean I actually have “8 years experience”? Not that it really matters, but it just seems weird to me. If I had a candidate who only had internship experience and counted it as “1-5 years experience,” I have to admit, I’d roll my eyes.

    Reply
    1. Dan

      I don’t think the individual employee/applicant gets to decide how much experience he/she has. I’m a government contractor, and those things get decided way above my head.

      There’s nothing wrong with counting internship experience, especially if its paid. If I made the rules, I’d give the applicant credit for “Full Time Equivalent” work, especially if he/she was with the same organization for the duration. If you worked a 20/hour a week internship for a year, I’d give you six months. (Which doesn’t do anybody jack.) If you were a 20-hour/week intern for two years, I’d give you credit for one.

      Would I give somebody who interned full time during the summers only (3 months at a time) for a different employer every summer? I donno… 3 months isn’t long enough to pick up anything useful. AAM tells people at “real” jobs who last that long to just leave it off the resume. In the intern’s case, he’s only leaving off six months worth of FTE work, so I’m not sure how much it matters.

      Reply
    2. OP 1

      It counts when that’s all the experience you have. (I assume you included your internship on your resume when you were job hunting seven years ago?) In my field, you can’t get a job without experience, and you’re expected to get that experience through doing internships.

      It seems like internships wouldn’t “count” anymore after you have a few years of actual, full-time employment.

      Reply
      1. Em

        I put it on my résumé, but when evaluating possible jobs based on descriptions, I didn’t include it. I can see it varying by field, though. In mine, there were plenty of entry level jobs that didn’t have experience requirements. At the end of the day, if what you’re applying for is entry level, you’re fine. But if you’re trying to figure out a way to make your internships count for more advanced experience levels, I don’t think it’ll fly.

        Reply
  8. OP 1

    @Alison: Thanks for your advice! I have done a couple part-time and less-than-part time internships. When I start applying to jobs that list how many years of experience you need, I’ll try to stick to the ones that just require about a year.

    Reply
  9. dejavu2

    Those Federal job questionnaires are special. This is very anecdotal advice, but a friend of mine used to hire for Federal jobs, and he told me that applicants need to basically fluff up their experience as much as possible when answering those questions, because the system automatically excludes anyone who doesn’t hit all of the required numbers. Basically, the machine doesn’t care about your nuanced inner discussion about whether your experience is work experience or other experience. If you feel there is any interpretation of the circumstances under which you can tell the machine what it wants to hear, then for the love of Pete tell the machine what it wants to hear. If you make it past the machine, and the real person the looks at your resume and still decides they want to interview you, then you can start behaving as if real humans are involved.

    Reply
    1. E

      I’ve heard the same thing, and in fact, when I started applying for jobs for one particular agency (where I also had an internship while in grad school), I started off trying to be as honest as possible, and never getting placed in the “best qualified” category for my name to be forwarded on. After I heard this bit of advice, I started rating myself higher (now, I could still justify this rating and did so on my resume) and I finally had my name forwarded to the hiring manager for a few jobs.

      Still haven’t ever been called for a interview though, and I’ve finally gotten frustrated enough with the federal hiring process to give up, but there is something to this advice.

      Reply
  10. Stripes

    I recently filled out and submitted an employment history for a background check, 10 yrs worth. That night it dawned on me that I’d left off 2 jobs from 2012 (neither had lasted longer than 60 days). I sent an e-mail the next day acknowledging my error and listed all the pertinent information for both positions, including a pdf attachment of my Doctors letter, for a specific injury that ended my working at one position that required 35-37 hrs per week standing.

    The other job I addressed truthfully as well.

    I apologized for my oversight and let them know it was not intentional. I also added that I hoped that I’d not dashed my employment hopes with this snafu. (did not use Snafu in my e-mail to them)

    Any thoughts on this?

    Reply
  11. Jeff Gordon

    I have been thinking about this question for many years, since I read this article (http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/Ladder.html) by Joel Spolsky.

    And I think I agree with Joel. After a certain point, you don’t have additional years of experience when you’re doing the same stuff year after year. You have 1 year of experience doing something many times over.

    The question for me is, how long does it take to become “experienced” at a given task.

    Reply
    1. Lulu

      I think there’s a difference between experience in and experienced at – the first indicating some level of exposure, the second, proficiency. To my mind it’s a lot easier to indicate experience in; when it becomes experienced at or proficient, any evaluation short of complete mastery is really subjective. (I feel like I keep having this conversation with people – I’m obviously putting a lot of weight on those terms when I see them and using them to rule myself out, as I don’t think there’s anything I consider myself “proficient” in other than possibly typing, but I may have set that bar overly high…)

      Reply
  12. Forrest

    I believe I have three years of experience in my field but I’m concerned its not really three years since 1 of those years was at one place and the other 2 was at another.

    I’m applying for jobs just to see what’s out there and I’m not sure what my experience range is really.

    Reply
      1. Forrest

        Thanks Allison! I appericate you taking the time to write this blog. Its been so helpful to me and I’ve just been reading for a short time!

        Reply
  13. Jamie

    Hi Allison,

    I am currently at a contract position that may expire in 6 months’ time. I am therefore, job searching. I am in health research and have over 5 years experience in the field. I saw a position for Senior Analyst that requires at least 5 years’ experience, which I am applying for. However, I also see one for an Analyst position that requires less experience. They’re both at the same company. Should I apply for both, just in case I don’t get the Senior position?

    Thanks,

    Jamie.

    Reply

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