Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Ask CJ: how to handle medical leave in a CV or cover letter?

From the inbox, a really interesting question from someone we'll call DF (e-mail has been heavily redacted for privacy): 
I was in grad school for a rather long time, beyond the traditional 2-3 years of masters/4-6 years for PhD.  I was enrolled in the PhD program in grad school, all was going great until I got [cancer].  
I did not wish to let my advisor or coworkers know about it, but my constant absence is a bit obvious in a rather small group and eventually I had to tell my advisor [that I was sick, and in treatment].  While [they were] supportive, [they] simply suggested that I leave with a masters as I was quite late in the program... 
I would like to know if firstly, is it appropriate to address that one was enrolled and completed PhD coursework on a resume?  A relatively new coworker had that listed on his resume but never earned his degree either and seemed kind of awkward to me. 
Additionally, on a cover letter, should I explain this situation?  I do not want any sort of pity or mercy from a potential employer, but I also do not want to get passed over because I was sick and the potential for it to return is probably higher than a healthy, never-had-cancer potential employee.... 
Lastly, if I am choosing to omit all of these things in my resume and cover letter and I field a question in a phone interview asking "why were you in grad school so long for a masters?", is it appropriate to bring up here?  I have always lied in this spot and sort of danced around the question with varying degrees of success.  I don't like to lie, but I also don't want any of the aforementioned to occur.  
DF, I am going to assume that you're in industry now. I certainly know that people do wonder when they see stints in graduate school that are longer than usual; in addition, I know that people begin to wonder what those extended times in graduate school are about.

That said, I think most hiring managers can put these questions aside and ask much more simpler questions, i.e. "is this person a good fit for the position?" or "did this person learn chemistry skills sufficiently in graduate school?" I doubt that the amount of time you're in graduate school will be a major driver of decision making, but I could be wrong.

In regards to being directly asked about it, I don't really think there's any shame in telling the truth, i.e. "I was sick and I needed to get better before I could finish my program."

Readers, I have no experience with this - what is your opinion? 

12 comments:

  1. I probably wouldn't put this in the cover letter or resume (feels too much like an excuse), but if it comes up, that's the perfect opportunity for the phrase "health issues that have since been resolved." A true reason that most people will understand, but not angling for sympathy or raising concerns that your health will keep you from doing the job.

    If you have a good relationship with your former advisor, this is the perfect sort of thing for them to address very briefly in their reference.

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    1. I agree that could be a good area for the former supervisor to address, especially with positive wording (overcoming challenges, perseverance etc). In addition on the CV/resume if the medical leave was an actual chunk of time (a year for example) perhaps that could be reflected in the date range(s) for the master's degree (June 2013-August 2014, Sept. 2015-Sept. 2017) or something in that vein?

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  2. An interesting issue. As long as the rest of the CV is good (specifically, # publications) extra long time in grad school shouldn't an issue that needs to be addressed in cover letter, though were I interviewing someone in this situation I'd definitely ask "what took so long"? Having a serious illness would for sure be an acceptable reason.

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  3. The student should have been able to obtain protection and support through the university disability office to remain in school instead of being effectively terminated with a masters. In actual practice many departments try to turn a blind eye to state and federal rights of disabled scientists.

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    1. DF here (the person who emailed CJ); I think both myself and my advisor were on the same page of me leaving only because of the pile of medical bills stacking and the poor grad student pay rate. My advisor was not trying to remove me and suggested the same options you presented, however, in the interest of me, he also suggested just leaving... I do not regret it and, in hindsight, wish I just would have left with 'simply' a masters after 2ish years, but going for a PhD is always a gamble regardless.

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    2. Thanks for clarifying. But it also sounds like your university health insurance was inadequate if your medical bills were stacking up. Of course I had zero health insurance when I was in grad school 35+ years ago, and a simple traffic accident could have left me destitute. Since then I've seen more than one hospital bill with preinsurance charges in the neighborhood of what it costs to buy a house in some markets, followed by "you pay $0". It really bugs me that graduate students don't have comparable coverage. In fact, if it was possible to add grad students to faculty/staff insurance plans, it should reduce premiums by adding a younger, healthier demographic.

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    3. NP Even if you have awesome health insurance, medical bills for cancer treatment are going to be a big burden when you are making <30K. It's pretty much not doable unless your parents can help.

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    4. Anon, depending on if you were on TA or RA, you either got state employee health insurance or more basic health insurance, respectively. As you can imagine, state employee coverage was significantly better and, of course, I was not a TA.

      I also found I was being double-billed for a lot of things or charged by doctors who 'interpreted' data and if I called to question/complain about a lot of these things, I got the bill reduced ten-fold in most instances. I am still buried under medical and credit card debt from this event and I doubt I will ever dig out, but still don't regret not holding a PhD title. After reading that professor's longreads article, I should have filed for bankruptcy right after grad school/before starting work.

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  4. My wife had Aflac supplemental cancer insurance, and when she was diagnosed with a cancer that required surgery and radiation, she not only had no medical bills, Aflac cut her a check for $12 K.

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  5. On the CV (or any other correspondence for that matter), list only the completion year (or month/year if necessary) of the degree. If questioned - answer them truthfully. My experience (industry) - nobody cares when you finished, they care that you finished. Your mileage may vary, of course.

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    1. I definitely agree with this - using only years is a great way of hiding a gap, and no one cares which month any of your positions started in.

      Another trick I use - if I'm filling out an online form that requires specific dates, my MS was officially awarded in a May graduation ceremony, even though I had left months before that. Use this to your advantage if you have a gap between mastering out and starting your first job.

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  6. I was in a similar situation. Don't bring it up unless asked. Even then, just say you had some health problems, but that you're better now (if you are).

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