If you’re wondering how far back in your career to go on your resume, put yourself in an employer’s shoes. What do they want and need to know?
Some people take a measured career path – data science, finance, software development. But more commonly people don’t have one long progression of consistent education and work in one area. I sure don’t!
We hoppers need to pick and choose how far back, what we’ll include, and how we’ll present it. And I’ll give you some general rules for that in this article.
The most common, and mistaken, approach is to list every single job back through university, if not earlier. I’ll offer you some better ways to decide on what to use, based on my most common types of applicants.
But first, please realize…
There is no magic number of years, months, days to go back on your résumé or CV. Job hunting remains a subjective process.
Ignore any career guru or smart friend who tells you don’t list anything beyond 5 years back, or from college. Résumés and CVs have some rules, but you’ll be safer if you adopt the Bruce Lee approach and…
be water, my friend
In other words, adapt yourself to your situation, fluidly.
It’s more about the “what” rather than the “when.”
The question of how far back to go is second to the question of relevance.
Often, especially earlier in our careers, we have to take jobs just for the money. Take on a new challenge that proves to be a bad match for us. Have certain jobs that seem otherwise very inconsistent with our background and character.
When it comes time to apply for a new job, this can confuse you. And if you don’t consider what is and is not relevant in your work history, it can create confuse the person reading the résumé and application.
You have to make their job easy, not hard. Otherwise, they’ll just move on.
How far back should academics go on their CV/resume?
I’ll start here because you all are usually pretty consistent.
Many, even most, academics have been following relatively consistent paths of study as they progressed to higher degrees and to academic employment. If this is you, you can omit non-academic jobs you have taken on the side, but you may wish to include them in a special section of other pursuits if they in some way relate to your field of expertise.
Otherwise, all studies, teaching experience, research, society memberships, everything reasonably relevant goes on an academic CV.
Academic CVs are longish/longer (over 10 pages is not unusual for a seasoned professor and researcher), but I do enjoy writing them for this reason. I don’t need to worry as much about tailoring the message and about being short and sharp.
An academic CV, like a sort of micro-dissertation, is an exhaustive chronicle of your path and your accomplishments along the way.
What to do: Go back to the start of university
Academics Applying in Industry
When the dream of a life in academia loses out to the frustrations of politicking, low salaries, and incessant comparison with others, PhDs and other academics may seek out industry jobs.
This can be a wise move because in certain areas (e.g., engineering, biotech, agriculture), there is much more money to be made. It also means competing with established professionals who have years of industry experience.
Academics entering industry have to rewrite their story.
What to do: Pick and choose, starting from undergraduate, try your best to eliminate huge gaps of time
How far back should early-career, entry-level job hunters go?
If you’re just entering the professional work world, or have only a year or two of experience, your main concern should only be eliminating the earliest years. This is when you were a kid and you probably were simply earning some cash for food, dates, school, etc.
If high school was your highest level of education, consider removing the Education section entirely, unless you have other experience, such as online courses and qualifications.
Focus on your work experience and any volunteer and extracurricular activities with some link to what you’re seeking.
You’ll have to do a bit more work here because you need to inflate yourself and stretch things a bit to match yourself to the job you’re aiming at. Include as much as you can, but don’t list your high school under Education.
If you’re a new university graduate or other college (junior, vocational, etc.) graduate, list only your post-high-school education and list relevant internships and work experience, even if it’s short.
Add relevant volunteering and club activities. Do not include unrelated jobs such as waiting tables or stocking shelves unless they’re related to your target industry.
What to do: Put your education back to the start of university, and include any relevant jobs, volunteering, and other activities
How far back should a mid-career job hunter go?
If you’re in this category, you’ve been in the workforce for a few years. You may have only worked at one company but advanced up through a number of promotions.
Alternatively, you may have worked at a few companies and bounced around a bit. If you’ve been focused, you may be ready for a two-page résumé.
What to do: Go back as long as work is relevant to your aims, and weed out or minimize unrelated jobs, use 15–20 years as a soft cutoff point.
How far back should career changers go?
Especially for those changing careers in mid-life, there may be some pertinent experience a couple of decades back. It would be a shame to waste it.
Rather, it may be good to use it as part of your narrative in how you match what may seem to be a sharp divergence from your career to date.
Also, you may have spent many years at one place (say, 5 or more years). Even if this is not so connected to what you’re seeking, it shows loyalty and may explain the foundation of your skills or how you came to find your true calling through the various roles in one company.
That’s reason enough to leave it on your résumé.
What to do: Go back as long as work is relevant to your aims, minimizing unrelated work and antiquated skills, and trying to tie it to your story.
How far back should high-achievers, managers, executives go?
Those advanced in their careers and who’ve achieved a high level of accomplishment face the greatest challenge in refining a résumé. If it’s a CV, you have more leeway for going longer, but a résumé over two pages is only reserved for those of advanced accomplishment. This is how it should be.
Even 20 or 30 years in the workplace can still be summed up in two power-packed pages.
What to do: Go back as long as work is relevant to your aims, and weed out or minimize unrelated and early-stage jobs.
How far back should career changers go?
This gives you a general idea of how far back to go on your CV or resume. This is always a topic I explore with my clients, no matter their age and career stage.
Normally, I include as much as possible, back to university. But in some cases, they may have, for instance, gained valuable skills in an internship, or in their military service (very true for Koreans). We’ll find ways to put that in.
You can also use your LinkedIn profile to go into greater detail. A resume typically is an executive brief. Cut the extras.