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Explaining your career gaps.

As an academic you may be likely to have career gaps or be inclined to take one. Overall, a career gap is personal to your journey and important. When it comes to job searching, it’s important you’re able to explain your career gap positively and offer reassurance you’re ready to thrive in the world of work again.

Career gaps are often seen to hold you back when applying for a job – although this isn’t necessarily true. For academics in general, taking a break from your career at various intervals is more of the norm, subsequently leaving a lot of us with career gaps across our CV and résumé. Due to the unstable nature of studying and academic employment, you have more natural ‘breaks’, pauses or opportunities to reflect on your career path. Jumping from one post-doc contract to another might tempt you to take 10 months off in-between to go travelling for example. The world of academia can also be a stressful place, perhaps after completing your PhD or previous academic position you now owe it to yourself to finally hit the pause button and do something for yourself to recuperate and not be functioning at lightning speed. No matter what the reason, it’s likely you’ll have a career gap and need to explain it when looking for new employment.

First things first, do not let this post deter you from taking a career break out of fear of creating a career gap. In the grand scheme of things, it won’t have much, or any significant impact in your employability. Furthermore, it’s deeply important to do what is best for you – and if your life dictates that a break is needed, go for it. This post is purely about explaining your career gap in a positive light after the fact.

Like most things in life, it’s really important to be able to provide context. Whether your career changing, or explaining your career gap, there needs to a logical ‘story’ so to speak for your decisions. Most people aren’t out here to make your life more difficult than it needs to be, and so if you’re able to provide context to your career gap it’s very unlikely to raise any alarm bells. From an employer’s perspective, they’re more interested in the reasons for your career gap to see whether that ‘reason’ may surface again. If you had bad working relationships, were unable to land enough interviews, or anything else that might indicate you could be challenging to work with are things a career gap could represent.

However, if you’re able to talk about your career gap due to personal difficulties, a life event, or a more short-term circumstances it will offer both reassurance to your employer that this won’t happen again and will also highlight a well-rounded individual as you’re able to prioritise particular life events. This provides logical context to your interviewer and reduces the ‘stigma’ or concerns about having a career gap. Of course, this may be only something you can address in an interview, but depending on the length of the career gap (say 6 months or more) you may want to include a placeholder, or a brief description in your CV or cover letter. This approach has also been adopted by LinkedIn where you’re now able to input a ‘career break’ as part of your employment history.

The second aspect to address when explaining a career gap is to outline the added value this break has given you. Perhaps you went volunteering in a foreign country during your career gap, well there’s a whole bunch of transferable skills you would have likely acquired. Maybe you took time out of work to be a stay-at-home parent and so you can speak to your resilience and new life perspectives you’ve gained.

It could be that you took a career break to simply look after your well-being and put structures in place to support your mental or physical health, you can express that as taking time out to refocus and ensure you were passionate, curious and committed to your next role. Whatever your reason, the story you need to provide in a professional context is how this career gap has benefited you in a way that makes you more employable as a person.

What this really comes down to is like anything else when it comes to job searching. You need to highlight the skills you’ve gained over the course of your experiences, how these are relevant to your next job and what impact you’ll bring to the new organisation. We discuss a lot about identifying your transferable skills and mapping these to your personal values. A career gap is no different really. What skills and values have you discovered during your career gap? Why is now the right time for you? What will you bring to the role? As long as you’re able to speak to all of these elements, your career gap is no longer seen as a hindrance and is actually a valuable life experience.

By doing so, you’re able to offer significant amount of reassurance to the new employer, who in turn is unlikely to be put off or fearful of you taking a career gap again. It’s important that you don’t just aim to provide the context, highlight the value your career gap has provided you, or offer the reassurance during an interview. It’s also deeply important that you also do your best to portray these things in your CV and cover letter as a means to get an interview. Don’t sell yourself short and get screened out before you’ve even had the chance to expand on your circumstances. Always seek to provide this upfront, own it, and be clear at explaining how your career gap doesn’t set you back from the rest.


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