I recently worked with an emergency medicine physician who was wrapping up her residency and hunting for a new opportunity. Her program was among the top 10 percent in the country. Her teaching experience and volunteering background were first-rate.
There was just one problem: Her four-year residency had taken five years to complete.
During a phone consultation to discuss her career, I brought it up, half-thinking it might have been just a typo on her CV. No typo.
After a lengthy pause, she explained that a close family member had unexpectedly died during her first year of residency. In the aftermath, it was impossible simply to continue on with training, so she’d opted for a one-year leave of absence. Love of medicine had brought her back.
If you’re wondering how to explain employment gaps to potential employers, these tips can help.
Don’t ignore the employment gap
Do you think an employer is more likely to hire someone who owns this part of her journey or tries to ignore the issue? The truth is, ignoring it never works.
Recruiters and hiring agents aren’t robots—they’re people like you and me. They get that life happens. They’re also trained to spot inconsistencies on someone’s CV and will, if they’re not addressed, assume the worst. “Five years to complete a four-year residency? Probably due to poor performance. Pass.”
This is why it’s critical to control the message you’re putting out there, especially when it comes to vulnerabilities. Abide by the following tips.
How to address the career gap
Inserting a brief one to two line “Career Note” directly within the “Work History” section of your CV is one of the most effective ways to address a gap.
By placing it in a reader’s line of sight, you enable him to pick up on the relevant details without getting distracted from the rest of the document.
Work Gap Example #1: Taking time off to deal with a personal loss.
Career Note: Undertook a one-year leave of absence to cope with a loss in the family. Strengthened personal relationships, managed household affairs, and volunteered for monthly community health clinics (April 2014 – April 2015).
Note the last part about health clinics. If you took on anything remotely career-related during your work gap, be sure to mention it.
This sends a clear message to hiring agents that you remained “in the mix” and continually developing during this period.
Work Gap Example #2: Taking time off to pursue training in another field.
Career Note: Pursued Master of Health Care Administration Degree at University of XYZ between 2014 and 2016, with a goal of incorporating knowledge into a hospital leadership position.
Answering why you pursued this training is a great way to get a reader to understand your thinking.
I would also recommend placing the “Education” section near the start of the CV to showcase this training. If it’s currently in progress, it’s fine to list it as follows:
Master of Health Care Administration – University of XYZ (Expected Graduation December 2016)
Share your story in the cover letter
Great cover letters offer a glimpse of the person behind the qualifications: what inspires, challenges and differentiates them.
In other words, it’s a prime opportunity to spin your work gap into a positive differentiator instead of a negative. The trick is to frame it in a way that adds value to your candidacy.
Use the CARB formula when broaching a gap within the cover letter: challenge, action, results and benefits. Here’s what I wrote for my five-year residency client (altered to maintain confidentiality):
“During my second year of residency, I faced a moment that shook me to my core and made me question my commitment to medicine. My mother, on a visit from New Zealand, suddenly passed away. I found myself without an anchor, adrift, and took a one-year leave of absence to recover and keep our family whole. What I discovered was a greater sense of purpose, an unshakeable belief that circumstances would not alter the course of my journey as a doctor. Upon finishing my residency, I will have completed more than 1,000 clinical hours, executed a significant body of research and gained specialized training in medical education and simulation. I am a stronger, more focused physician because of what I’ve gone through, not in spite of it.”
Mention the employment gap in your interview
Congrats, you’ve made it past the screening process and have received an invitation to the big game. Don’t blow it by being unprepared to address obvious holes in your career!
Try to weave the explanation in naturally during the conversation before you’re asked about it. Here’s how you can broach being laid off at your previous appointment:
“While leaving my last job was challenging on many fronts, both professionally and in terms of the impact to my family, I wouldn’t change a thing. My last position taught me that in order to be an effective physician, you need to be part of an organization that shares your values and is committed to empowering staff to create a truly world-class institution. Sometimes a hard experience can clarify your beliefs, and that’s what happened here.”
Above all, remember this: The seriousness of an employment gap—and how much of a career liability it will be—rests largely on how you feel about it.
Come to terms with it personally, and these tips will help take care of the rest.