Q: I got my master’s degree in information studies two years ago. After completing my degree, I worked in a company as a library assistant for only three months, when I had to relocate with my spouse. After the move, I stayed at home for almost two years with a new baby. I’m now in the position to begin working again, and I want to start my career right away. Can you give me some advice on where and how to start?
TA: Well, welcome back to the professional workforce! It sounds like you are quite eager to return to the field of librarianship â€“ and I hope you will convey that enthusiasm in your cover letter and resume when applying for professional positions. It seems to be a daunting task, retooling yourself to re-enter the workforce, but just know that you are not alone. Every year people just like you take a period of leave from their work for many reasons, and then successfully return to the profession. Here are a few things to think about as you set your course to return.
While you are at home and during your job search
Take some time to assess and refresh your skills. Assessment will help you when you are looking for positions, as well as when you are crafting your resume. And, if you need to “beef up” your resume, refresh your skills by taking a class or two or by participating in volunteer activities. When you talk about your volunteer activities on your resume, be sure to put them in a professional context (e.g., talk about the computer skills, organizational skills, communication skills, and interpersonal skills involved with the work).
Also, stay involved and stay connected. Although it may be tough, keep in touch with former colleagues and classmates to maintain your professional network and to also stay abreast of current issues in the field. Things as simple as sending an e-mail or inviting a colleague out for coffee will go a long way in keeping you connected to the work you left behind. Attend conferences, monitor lists, and perhaps even take on some part-time work if you are able.
Focus on your cover letter and resume
Probably the most important thing you need to do right now is build an excellent resume. You want to accentuate the positive and minimize your weaknesses. Organize your resume so your most marketable skills and experiences are clearly evident and minimize the weaknesses (in this case, your dates of employment) by not drawing attention to them.
Some would recommend using the “functional” resume format, but, in my experience, search committees and hiring managers are savvy enough to guess that youâ€™re trying to hide something (usually dates). They also often find functional resumes confusing. Instead of frustrating them and making them think you are trying to conceal something, give them the information they need, but present it in a format that sells your strengths and limits your liabilities. Format your resume so that the reader’s eye is drawn to job titles and career experience, not the particular dates of employment. Perhaps include the dates after your job title, but before your list of responsibilities; bold your job titles, but not your dates of employment.
Also, use your cover letter to explain gaps in employment. Be direct and up-front about it. There is no need to make apologies. If, as in your case, you have been out to care for children (which is more challenging than just about any job out there!) say something as simple as: “After spending two years at home caring for my child, I am eager to return to librarianship and believe I am excellent candidate for your position.” Then, tell them why you are the best candidate for the job. Emphasize that you are eager and enthusiastic to return to the professional workforce. As I’ve said before, your cover letter is your opportunity to introduce yourself. It is also your opportunity to sell your candidacy to the search committee. Be up-front, be honest, and give them the information they need. Never make them guess, especially about gaps in employment.
Things to consider when returning to work
While your situation is not uncommon, there are still employers out there who prefer to see a consistent track record of employment. Upon re-entry, you may have to take a lower-level position than when you left the workforce. View it as a way to re-establish yourself professionally, and use the opportunity to reconnect and rebuild your professional reputation.
Also, be sure to consider the costs of returning to work: daycare, commuting, and maintaining a healthy work/life balance, just to name a few. When considering an offer, look for flexibility in the position and carefully examine the benefits package. Does the employer offer vacation leave and sick leave? Are there other types of leave that support community and child involvement? Is job sharing, flex time, part-time work, or telecommuting an option? If you do choose one of these options, just be sure the boss knows what you’re doing. Give weekly status reports on your work and volunteer for special projects so you stay on the radar. And put in some “face time:” if you’re working from home, come into the office for important meetings; if you’re working part-time, be the first one in the office, make the coffee and say good morning to everyone. Remember, “out of sight, out of mind.”
Just know who you are, what you want, and what you have to offer. Good luck with the job search!
“Be Direct When Explaining that Gap in Your Resume,” The Houston Chronicle, August 19, 2004, Section C, pp. 1-2.
Isaacs, Kim. “Handle Your Work Hiatus on Your Resume.”
Marrinan, Michele. “Returning After a Leave.”
Matuson, Roberta Chinsky. “Continue to be Corporate or Stay at Home?”
Topper, Elisa F. “Working Knowledge,” American Libraries, March 2004.