Q: I have been out of the library field for awhile. I relocated, then was diagnosed with cancer, then decided to have a baby. Meanwhile, I was job searching locally but nothing worked out. I have worked, just not in libraries. Now it is time to widen my library job search geographically. So how do I explain – or do I need to explain – my absence? I am very aware that I cannot mention cancer (passed my five-year mark, odds are in my favor, thankyouverymuch) or motherhood (my child is getting close to school age).
TA: Welcome back to librarianship! Congratulations on motherhood and passing your five-year mark. For most us, even without a diagnosis of our own, cancer touches our lives through family, friends, or acquaintances, so kudos to you for your strength and determination to fight and overcome.
It’s encouraging to hear that you’re ready to get back into libraries, and you’re wise to consider a gap in employment as something you need to address. In my opinion, you want to address this head on, but keep it brief, simple and not overly personal. I would suggest one or two lines in your cover letter, something along the lines of “After a period of time off for personal reasons, including relocation with my family, I am enthusiastic about returning to librarianship, and I’m especially excited about this opportunity at XYZ Library. I feel confident that my education, experience and skills make me a strong candidate for the position of XYZ Librarian.” The statement is brief, slightly personal but not too much, and is optimistic and confident. You address the gap without going into too much detail.
Beyond your cover letter, there are a couple of other things I would recommend. First, have a really nice resume. Part of the resume is work experience, which as you say, is not work in libraries, but look for transferable skills. If you have worked in public service, customer service, web authoring, organizing volunteers, etc., think about these things as they relate to libraries (and to the specific position you’re applying for) and highlight them in your resume. Even volunteer work counts as long as the experience you gained directly relates to the position for which you are applying. It’s your job as the candidate to do all the work for the committee – show them how you meet the qualifications of the position and how your experience relates. You are your own best advocate.
Second, stay connected professionally. Be sure to join listservs, read blogs, attend workshops, join professional associations, etc. By staying connected, you’ll not only stay aware of current issues and trends in the profession and be ready to discuss those during an interview, but you’ll also begin to build a network of other professionals who will be able to support your job search. Additionally, potential employers will see that you’re active professionally as you build your resume with professional development and professional memberships. Furthermore, take advantage of technology training and be sure to keep these skills current – that’s another great thing to highlight on your resume. It not only shows initiative, but it’s also one less thing for a potential employer to worry about with someone who’s been off the job market for several years.
And finally, when you’re called for an on-site interview, be sure to stay open, positive and optimistic. Don’t shy away from or downplay the experiences you’ve had outside of librarianship. And if you feel that you’ve developed a rapport with the interviewer and feel comfortable sharing a little more personal detail than you’ve included in your cover letter, you can do that. I would still keep it fairly brief (this is, of course, still an interview, not speed dating) but at least in person you are able to judge a reaction and tailor your responses accordingly. At the cover letter stage, it’s just you “on paper“; during an interview, it’s you — the real you, the healthy you, the professional you — “in real life.”
You say that you are
“very aware that I cannot mention cancer … or motherhood.”
This statement, although understandable, is somewhat disconcerting. It shows your fears and reluctance to put yourself out there again. Gaps in your resume will stand out; and if they are not explained, they will send up red flags and leave the potential employer wondering what you were doing for those missing time periods. Don’t let them wonder, explain yourself first, eloquently and convincingly, and make them believe that you are ready to re-enter the workforce. You are certainly aware that your family decisions and your illness have impacted all aspects of your life, including your professional life, and you are trying to get yourself back into the profession that you want to be in. Make sure that your self-esteem is ready as well.
Be tactful, sincere, professional, and bold when addressing gaps in your resume. Keep the wording and tone optimistic, confident, and slightly personal in your cover letter (as Tiffany mentions above). In the interview stage, expect that you will be asked about the gaps. This is when you can say a little more, if you feel comfortable, without setting off alarm bells (as you might fear).
Be tactful when talking about personal matters – you wouldn’t go on and on about a painful divorce, or about losing a job, so make sure that you keep your personal matters still slightly personal. In your case, you have a few things to celebrate – a healthy outcome, and a child. These are not things to be ashamed of in any way, and have most likely made you a stronger person. Use this strength in your job search, and promote yourself and your experiences confidently.
I can appreciate and understand your unwillingness to mention an illness and protectiveness of your decision to stay at home for a few years, which many new parents make. And, it can be extremely difficult, not to mention uncomfortable, to discuss personal decisions with people you’ve just met. Having said that, I’m not advocating that you actually have a discussion about why you chose to stay at home to raise your child, or provide details about your battle with cancer. I only mean that you should be as honest and up front as possible without getting too personal. Hiding information will only hurt your chances at getting a job.
When you get to the interview stage, remember that you are interviewing them as well. You need to find a workplace that you will be comfortable in and a workplace that suits your needs. Your interviewers can not (or should not) ask you certain personal questions, but you can share as much or as little as you like. How much you share will depend entirely on the situation, timing, and comfort level. Just remember, if your interviewers feel that you are hiding something, or that you are closed up, they will project that into the workplace and wonder if they can work with a person who is, or may be, overly guarded. Collaboration is a major part of librarians’ roles, and you will most likely (depending on the job you are applying for) have to prove that you can work comfortably with others in a collaborative environment. A large part of any in-person interview is finding a good fit for the library, so personality, sincerity, and rapport with key people are very important.
Finally, be bold – ask your interviewers if they have any concerns about hiring someone who has been out of the workplace for a few years, and if so, find out what they are and see if you can address them. This is your chance to shine and to alleviate any fears they might have, while (hopefully) leaving your own fears behind. Best of luck!
“Gaps in Your Resume: Addressing an Interruption in Your Career Path” by John Lehner
“How to Handle a Gap in Your Job History” by Cynthia Wright
“When Stay-at-Home Fathers Return to Work (Elsewhere)” by Julia Lawlor
“Workforce Re-entry for a Stay at Home Mom” by Stacie Cathcart
“Coping With Chronic Illness When You’re on the Job Market” by Mary Morris Heiberger