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Returning to Work after a Break

by Brought to you by ACS Career Navigator
August 3, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 31

Credit: Shutterstock
Cartoon about Robinson Crusoe
Credit: Shutterstock

These days, a continuous employment history is the exception, not the rule. A few small gaps probably won’t trouble a prospective employer, but multiple or long gaps might create concern. Properly accounting for any gaps—whether caused by formal leaves or part-time work—can minimize their impact on your future career. Finding creative ways to use your time away from work can also pay off.

Pick up skills. Employed or not, you’re always doing something with your time. Think about what you did during your break—what skills you used, what new topics you learned about. If you were raising children, you learned about multitasking and setting priorities. If you had an extended illness, you increased your medical knowledge. Include volunteer work, such as scientific outreach, classes, or personal projects that broadened your background. Employers don’t care if you got paid; they care about what you did, and what you can do.

Plan ahead. If you know you’re going to have a gap, find ways to keep yourself professionally active. Volunteer with a professional society, take or teach a class, or create a project that forces you to learn a new skill. At worst, you’ll have something to fill the gap on your résumé. At best, you’ll discover a new talent and maybe open up some career possibilities.

Adjust your metrics. If your gaps add up to a significant amount of time, you can scale your metrics to show what you could have done. For example, suppose you’re a postdoc who published six papers and wrote three grant proposals in three years. If you spent nine months of that time on leave, you really did that work in 2.25 years. Assuming consistent production, you would have published eight papers and four grant proposals if you had worked the entire time, and you should be compared with other candidates on that basis.

Use A Functional or skills-based résumé. If your employment history is very irregular or you are moving into a significantly different field, you may want to use a functional résumé. Instead of listing your employment history and accomplishments at each job, list three major skill areas—with accomplishments under each—and in a later section list your employment history with only job titles, company names, and dates of employment. This format allows the reader to focus on what you did, not where or when you did it.

Focus the discussion. Tell prospective employers that the issue that led to the employment gap has now been resolved, and you are excited about going back to work, without going into personal details. If the time away was your choice, talk about how you took care of other priorities and are mentally refreshed. If leaving was not your choice, talk about what you learned from the experience, such as the importance of keeping your skills current or being aware of the business ramifications of your work.

Whether or not you are employed, you are always doing something. Figuring out how to apply that “something” to your career, and presenting your past choices in the most positive light, will help you advance to the next stage of your career.

Get Involved In The Discussion. The ACS Career Tips column is published the first week of every month in C&EN. Post your comments, follow the discussion, and suggest topics for future columns in the Career Development section of the ACS Network (


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