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Career Strategies for Librarians
Gaps in Your Resume:  Addressing an Interruption in Your Career Path
by John Lehner

As a library human resources director, I’m frequently asked for advice by librarians who are preparing
resumes.  On a number of occasions I’ve also volunteered to critique resumes for job-seekers at library
conference placement centers.  A common question is how to account for breaks in employment.  
Interestingly, for those who’ve had interruptions in their professional employment history, the issue
sometimes seems to be the dominant concern in preparing a resume and cover letter.  It’s important to
keep these concerns in perspective.  The subtitle of this article is certainly laden with unspoken
expectations about our work life.  How realistic is the expectation that we all should have uninterrupted
“career paths”? We presume that if we have interruptions in our employment history, considerable
explanation will be required.  In fact, job applicants should be prepared to address concerns about their
employment history, but should also consider that many of us do not have records of continuous,
uninterrupted employment over our lifetimes.   

Job applicants who need to address the issue of gaps or interruptions in their employment histories
should remember that they are not bizarre or unusual cases.  In the recent economic downturn, many
jobs were lost, including some in the library and information science area.  Many in our field have also
had career interruptions because of demanding family responsibilities, including caring for children or
elderly parents.  Many individuals have gaps in their employment history because they left employment to
follow a partner or spouse who was relocated.  A serious health crisis can also result in a gap in
employment.   

Importantly, many organizations seem to have a growing sensitivity to these issues.  Society has
increasingly recognized that stigmatizing job candidates with gaps in employment can unfairly penalize
women, who have traditionally borne a disproportionate share of child-rearing and other family
responsibilities.  The popular press has written a great deal about the problems faced by the “sandwich
generation” – those caring for children while having the simultaneous responsibility of caring for aging
parents.  And some legislation, such as the Family Medical Leave Act, has required employers to be
more attuned to certain employee concerns.  The FMLA essentially acknowledges that an individual’s
critical health issues, or the responsibility to care for a seriously ill family member, must be recognized
by employers.  We are all aware, and organizations increasingly acknowledge, that there are times when
individuals face more important issues in life than their work and career.

Be Straightforward About It

A recent newspaper article on this subject ran with the headline, “Be direct when explaining that gap in
your resume.”1 I couldn’t agree more.  Obfuscation about the gap in your employment can be very risky.  
Candidates sometimes try to hide a gap by using a resume that does not present a detailed
employment history with dates and detailed descriptions of work duties.  Instead, the candidate lists
position titles without dates and a separate “skills” section of the resume touts the individual’s skills and
abilities.  Unless you really do have something to hide, be wary of using this approach.  I have frequently
seen search committees respond negatively to this approach.  Hiring officials and search committees
may tend to make negative inferences if they suspect a candidate is trying to hide something.

If you are currently employed in a professional position and have been continuously working for at least
several years, you may not need to do a lot of explaining about a gap in employment history.  Certainly a
gap in your employment from four or more years ago isn’t likely to raise a lot of concerns.  If you have
significant gap in your work history that is more recent, it may be best to simply explain it in your cover
letter.  Use a simple statement such as, “Last year I returned to full-time employment after a serious
illness and am now seeking a more challenging position.”  You don’t need to provide more than that and
you will probably not be asked for further explanation.  A similar statement about returning to work after
several years of being principally engaged in child-rearing is also just fine.  If you have a good reason for
not having worked for a certain period, don’t be embarrassed about stating that reason.  In your cover
letter you have the opportunity to influence the perception of the hiring officials or search committee.  Use
this opportunity.  Don’t leave it to them to speculate why there’s a gap in your job history.  

An Interesting Example

I recently saw an interesting example of someone who had left regular employment more than four years
ago and was now applying for a full-time librarian position.  The candidate stated in her cover letter that
she had left her previous employment because of her spouse’s relocation.  She also explained that she
been engaged in the pursuit of a second graduate degree since she had left full-time employment and
that the degree would be conferred in the next few months.  In addition, she had been actively involved in
volunteer activities at her children’s school, including working in the school library and helping maintain
one of the school’s web sites.  The candidate had excellent credentials for the position she was
seeking, but she could have hurt her chances of being interviewed if she hadn’t addressed her lack of
employment for the last four years.  She was straightforward and mitigated any concerns about not being
in regular full-time employment for the last four years.  The search committee reviewing the applications
for the position quickly identified her as a top candidate.   

Some Key Points

It’s difficult to present hard and fast rules applicable to everyone’s cover letters, resumes, and job
searches.  There are several key points, however, to keep in mind if you have a gap in your work history.  
They are:

If you have a good reason for having been out work for a time, don’t play games about it.  Briefly state the
reason in dignified way in your cover letter and don’t feel compelled to present a lot of messy or overly
personal details.    

Don’t be too concerned about hiring officials or search committees digging more deeply into the
reasons for a gap in your resume. You can deflect uncomfortable probing by presenting a good,
plausible explanation up front.  Hiring authorities will also usually be sensitive to discrimination
concerns and are unlikely to pursue inquiries into proffered explanations (such as child-rearing
responsibilities or serious health problems)  for the cause for a gap in your employment history.  Relax a
little and focus on persuading them that you’re enthusiastic, qualified, and prepared to do the job now.  

Maintain your overall perspective in the job search.  There is much more to being a strong candidate and
pursuing a successful job search than satisfactorily explaining a gap in employment history.  Have you
distinguished yourself from similar unemployed candidates in other ways, such as pursuing continuing
education, volunteer work, attending conferences, and staying current in the field?  Are you applying for
appropriate positions with qualification requirements you can clearly meet or exceed?  Have you crafted
a well-organized  resume and a meaningful, grammatically correct cover letter?  Have you done the
appropriate networking and sought advice from those who might be able to help you?  

Remember, explaining that seemingly awkward gap in your employment history is only one small part of
landing your next good job.

Notes:

1 ”Be Direct When Explaining that Gap in Your Resume”, The Houston Chronicle, August 19, 2004,
Section C, pp. 1-2.  

About the Author:

John Lehner holds an MBA in human resources management, a labor relations degree, and is also an
attorney.  He received his MLS from the University at Albany-SUNY.  He is the Library Human Resources
Director at the University of Houston Libraries.

Article published Sept 2004

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