Help me get back into the workforce
November 10, 2011 12:54 PM   Subscribe

How should I handle leaving a job due to illness (and a subsequent extended absence) when reapplying to jobs in finance and consulting?

I graduated from college in 2007 and was hired to work in trading at one of the big investment banks in new york. Unfortunately I had an undiagnosed blood disorder that conveniently started to show itself right as I started the job and progressively (but slowly) got worse. To make a long story short, I stayed with the program for about a year but didn't have any energy, felt horrible all the time, and thus was all around not a very good employee. I didn't get complaints or anything but banking's the type of business where you're expected to thrive, especially as a young analyst, and I didn't. I was struggling just to make it through the day most of the time. After a year of this I was in really bad shape, and it was clear to everyone that there was something wrong, so I went on medical leave. I got treated, got better, but it took a long time including a lengthy hospital stay.

So after I got well, I was quite embarrassed about what had happened and didn't go back to my employer - I'm not sure if I could have anyway since I had been gone for about 9 months and this was during a time of shrinking balance sheets and staffing for the banks. Instead, I bought a plane ticket and went on a round the world trip, something I'd always wanted to do but never had the free time or money.

After 2 years on the road, I'm back home as of a week ago and ready to reenter the real world. I have no idea, however, how to handle my illness and the extended absence from the workforce on my resume and cover letters. I remember the hiring process coming out of undergrad being really competitive (for ibanking and consulting), but as a senior in college at least there were specific programs designed for graduating seniors. Now I'm an outsider with just a year of experience, which isn't enough to interest anyone as an experienced hire, plus it was three years ago and there's a big gap after that.

So I guess my questions are, first, how should I treat the gap from 2008 until now on my resume? Do I just list my last job, 2007-2008, and leave it at that? I know how resumes are screened (at least at my old workplace) and they are usually just skimmed - I would think that my last job being in 2008, right at the top of my resume, would immediately ding me at many places. I did do quite a bit of volunteer work while overseas and learned spanish, and I plan on adding this to my resume, but I'd think this wouldn't even get seen if my reume is passed over based on my last work experience finishing in 2008.

Next: how should I address my work history when writing cover letters? I'm afraid that if I don't bring up the reason I left my first job it will be assumed either that I quit (because I couldn't handle the pressure, not uncommon in ibanking but almost definitely a big strike against) or I was fired (worse). Should I just come out and say "I left my first job because of illness"? If I use the more vague "personal reasons" that sounds to me like a euphemism for "couldn't handle the pressure". How should I deal with this tactfully?

On preview: I should probably say that I'll be targetnig jobs in trading and strategy consulting, in case that wasn't clear. I had offers at firms in both industries coming out of school and I think my personality and skills are well suited for either one...also sorry about the length.

posted by btkuhn to Work & Money (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Aside from saying that you're "better," do you mean that you're cured of your illness, or that it's chronic but you have it under control? You already know you'll need to be careful (there are laws about illness/disability disclosure in the workplace for a reason), but their main concern will likely be whether or not it's under control so it (and the effects of your experience) doesn't affect your work. Before you get out there, work on a strategy so you have language you know you can use right away. Address the gap in your cover letter, before they get to your resume.

Does your undergrad institution have any career advising services? I'll bet someone there (either an adviser or one of your professors) could give you some good ideas as to the market and how to reenter after an extended "gap year" or two.
posted by Madamina at 1:02 PM on November 10, 2011

I took a year off of law school due to illness, and I simply list the positions I have had, and ignore the year off. If someone looks at my resume carefully, they will see the gap. If someone sees my transcript, they will see that I withdrew two consecutive semesters. Thus far, I haven't put it in any cover letters, but I have mentioned it in interviews if it comes up. I simply say that I took a year off for medical reasons.

Since your gap is current and extends through the present day, I would preemptively mention it in your cover letter - I would say that you left your last position for medical reasons, you have received treatment, and you are fully better. They are not allowed to ask you what happened or if you are better, but you can tell them whatever you want to.

As to your resume, I would consider adjusting it so every position you have lists the reason you left. It will be coherent and clear. Most positions will probably say "temporary position" or "left to return to school" - that position will say "left for medical reasons."
posted by insectosaurus at 1:03 PM on November 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

As someone who reviews a lot of resumes, I'd be looking for something that explains that time such as school, volunteering or travel.

You may wish to say something like

2009-2011 Travel and Volunteering Thailand / China / Eastern Europe

and maybe some color if there was volunteer work. If just travel, maybe add something like

Learned conversational thai or something like that if you did.

The last couple years have been tough, esp for new grads, so I wouldn't discount someone with such a gap right off the bat.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 1:05 PM on November 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Sorry, I should have said, I'm cured of my illness. It won't recur.

My undergrad university does have career advising but unfortunately only for active students...
posted by btkuhn at 1:06 PM on November 10, 2011

You can list your volunteer work as part of your work history so that there won't be a gap. Just label the section "Experience" and include both paying jobs and substantial volunteer gigs. Also, talk in your cover letter about skills and experiences you got while travelling for two years.

Do not, do not, do not mention your illness. Not in the cover letter, not on your resume, not in the interview. If an employer thinks you're sick, or might get sick again, or will take a lot of time off, or will drive up their insurance premiums, you likely won't get hired, whether it's legal for them to discriminate on that basis or not. Talk about what you've done, not about your health history.
posted by decathecting at 1:07 PM on November 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

My two cents: if you're applying to banking and consulting jobs, you're competing for slim pickings with other people who either currently have jobs or lost their jobs more recently than you quit yours.

While your explanation for why you lost your jobs is understandable, it's not necessarily the case that banks, especially now, will care much about your explanation. So you need a plan to pre-empt their discounting you for being unemployed for the length of time you have been.

You need, in other words, an elevator pitch which says in as little time as possible: "I have been out of a job for X months for Y reason and I will do Z to recover my career path."

In other words, you need to own your explanation and be able to say it convincingly to those gatekeepers who you need to convince.

The other obvious answer here is: network as much as possible with former colleagues and other people related to the finance industry.

Finally: do you want to stay in trading? Do you want to be located in New York? There are lots of smaller banks/hedge funds scattered around the country which may be more amenable to your background.
posted by dfriedman at 1:14 PM on November 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I agree with the answers above.

But I'd also like to add a little tangential advice. With the economy as it is today, I'd suggest that you also do something else now while you're looking -- such as volunteering or more classes.

Depending on specifics, either of these might:
* Help you network.
* Help you be more current in your field.
* Help you be more productive in the meantime, which can help both your resume and your morale. (Not saying anything's wrong with your morale or anything else, just that it can be a downer to not have a job when you want one, especially in the current economy.)
posted by maurreen at 1:15 PM on November 10, 2011

I'll be blunt: I don't think you'll get jobs in trading or top-tier strategy consulting firms through any posted job listings with your background. Your strategy should either be to go out and meet people in those fields (or reconnect with folks from Former Employer) to solicit job offers directly, or to identify lower tier firms or tangential industries that have a lower bar to entry. On the strategy consulting side, you could look for other firms that serve the same industries (PR, competitor tracking, market research...), and then try to make the jump.

On the plus side, it sounds like you have some pretty cool things to talk about in terms of what you've been doing in the mean time, which is always a plus for meeting people through networking, and could land you an unadvertised job.
posted by deludingmyself at 1:40 PM on November 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

Have you checked out your undergraduate institution's alumni services or alumni association? Often they'll provide career services for alumni. Some of them maintain lists of alumni who are willing to be contacted for informational interviews. Use of these services will require joining the alumni association, involving a fee, although some alumni associations will waive the fee if you are unemployed.
posted by needled at 1:50 PM on November 10, 2011

Maybe you can list "World Traveler" under the experience section of your resume. It's not job experience, but it's what you've been doing for two years and you learned a lot from it.

I just went through recruiting last Fall, and a good percentage of my interview time has been about my volunteering experiences and hobbies. It seems like once they've determined you're past some level of competence, the interviewer wants to know you're a normal dude.
posted by yodangson at 1:51 PM on November 10, 2011

this might not be that helpful because I'm in England now, but I had the misfortune of having my career derailed via illness (I had 200 plus days off before I resigned) ... Luckily, the week before I had my first post illness interview our "Equality Act 2010" came into place and employers were no longer allowed to ask about illness in the first instance and former employers could no longer comment on health in references- BUT hopefully this will help- I found out my rights TO THE LETTER... and literally forced my old employer to give me a good reference. I had to take some really yuck jobs in-between, but they've all ended up being part of the journey to the job I have now (which is totally different) and love.
posted by misspony at 2:40 PM on November 10, 2011

If I were an interviewer and I heard you spent two years traveling, I'd be like, WHOA, this guy is an awesome adventurer who knows a lot about the world! But if I heard you took time off due to illness, I'd try really hard not to hold it against you, but there would always be this question in the back of my mind about whether you'd get sick again. Just don't mention it.
posted by miyabo at 5:34 PM on November 10, 2011

Based on my limited experience helping with recruiting at the consulting form I work for, I am not sure that I agree with the people who are suggesting listing world traveler on your resume.

I'd have major concerns with someone who worked for a year and then took a long break to travel the world. Without explanation it would look like someone who was fired or couldn't cut it in ibanking, and decided to use it for extended vacation without building up any useful skills (useful with regards to consulting or ibanking).

Note this is not at all how I perceive you based on your explanation here, but is my guess at what it would look like to me if I saw your resume listing 1 year banking and then 3 years traveling.

Without knowing the details, it's hard to know how it would be perceived if you directly explained that you had had a health problem that has now been resolved. I would think that a story about needing time off for a medical problem that you have now completely resolved would be much more likely for me to be willing to overlook the employment gap. The other thing that would make me overlook a big gap would be if you had done something really impressive with your time off. E.g. climbing Everest or starting a new charitity.

I generally agree with deludingmyself, that it may be hard to jump straight into the most competitive of positions. There is a big "adverse selection" problem with hiring laterally for entry level positions. We rarely do it without a good story from the candidate, since someone leaving so quickly from their first position generally suggests that something wasn't working out (either they weren't qualified or they didn't like the job).

This recent article about hiring at elite firms seemed pretty true to my experience and might be helpful.
posted by vegetableagony at 5:14 PM on November 21, 2011

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