the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
January 21, 2012 7:13 AM   Subscribe

How do I explain a university medical withdrawal to a prospective employer without damaging my chances of being hired?

I've lived with varying degrees of depression and anxiety since my teens. Despite this I've done very well in school and went to university on a full academic scholarship to study biochemistry.

My first two years I took credit overloads every semester (usually at least 20 credits per), took more difficult course levels than required for my degree, and kept my grades up (mostly As and a few Bs). I also partied a lot those first two years, so I don't think school was stressing me out that much. It's not like I was in the library every day.

My anxiety hit a peak the summer between my second and third year of school. I experienced extreme somatic anxiety every waking hour that manifested physically in various ways. My third year I was taking 5 different 500 level science courses and by the middle of the fall semester my anxiety was so bad I often couldn't remember my phone number or apartment address. I remember being on the verge of tears for basically no reason all the time.

After breaking down one night from full blown panic attack I decided to seek a medical withdrawal from school. It is university policy to take a full year off when pursing a medical withdrawal for mental health reasons, so I withdrew from all classes that semester and remained unenrolled for the spring semester as well. I sought help (both drug therapy and talk therapy). That year was the darkest year of my life, as I sat in my apartment alone every day with no job or school. I engaged in various self-destructive behavior, basically went insane, hung out with vagrants and criminals, blah blah blah. I really wish I did an internship or got relevant job experience was I was far too depressed and messed up to successfully job hunt even though I put in some effort. So I did nothing except take three summer courses.

I'm back in school now, doing research in a lab, got As in my difficult courses last semester, and I'm going to graduate in spring. I'm going to have a biochemistry B.S. with honors after only being in school 3 years.

But how do I explain the year gap in my transcript to employers? If I tell the truth, that I suffer from anxiety and depression, I'm worried they'll see me as a liability: someone who cannot be depended on because they might be inconsistent in performance. Should I tell the truth and slant it toward a tale of perseverance or should I lie and say that I was injured or had a non-mental illness?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
You have absolutely no need to mention the gap at all.

"BS Biochemistry (with Honors), University of Abracadabra 2012."

Done. Period. Lots and lots of people take longer than four years to finish their undergrad degrees, for many reasons or no reason at all. You're about to get your degree; you were working in a lab and that's great experience in ways X and Y. That's all you need to say, and all you should say.
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:20 AM on January 21, 2012 [14 favorites]

"I took a year off for personal reasons." You don't need to get into details.
posted by something something at 7:21 AM on January 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, sorry, I misunderstood: You meant the gap in your transcript, when they request it to confirm your degree.

"I took a year off for personal reasons," if they ask. If they don't, no need to offer anything.
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:24 AM on January 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Assuming you are in the US, a BS degree normally takes at least 4 years (with 4.5-5 years common for some majors). It is quite uncommon to graduate in less than 4 years. If I am interpreting your question correctly, you will graduate in 4 years - 3 years of classes and 1 year of medical withdrawal.

If that is the case, just put on your resume/CV that you were in college from 2008-2012. This is a normal time to graduate and they will never even question the dates. I don't see why your employer would ever even know about your medical withdrawal. The only reason they possibly could see the gap is via your transcript, which would show that you actually only spent three years in classes - an even more impressive accomplishment. Further, employers generally only look at transcripts after they've reached the point of making a job offer. If you reach that point, you're already golden.
posted by saeculorum at 7:24 AM on January 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think medical withdrawal is the term I would use if asked. Any follow up would be met with, "that's a rather personal question, and I'd rather not talk about it."
posted by advicepig at 7:39 AM on January 21, 2012

I agree that it probably won't come up. But if it does, relate the story in a way that demonstrates how you handled a hard situation. Something like "I pushed myself too hard, and was getting burnt out. I went to the school and followed their procedures for taking some time off. I used that time to get myself back on track, and returned the following year and was able to complete my degree. It was hard to admit that I had taken on too much, but I think I learned some valuable lessons about myself, what my limits are and how to ask for help before I get overwhelmed. I'm not going to try and convince you that this somehow makes me a *better* candidate than others, but I am proud of the fact that I was able to recover from this setback and finish my degree almost on time."

My opinion is that responding to tough questions in a positive way, even if the answer admits something you'd prefer not to talk about, says more about your maturity than invoking a right to not talk about it. People really don't feel comfortable with "yadda yadda yadda" stories- it feels evasive to them, and they fill in the gaps with their imagination.
posted by gjc at 7:51 AM on January 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

I doubt they will even notice that you didn't complete your degree in four years. They will probably just look at your transcript to confirm that you graduated when you said you did.

I wouldn't even mention it unless you were asked. Then say it was for a health problem that is now resolved. They don't need to know more than that.
posted by elizeh at 7:54 AM on January 21, 2012 [4 favorites]

I am in a similar position; I took a year off of law school to pursue treatment for an eating disorder. If someone closely inspects my resume, they will see the gap. My transcript clearly shows the two semesters I withdrew, and does not show the reason (the reason I gave the school was "medical.")

My strategy, which has worked thus far at landing summer positions, is to not mention it unless it comes up, and then to say in a natural manner, oh yes, I had to take a year off to deal with a medical issue - but everything has been resolved.

In the United States, employers are not permitted to ask about your medical issues during an interview, so it's a good idea to tell your possible employer that everything has been resolved so they know that it's not still ongoing.

There is no need to say it was for anxiety/ depression - just saying you took a year off for medical treatment is both correct and sufficient.
posted by insectosaurus at 7:58 AM on January 21, 2012 [8 favorites]

I think anyone who sees a transcript with a string of good grades, a round of Ws, a missing semester and another string of good grades is going to assume you were ill or injured and, if they can't figure that out, that's all you need to tell them.
posted by hoyland at 8:02 AM on January 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

1. Depending on what you are applying for there is a very good chance no one will ask for transcripts. Just put your graduation date on your resume and you're good.
2. Even if they do ask for transcripts there is a very good chance no one will actually look at them.
3. Even if they do look at them there is a very good chance they won't even notice you took a year off.
4. Even if they do notice there is a very good chance they won't care. Lots of people take a year off. I took like 5 years off, no one batted an eye.
5. Just say "medical withdrawal" if anyone does notice AND care. The only follow-up question they are legally* allowed to ask to that is "Can you perform this job with or without reasonable accommodation?" *Assuming you are in the US.
posted by magnetsphere at 8:04 AM on January 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would say: "I had to take a year off for medical reasons." What those medical reasons are is none of their business (unless you want them to know, for some reason).
posted by J. Wilson at 8:04 AM on January 21, 2012

"I took a year off for medical reasons, and I returned to school once my medical issue was resolved." That way, you make it clear to them that the medical condition is over, so they don't have to worry that it will affect your work now.
posted by decathecting at 8:35 AM on January 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

it's really hard to believe that somebody as smart as you doesn't know that someone who took 3 years to graduate doesn't need to explain anything to anyone.
posted by facetious at 9:29 AM on January 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have a nice big gap in my transcript, and no one cared. No one seems to care about much of anything so long as you don't have a lengthy gap of work experience after you get your degree.

So, make sure to keep up with all the things that you need to in order to avoid having that happen. And if it does happen, your answer will be "it was a medical issue that has now been resolved," because you won't be working again until it's resolved.

(Try to get a job at a place that has a short-term disability program, so that you don't have to put any leave of absence like that on your resume - at my employer, participation in our short term disability program is not considered a break in employment.)
posted by SMPA at 9:43 AM on January 21, 2012

I just tell people in job interviews that I got sick and had to leave University. Depression is an illness, this is not a lie. Then I tell them where I went back and what I did there to finish that degree, and I was out for a lot longer than you.

Seriously, no one has ever asked for more details or anything and it hasn't been a problem for my career (I now have a really good postdoc). I've always been ready to deflect questions wanting more details by saying it's in the past, not something that recurs, and I'm totally fine now, but I've never had to. I figure that no one cares and they're smart enough to know it's not their business (plus it's illegal to discriminate based on health so asking is just opening a big can of worms).

So if anyone even notices the gap and asks just straight up say that you had to take medical leave for a year, then be ready to move on to the next question because that one's fully answered. Definitely don't give any more details, no one wants them and they're not relevant.
posted by shelleycat at 10:36 AM on January 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure if times have changed or if this is field-specific, but for what it's worth, I have never, never had an employer ask for my transcript from university.

If that happens, though, I concur with above posters: "I took a year off to deal with a medical issue and went back to school once it was resolved."
posted by Andrhia at 12:24 PM on January 21, 2012

Even saying a "medical injury", to me, one who had depression/anxiety is not really a stretch of truth. Of course, "injury" to someone else conjures up a more society-accepted image of a broken leg/hip/spine/elbow -- something *Physical. No need to elaborate. "Illness" may be technically more correct 10 years ago, but I personally wouldn't say you are 'mentally ill' but suffering emotional problems from the stress load--which to me sounds pretty heavy. You are not in a hospital for a long time with repeated nervous breakdowns or have schizophrenia that has been untreated. So, for me? Injury, or some wording thereof that you can live with that isn't lying. You cannot help or control society's interpretations of "illness" -- Questions in their heads such as "Will he get ill again? Why was he ill so long?" vs "Injury? Poor guy, but he got back on that damn horse! Look at these grades!" I'm not saying Injury is the perfect word choice, but this is more about connotations and dare I say, spinning how you say something.

This is probably too late a reply but I am hoping you find yourself in better straits as this message reaches you.
posted by snap_dragon at 4:10 PM on July 20, 2012

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