Does your resume show a clear, straightforward career path?
If your answer is yes, you are most likely in the minority. The fact is, life tends to intervene, forcing you to change course or, in some cases, even step out of the job market for a while. Career moves are often made in the best interests of partners, children, and aging parents. Geography often dictates career advancement more than talent and ambition. If you’ve passed on a potentially great career opportunity because you have school-age children or a working partner, you’re in good company. Talented higher education professionals also find themselves in difficult situations as campus leadership changes, budgets are reduced, and institutions reorganize to improve efficiency. All of these circumstances can lead to lateral career moves or gaps in your resume that need to be explained.
It is critical to be transparent about your career moves and the reasons behind them. Typically, institutions are very understanding when it comes to decisions made based on family circumstances. Chances are that most of the people on the search committee have had to make a career compromise at some point, too. Keep your explanations brief and stick to the facts. It may be helpful to actually script your comments or at least develop some key talking points. If you left a position involuntarily, or you have a gap in your experience, do not speak negatively about your former institution.
Don’t feel the need to fully explain any inconsistencies in your initial written materials. During a phone or in-person interview, it is best if you voluntarily provide some background information before you are prompted. If you wait to be asked, the committee may assume you are trying to avoid the subject. Ultimately, the information will come out during the referencing or background check, so try to get ahead of the story and explain it on your terms. In my experience, search committees will give you the benefit of the doubt if they believe you are being up front with them.