Sabbatical, Mid Career Break, or Retired?


If you are a normal human being, you dream of taking a break from the drudgery of work.  More free time.  More sun filled vacations.  More sleeping in on rainy mornings.  More lounging on the back porch buried in a book.

Then you wake up from the dream and realize it’s nowhere near 5:00 p.m. and you still have a pile of TPS reports to review TODAY.

But you can still ponder an extended break from work.  One question that will come up is “how do you explain extended breaks from working in a job interview or on a resume?”.

Today’s Mailbag response provides a few tips:

Hi.  I am a lawyer too, in the Midwestern US. I worked as a government attorney for about 15 years and currently serve as in house counsel for a Fortune 500 company.


There is a great likelihood I will not be employed by my current employer sometime within the next year. The company is relocating a major part of its business. I am not interested in relocating and there is no guarantee that the employer would be interested in keeping me. The relocation would result in about a 15 percent pay reduction.


I wanted get your advice. I have thought about “taking a break” from employment after this job ends. I would like to be able to reenter the work force at a future date if necessary. How do I explain something like this on a resume or in an interview? Do I just describe myself as a solo practitioner? I appreciate your insight.

Let me preface my comments by saying I haven’t worked as a full time attorney ever (except law school summer clerkships and internships).  I was an engineer my whole career.  All nine years of it!  But I think my advice holds true for most careers or professions.

First off, “congrats!”.  Reading between the lines, it sounds like you are financially set to “take a break” for at least a while, and possibly forever.  However there is that bit of uncertainty nagging at you (maybe it’s the lawyer?) that says, “what if things go horribly wrong and I run out of money, or I get really bored, or I miss working with others, or…?”.  Those are totally rational thoughts, and you would have to be lobotomized to not have concerns run through your head when contemplating a major change in lifestyle like saying goodbye to your career.

Your question boils down to “how do I explain my break from employment if I want to re-enter the workforce?”.  The answer involves short term and long term planning.


Short Term


Lay the foundation.  When it is obvious your job is about to move and you won’t be moving with the job, you can explain to your coworkers, contacts, and social acquaintances that you are taking some time off after the job ends.  Call it a sabbatical if you want.  The timing just worked out, you say.  Explain your company is moving its operations and you will be out of a job.  You can say you had carefully planned for this contingency and are in a position to take some time off and pursue some personal interests for a while.

You don’t have to explain yourself in full to everyone, and you don’t have to have all the answers about what your future holds.  No one does.  You can be ambivalent about your eventual return to work and say you are focusing on the next couple of years and plan to focus on personal development and growth – things that may have been overlooked during a hectic career.

Don’t cut off relations to your professional connections or organizations at first.  Keep in touch while you contemplate whether you want (or financially need) to jump back into the working world.  Focus your networking energies on people you are genuinely interested in keeping as social acquaintances or friends.

After a year or two of not working, you may find you are bored or feeling isolated and decide going back to work is the answer.  Keeping in touch with your network during your time out of work will be key to getting you back into work.9 After 6pm 1

As for professional licenses, how long to maintain these is a personal choice.  If you really don’t intend to return to practice any time soon, you might want to consider filing a petition to become an inactive member of the State Bar.  Do your due diligence to determine how hard it might be to reinstate your license once you go inactive.

Going inactive wasn’t particularly arduous in North Carolina I found out, so I went inactive a few years ago.  For my professional engineer’s license, I intend to keep it active for at least a year in case some incredible opportunity pops up that I can’t turn down.


Long Term

As you sail further away from the sheltered harbor of employment, you may get comfortable navigating the sometimes calm, sometimes choppy seas of “the rest of your life”.  There is always a chance you never get your sea legs, or your boat springs a leak, and you want to row back to the safety of shore and land a job in a hurry.Safe Harbor

How do you explain the extended time off from work in an interview and on your resume?  Be honest.  Be positive.  Make it sound interesting and significant.  Don’t make it sound like you had a job for the five or ten years you take off from your profession (unless you did!).  Show prospective employers you are engaged in your interests and haven’t been at home vegging on the couch and watching Jerry Springer for a decade.

Recall all the awesome things you have done during your career break:

  • Travel – around the world year long odyssey?  All the continents?
  • Reading?
  • Writing – America’s next great novel?  Some freelance work?
  • Learning new skills - cooking, programming, sailing, investing?
  • Learning new languages?
  • Continuing your education?

Be succinct and focus on the most substantial accomplishments.

You may also have more mundane but important activities that explain your absence from the full time paid labor market:

  • Caring for your kids
  • Caring for elderly parents or other sick family members
  • Pitching in with the family business 

When you are in an interview and you get the inevitable question that asks why you have been out of your profession for so long, remember that your interviewer is typically a human being with feelings, emotions, interests, and aspirations of their own.  Instead of treating your absence as a weakness, turn it into a strength by piquing the interest of the interviewer.

Be descriptive in how you spent your time off and show how rewarding it was.  Show how you live life in 3D.  You will stand out in the interviewer’s mind, and you might make the interviewer more interested in working with you.Autumn

Put yourself in your interviewer’s shoes.  After the fourth or fifth interview of the day, all the applicants look and sound the same.  Bland, politically correct, reserved, professional.  Be politically correct, professional, and humble, but add a little color to shake up the interview.  Explaining your mid career break is the perfect way to show your interesting side.

Occasionally you might get an interviewer that is a stone faced corporate warrior who worships at the altar of long hours and zero personal life.  Figure this out quickly and change your presentation.  This type person may not appreciate your freewheeling spirit.  Focus the conversation on any professional interests you may have developed during your time off, and any preparations you have made to re-enter the workforce (continuing education, reinstating licenses, or training courses, for example).

Your goal in an interview is to make the interviewer completely comfortable that your career break hasn’t diminished your value in your profession.


Other Possibilities

You may decide after an extended period away from your former career that you don’t want to return to the same field.  If so, explore options in other fields, and get yourself out there!

Parlay your life experiences, interests, and former career into a new career.  Make sure your tech skills are up to date.  Be prepared to start over near the bottom and work your way up. A new career can be interesting and rewarding, and with some level of wealth accumulated, taking a pay cut compared to your old career may be okay from a financial standpoint.


Pro Tips

- If you are considering taking a break from employment, think about what your company can offer.  Consider volunteering for the next layoff, or taking a buy out package if your employer moves operations to a different city.  Severance pay and other incentives can make this strategic planning worth your while.

- When you leave your job and depart on the journey of “the rest of your life”, update your resume!  If you try to get back in the job market after a number of years, you won’t remember with any specific detail what you used to do on a routine basis.  Take the time to jot down on your resume, perhaps with a supplemental “note to self”, all your responsibilities and accomplishments at the job you are about to leave.  Update your skills and software knowledge.  Make sure to save your resume materials in a safe place, email it to yourself, and put it in cloud storage (Google Drive, for example).  Hopefully you can remember where you put it years later!

Readers: Are any of you contemplating a long career break or extended sabbatical?  I would love to hear about it!



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