Thursday, February 26, 2009

When did you stop beating your wife (husband)?

Recently, I was asked by a former university professor how she should explain why she left teaching without sounding like a "failed academic"? Specifically, she was unsure how to explain why she left her job when applications ask for her employment history. Perhaps the most dreaded question on any application is, "Why did you leave your last position?" Often, it sounds the question in the title of today's post. A question with no good answer and an unending array of really bad answers.

One of the issues buried in today's subject is how you explain "taking a step backward." After 11+ years as a university professor, I took a job in a university career center and I was asked why I wanted to leave teaching. I knew that the implied question was actually, "Why on earth would you leave a job where you only have to work a few days a week for nine months of the year and you get summers and winter break off? Do you enjoy slumming?" I therefore answered the latter questions instead of the former. My answer went something like this, "I have really enjoyed the teaching part of my job, but I have found that research, writing, and policy work, while invigorating, has given me less time with individual students and the reason I entered teaching in the first place was for individual contact. The worst part was summers I usually spent prepping classes for the coming year and I almost never saw a student during those months."

Answers cannot be about how hard or futile the work was, because everybody feels like their job is difficult and senseless, so bosses will simply think that you are going to be another slacker that they will have to ride herd on. Likewise, you will be doomed if you acknowledge or suggest that there is a hierarchy by saying something particularly stupid like, "Well, I had a good run, but I wanted to step back from all of the critical, brilliant work I was doing to join you guys who seem to do nothing all day long."

A man's got to know his limitations.
With apologies for the sexist reference, I think that Inspector "Dirty Harry" Callahan was on to something here. People would be best served to acknowledge their limitations and adjust accordingly. However, you don't want to give the message that you burned out. "I knew I was tired of the grind. I tried for three or four years to make things work, but I realized that it just wasn't going to happen." While perhaps this may true, think of all the ways that this can go awry. While you may be appreciated for your personal insight, a prospective boss may also interpret this to mean that you have a difficult time saying no, you overload yourself, and then you become useless for three or four years until you resign. Other interviewers are not at all empathetic and are looking for candidates who are willing to work until they drop dead on the job. They will see you as a wimp.

It's not always about you... but in this case it is.
Here is the final caveat about this issue. There is only one good answer to this question and that is the truth. Yeah, yeah, I realize that in our strategically sophisticated world we are always looking for the perfect answer, but in this case it should be something that you can utter with a smattering of sincerity. The world of work is becoming more complex and we understand that people not only leave jobs, but entire career fields because they are seeking fulfillment, new challenges, growth, or the opportunity to mentor the next generation of worker bees. So... it is about you.


  1. I like the blog a lot. I've been checking it every day.

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    Saves me a lot of time...