Can You Recover From a Career Sacrifice?
By Admin

March 4, 2010

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Barb Westfall (not her real name) was engaged at age 20. Once engaged she dropped her Spanish minor, realizing that her idea of becoming a radio personality for Voice of America in Spain wasn’t going to pan out, if she wanted to stay with her fiancé while he attended dental school in Ohio. She graduated with a major in communications and started her career as a waitress before landing an entry-level job at an in-house advertising department for an industrial manufacturing firm. After a few years she became bored with the work and was lonely since her husband was working long hours on a PhD. Her husband encouraged her to attend law school and she did. She enjoyed the hard work and personal sense of accomplishment that came with performing well, in school. She found an interesting job as an assistant city prosecutor.

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Her husband finished his PhD and was accepted to the orthodontic program at the same university. Her law career flourished. They had a child and were very busy with their careers and child rearing. Barb’s husband finished his specialty program and applied to be an assistant professor and clinical researcher at a university in Illinois. He was accepted, so Barb decided to put her legal career on hold and join him. She only had six more months to practice law, and then her law license would be recognized in Illinois too, but she decided it was more important to stay with her son and husband then to commute for six months. Besides, she was looking forward to spending more time with her son.

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In Illinois, Barb worked a few part-time jobs that didn’t require a law degree. She was doing some impressive work for a non-profit organization that was giving her excellent management experience. Barb now had a newborn daughter to care for in addition to her 7-year-old son. After only two years in Illinois, Barb’s husband decided he wanted to change careers and decided to join the Navy for a four-year tour of duty. He came in as a lieutenant commander and was sent to Newport, Rhode Island for six weeks of officer training school, after which he reported immediately for overseas duty. Barb finished working and concentrated on caring for the children, selling there home, and doing all of the stuff required to ship everyone and everything overseas.

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In Italy, Barb cared for the children and was very involved in her son’s extra curricular activities. Also while in Italy, her 16-year marriage fell apart. Barb and her husband separated in War of the Roses fashion. Barb found herself needing to bring in money quickly. She relocated to Illinois again and after a few rough starts landed a decent job working in the communications field. She took the Illinois bar exam for the first time, thinking she might want to get back into the practice of law. Between the times she took the exam and finding out she’d passed, she realized that she would probably need to move to the Cleveland, Ohio area to be near family. She told her current employer that she was more marketable now as a licensed attorney and that she was going to start looking for legal work, but that she would stay on with her employer for another year if she got a substantial raise. She got the raise and stayed in her communications job another year. She figured her best chance to get hired in Cleveland was to find a job in the communications field as well, since that was where her current job experience was.

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She found a well-paying job and moved to Cleveland where she worked for a few years before being laid off by the company that brought her to town. Barb had discovered that she wasn’t enjoying the work she was doing anyhow, and thought she might want to switch her career focus again. Again!

Life isn’t simple, but when you take an indecisive career-minded person and add to that an equally indecisive career-minded husband, and one of them decides that they will sacrifice their career for the good of the family, you can and in this case Barb did, end up with a career challenge. What can you do to maximize your career opportunities, even if you decide that it is your career that will suffer for the sake of the family?

1. Have a career plan

Barb had many different interests and talents, but she never had a career goal. She just went from job to job, caring more about how the job would complement her family life, than how the job would advance her career aspirations. Sure quality of life is important, but she needed to be honing skills specific to her dream job. A prospective employer, noting how Barb worked a few years here and a few years there in disparate jobs, could conclude that Barb will not make a good employee because she isn’t committed.
Minimize the chance of being perceived as flighty by understanding what skills you need and then targeting the jobs that will help you to develop those same skills. Be able to articulate the job choices you’ve made and how they have enhanced your skills. A career plan isn’t static; it will change as you discover new interests and skills. Your prime objective may change with your experience, but revise your plan and forge ahead.

2. Make the best of a scatter-shot work record with a skill-based resume

List your skills and accomplishments first and then follow that further down the resume with a chronological listing of employers. You want the prospective employers to be impressed with your skills, and not preoccupied with the fact that you’ve never actually worked in that select field or did so a while ago.
Barb would list her communication, legal, managerial and volunteer skills first, giving ample examples of her successes, and later under the heading “work experience” list the names of the employers and dates worked.

3. Volunteer to round out your work record

Barb performed a substantial amount of community service in furtherance of her children’s activities. She began looking for volunteer opportunities that would complement her skill set. Specifically, she wanted to be considered managerial material again, so she sought out assignments where she would be in charge of people and events. Organizations that benefit from your volunteerism will be happy to provide a glowing recommendation for you.

4. Be sure to consider the drawbacks of leaving your current employment before you quit

Barb never considered staying at her attorney job for six more months, so that she could attain reciprocity in another state, but if she had, she would’ve been able to immediately look for legal work in Illinois, once she joined up with him. Long-distance commuters are not abnormal anymore. Many people do it for years on end, traveling home on weekends to be with the family. If Barb had chosen that course of action, she probably would have stayed in the legal field and still be practicing law today. Instead, Barb has found that she can’t quite get an opening back into the profession, because she has been out of the practice for too long.
Employers would rather hire someone right out of school where the training is recent, than take the chance on someone who left the profession and may be “stale”. That philosophy applies to any profession. If you haven’t done anything in furtherance of your profession for a while, you’re pitting yourself against recent graduates who many employers prefer, because they usually settle for less pay and are considered “moldable.”

Don’t be shy about telling people what you do

If you relocate, like Barb, and everyone you meet is a new contact, or if you are opening up to different groups of people you associate with, work your experience/career aspiration into your everyday conversations. You never know when one of those mothers you are chatting with at your daughter’s ballet class, may have a sister in the HR department of a promising company, who is looking for the type of expertise that you can provide. Make sure if you do generate some interest that you have a business card to give out, even if it is one you generated on your home computer.

Job sacrifice should be a conscious decision. While it may set you back in the short-term, there is no reason that it should set you back permanently if you have a game plan and stay involved in the profession; either through paying jobs that hone the skills you need for your dream job, or through well-chosen volunteer opportunities. Everyday networking, talking to the ordinary people you meet about what they do, and telling them about yourself will broaden your audience immeasurably, because these are more than impersonal HR resume readers-these are real people who have already interacted with you and have probably formed an opinion about you. However, put together the resume that paints the most attractive picture of you that you can, one that focuses on all of the great skills and accomplishments you’ve acquired, because you want to stand out from the crowd when it is time for the decision-maker to decide whether you are someone they would like to meet or not.

By treating your career aspiration like a journey, the side trips along the way shouldn’t matter so much…as long as you regain your momentum towards reaching your destination.


  1. Kristen – I love that story. It is my story and the story of many candidates I work with. Excellent guidance too! Thank you for the post.