why are interviewers turned off when they hear how much time I spend on my job search?

A reader writes:

I have been unemployed for 6 months and it’s been very challenging! I find looking for a job (a job that is the right fit for me) to be a full-time job! In the past 6 months, I have enrolled in career counseling and have attended resume and interview skills workshops, hidden job market seminars, and job search strategies workshops. I feel this is important for my own personal growth and development, plus it gives me an advantage in my search.

In interviews, when I am asked what have I been doing the last 6 months while unemployed and I say all the above, I feel like I’m being judged, perhaps, or those answers and what I’ve been doing isn’t good enough… Any suggestions?

Yes, they’re judging you for it and it’s not reflecting well on you. Here’s why:

1. Those activities are all about getting a job. But your interviewers don’t care about your job-searching skills; they only care about what you’re going to be like once you’re in a job. So they’re looking for answers like volunteering, taking a class, learning a new skill, working in your community — something that’s going to make you a more valuable employee when you do return to work.

2. It’s … excessive. I don’t know what kind of advice you’re getting at these workshops and seminars and counseling, but a good career expert could give you the basics you need in less than a day. So — fairly or unfairly — it’s coming across as both excessive and desperate, and it’s raising questions about your judgment in doing so much of it, and questions about why you need so much of it.

3. On a more human level, imagine that you’re on a first date. You ask the guy how he likes to spend his time, and he tells you that he spends most of his free time going to relationship seminars, reading dating advice books, and practicing his dating skills. Turn-on or turn-off?  Similar thing here.

Look, I know the job market is horrible and it’s scary to be out of work, and hiring practices can seem mysterious, and the whole thing is incredibly anxiety-producing, and so I understand how you could end up throwing yourself into this kind of thing in the hope that it will help.  And if you want to do it and find it helpful, fine (as long as you’re actually getting good advice from these experts, which I’m questioning). But it’s not a good answer when employers ask you how you’ve been spending your time.

Do something that will make you more marketable. There’s tons to choose from (see answers in point #1 above).

{ 39 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous

    I’m going to second Alison on this one. You might find that you get more job leads if you do activities that get you closer to people who are actually employed, i.e. actually networking (and networking in such a way that you can demonstrate your work ethic and abilities) as opposed to going to a seminar about networking, or going to one of those “networking” forced-small-talk-happy-hours. Volunteer for something! http://www.volunteermatch.org/ The fact that you can work 9-5 can at times be a big help; but also try to volunteer when other (employed) people are working, so that you can get to know them. Or take an evening language class. Or a basket weaving class. Or a class related to your field–the point is try to take a class with people who have jobs that you can really network with (instead of going to a seminar about networking). Try to just pick one or two things that you can devote yourself too, so that you can really get to know people AND really make an impact.

    Obviously there are no guarantees that someone you meet will know of a job opening, but there is a chance. And even if you continue to only get interviews through the normal application process, you will have something better to talk about in the interview.

  2. Anonymous

    While you are job searching and whatnot, perhaps you should get a volunteering job. It’ll get you references, experience, and just the chance to mingle with other people – or it could lead into a job at some point (possible but not guaranteed). I volunteer, and when I was interviewing for a job this past summer, my interviewer and, now boss, asked me all about it. I still volunteer. My only suggestion would be to volunteer in something that will give you the skills you need for what you actually want in a career. My volunteering gig is related to my degree plus it’s just fun!

  3. kristin

    Also, if you’re talking about how much effort you’re putting into your search, and have been searching a long time, it might make the employer wonder what’s wrong with you (like, why haven’t you been hired yet?). Like, it could show that you need special help in the job searching process (which is okay, because most people do), and it’s kind of taboo to admit it for some reason.

    When I was interviewing recently, my response to that question was:
    1. Freelancing
    2. Blogging
    3. I did a very short PR internship at a very popular wedding planning company/web site during the week before the Royal Wedding. I put this on my resume (even though it was only a week, and I’ve been out of school for 4 years), and EVERY single person who I interviewed with asked me about it. This was great because it was memorable and interesting, and it only took up a week of my life. Also, talking about it took a few minutes, so they usually didn’t pry for more.

  4. Cristy

    I’m in the same boat and I’ve been blogging in my field, gathering information to start a side business, and taking classes. All of these activities help pass the time and make you feel less awful about the ongoing job search. Staying busy can really be a big help.

    I love the idea of volunteering too. You never know who you’ll meet at a volunteer position! Having a good base and learning all the basics of job searching is great, but you need to get out there and meet people.

  5. Becky

    I agree that these are all great suggestions, but as someone else who has been unemployed for nearly 6 months, it’s been more than a little frustrating. I’ve contacted countless organizations about volunteering, and fewer than half even get back to me, even when I follow up (this includes organizations actively searching for volunteers on sites like volunteermatch.org). So far, all I’ve managed to arrange is one position that has a prestigious title, but really only amounts to 20 hours of work for the year. I’d love to find something, especially if it means the opportunity to expand on my skills.

    I’ve had slightly better luck finding part-time positions. I plan to start one soon that will give me teaching experience. Does anyone have any suggestions for inexpensive classes? I really enjoy that sort of thing, but can’t even afford community college tuition right now.

    1. jmkenrick

      It’s true that finding good volunteer opportunities can be really frustrating.

      It depends on where you’re located, but it’s worth checking out if you have a non-profit like New York Cares (http://www.newyorkcares.org/) or Hands on Bay Area (http://www.handsonbayarea.org/) in your area. These sites focus more on one-time volunteer opportunities, which, although not likely to give you new skills the way a more long-term opportunity might, can give you some great momentum by keeping you busy/motivated. Also, they look to volunteers to lead these one-time projects, so if you do a couple, see if you’d be interested in leading/organizing a volunteer group for a one-day event. It can be very fun.

      Regarding cheap classes – again, if you’re in a big city, do some research and see if there’s a hackerspace in your area. (Like Noisebridge in San Francisco http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noisebridge)

      They often offer affordable ways to expand your skill set (granted, they focus on certain skills).

      1. Emily

        In NYC, Noble Desktop offers free seminars in Dreamweaver, InDesign, WordPress, and more (also, Juggling!). The free classes are very, very basic, but since they also run a corporate training program, they’re name is reasonably well-known.

    2. EngineerGirl

      “So far, all I’ve managed to arrange is one position that has a prestigious title, but really only amounts to 20 hours of work for the year.”

      When I look at someone to hire, I’m looking for someone willing to WORK, irrespective of titles or prestige. Every job I’ve ever had has parts that are nice and parts that are grunt work. I’m not willing to waste my time on someone that only wants the prestigious positions. If you are serious about getting a job, I suggest you go back to those organizations and take assignments that may not be quite so prestigious. It is about contributing to the community and gaining skill sets, not titles.

      1. Becky

        I apologize if that came out the wrong way. I really don’t care about the title. Sure, it’s nice, but I want to be doing more, and I’d rather have more to do than have any title. Like you said, it’s about contributing to the community and gaining skills sets, which is what I’m trying to do. I don’t at all think I’m above grunt work. I’ve handed out t-shirts at fundraisers and served breakfast to the homeless when those opportunities have presented themselves. I’ve agreed to do things like data entry, only to never hear back from volunteer coordinators regarding scheduling. I’d love to be able to really get my hands dirty, but I’ve had trouble finding opportunities.

        1. Anon.

          Becky, I didn’t get the impression at all that you were only looking for the prestigious title – in fact, I sensed frustration.

          Have you tried Idealist.org? They have an extensive list of volunteer opportunities as well as non-profits. jobs, career fairs, and other resources.

          Good luck and keep us posted on what works for you.

          1. Emily

            I second the Idealist recommendation! Not only does Idealist post job (from one-off freelance projects to full-time employment) and volunteer opportunities, there are usually some of each that can be done remotely. In my efforts to relocate and shift my career to a new industry, volunteer or very low-paying copywriting, copyediting, and data entry gigs have given me a couple of new professional connections in my desired city and field, as well as a chance to demonstrate my abilities.

      2. Dan Ruiz

        On the other hand, if I’m hiring an Project Manager and the candidate has a list of volunteer positions digging ditches (no offense to ditch diggers), I’m not going to be nearly as impresseds as I will be with someone who’s been volunteering to organize and lead teams even for day jobs. It’s not as much about prestige as it is about relevant experience.

        1. Jamie

          I agree with Dan – I think the relevancy is crucial.

          As much as I love animals seeing that someone spent their time unemployed volunteer at a shelter would melt my heart. But if you’re applying for a job in IT – I want to see what Open Sourced projects you’ve been working on or beta testing. That tells me you’ve been honing the skills I need and have been in the loop with others in the field.

    3. Anony Mousy

      You may have the best luck if you seek out organizations that have specific volunteer programs–think tutoring/cleaning up a park/volunteering at an animal shelter, etc. –try googling orgs that do that kind of work and see if they mention it on their website. (And I don’t mean to sound snarky, the last time I was unemployed I had a miserable time trying to find anything, so I sympathize)

      Re: classes–I’m not sure where you live, but in DC there is a center that provides professional training (they have software classes, languages, basic accounting, a lot of fed-related stuff). (http://graduateschool.edu/) It’s not a real graduate school, it does not offer degrees and isn’t regionally accredited, but most of their classes are of decent to good quality. I believe they may have some distance classes.

    4. Cristy

      In the San Diego area we have a really great program called Continuing Education (http://www.sdce.edu/) that offers all types of classes plus training. I completed a culinary arts degree there (for free) and take design classes all the time. Not sure if this kind of thing is offered all over the country, but I just googled “san diego continuing education” when I first found it.

    5. Natalie

      I wonder if part of the problem might also be the types of volunteer activities you are looking for. In my area, the easiest volunteer opportunities to find don’t require much experience or specialized knowledge.

    6. Becky

      Thanks for the input, everyone! I really appreciate the advice, and have already started looking into some of the suggestions.

  6. Joey

    I know I tune out when I hear that response. It feels like its code for “you should hire me because I really, really want/need a job. Please, please give me any job.”

  7. Anonymous

    Volunteering sounds like such a great idea, but when you have no job, and haven’t had one for months, the extra money you need to spend on gas, etc. in order to volunteer may just not be there. I’ve been there. The entire time you are volunteering, all you can think about is the money you spent to get there, and the time you are not spending applying for jobs. I also don’t know anyone who got a job from volunteering. I’m sure some do, but I don’t know any.

    1. Ruth

      While that can be true, there are often tremendous psychological benefits to volunteer work that can offset the cost involved. I’ll use myself as an example.

      I worked for a large, well-known corporation for about four years, and it was a really draining experience for me, both physically and psychologically. There were a lot of factors that played into why this was the case. When I finally hit my breaking point and made the decision to leave, it was before I had another offer. I do not recommend this approach, but for me it was necessary.

      After I left, I needed to find ways to motivate and energize myself, to prepare for the challenges of job hunting. I did this by volunteering for two local organizations. Both volunteer gigs involve stable work, and both have been invaluable to me. Working with horses is something that settles me, that helps me find my balance. This, in turn, helps me feel more confident and less drained, which enables me to function better during job hunting, interviewing, and the like.

      I got lucky, and I was only out of work for a little over a month. I got a lot of help from reading Alison’s advice, and also from the benefits of going to a local stable and being willing to work until I was dirty, sweaty, tired, and feeling like I’d accomplished something. Don’t underestimate what volunteer work can do for you.

    2. Ask a Manager Post author

      I got one of my first jobs from volunteering. I do think it can be invaluable.

      I hear you on gas, but there are also volunteer opportunities that can be done from home (they take more searching, but they’re out there). And please don’t worry that you’re not spending that time on job searching; you really can’t make a job search a full-time job and if you do, it’s unlikely to be a very effective search. I know that’s frustrating to hear when you need a paycheck coming in, but it’s also true — quality matters more than quantity here.

      1. Anon

        I gotta say, when I was volunteering, I actually felt WORSE about my situation, not better. If anything, it didn’t take my mind off my situation at all, but amplified the fact that I was working, for free, with professionals who had jobs.

        Of course, it probably was largely due to the fact that I wasn’t doing anything in my chosen field – stuffing envelopes and answering phones, mostly – but still. To this day, I remember how I felt……it got to the point where I started to dread going in.

      1. Anon.

        Grew up in a suburb of NYC – good public transportation, both bus and train to NYC. Then a few years ago I had to move to the North end of the county which was fine when I had a car. Then, car accident/no car. The buses up here are few, far between and to get back to where I grew up (1/2 hour by car) would take an hour and a half by bus! Also, for some reason the buses don’t go to the trains!

        To volunteer during the last year I would have had to walk a mile to a bus stop, hop a bus (that didn’t come until after 9:30 a.m…wtf?) and then, if needed, another bus to the train. Holy cow.

        Just got a car and am so thankful to be mobile again. Have had a few intereviews and will be looking into volunteer opportunities ‘up here’ now that I can get to them.

        Just my story. And thats in a county in NY with generally good public transportation. So many areas of the country (If I lived in upstate NY for instance, its even worse!) do not have good/reliable ways to get around. I do empaththize!

        As I mentioned above, utilize Idealist.org. I find it has more extensive listings. Do a search for what is within 5/10 miles from you and start making calls. Hopefully you’ll find an organization that fits your needs that is close by.

        Good luck and please let us know what works out for you!

  8. Stacy

    As a former Volunteer Coordinator, it’s interesting to hear readers “complaints” about volunteering, and especially the lack of follow-though/up they are getting when they inquire about volunteering.

    First off, I would recommend finding a specific organization that you are interested in and doing some research to be sure that their values align with yours. It can be frustrating to invest yourself in a project only to find out you disagree with the foundation of the organization’s beliefs. I didn’t even work for a controversial organization and I still came across volunteers who didn’t agree with the way we were going a about things. That’s fine. I’m happy to educate them as to why we did things a certain way (and that’s part of a Volunteer Coordinator or Managers job IMO), but they are entitled to different opinion/idea and there may be a better organizational fit for them. If you don’t care about what you’re doing, you’ll only start to feel resentful that you’re “working for free” after awhile.

    If you are interested in volunteering for a small organization, realize that they may not have a Volunteer Coordinator or that he/she may be only part-time or also the marketing department/intake coordinator/janitor as well. (Or even “just” a volunteer herself.) Don’t take this as a bad sign. It probably means that they need your help and skills even more, but you may end up needing to be more self-directed. This could perhaps be a great opportunity to design a project of your own.

    If a Volunteer Coordinator doesn’t return your first email/call. Try again. It’s obviously not the best sign that someone didn’t get back to you, but sh*t happens and… well… see the previous paragraph. Volunteer Coordinators, in addition to all the legit people who really do want to volunteer for completely selfless reasons, also answer inquires from and assist people who are calling a million times a day about what their girl scout troop can do for their badge project, how someone’s kid who needs 15 hours of community service for school can get that by TOMORROW, and if they can please write this 18 letters of recommendation for long-time volunteers college/grad school applications. Oh yeah, and the organization wants to apply for a grant, so the Volunteer Coordinator needs to pull up all the records they have for the past five years to show that the organization has increased their services to the community. You should have high expectations for your Volunteer Coordinator, (afterall, a good one knows how to best place people in positions that utilize their skills AND how to keep volunteers engaged and feeling appreciated), but don’t write them off completely if it takes two emails/calls to get through to them.

    Finally, don’t be afraid to speak up about what you would LIKE to do for the organization. THOSE ARE THE BEST VOLUNTEEERS! I once had an amazing volunteer who just couldn’t stand the idea of commuting to our site to volunteer. After talking to here for a bit, it turned out that she was an aspiring graphic designer with no experience, (and only a basic class and some basic software). She ended up doing a ton of projects from home for us, while building her portfolio, (she continued to get better and better with each project and as she got better, she took another class and invested in more software… and eventually changed day jobs). WIN-WIN!

  9. Anonymous

    I’ll chime in to say that I at least feel for the OP. When I was searching for my current job, I didn’t do any job-hunting seminars, but between searching, customized cover letters and resumes, phone screens, and out of town interviews, I felt that job hunting was indeed a full time job. I was lucky that nobody asked me what I was doing with my “extra” time, because I would have said, “Excuse me… when was the last time *you* looked for a job? Do you know how time consuming it is?”

    1. Anonymous

      I agree and I think people do lose sight of this when they have not been out of work for a while. It is not just a question these days of filling out a couple of application forms and going for interviews. I lost my job at the end of September and happily have just found another one, but a lot of friends and family seem to have found it hard to understand quite how busy I have been over the last six weeks. Not only was I doing a lot of industry networking, but the sheer amount of information required for the average application seems to me a lot more than it was the last time I had to do this – one particular competency-based application took me ten hours in total to complete (probably a sign of excessive perfectionism). I also really resent having to copy my resume information into recruiting agencies’ standard formats (pet peeve) and fill out a form when the recruiter already has my resume (ditto) – it has to be done, but it all takes time.

      Having said all that, I also agree with AAM that it’s not relevant to refer to this in an interview. I think it risks creating the impression that the candidate is aggrieved about having to make an effort – that may be so but it doesn’t come over well. I don’t recall it coming up in any of my interviews, but if I had been asked I would have referred to the job-related skills class I also took (at my own expense) and the freelance work I picked up, and soft-pedalled the job searching. You have to kind of make like a swan at these things – the feet are pedalling wildly, but it’s better for the surface to look cool.

  10. Anonymous (the previous one who didn't want to spend gas $ to volunteer)

    So agree, Anonymous! I once spent 2 hours filling out an extensive online application only to have it all disappear when I hit submit! We had a very old, crochety computer, but how can you go buy a new one when you have no job? So what was I doing while unemployed? Doing battle with online job applications and attempting to keep my family going!

    I also agree with Anon. from New York. I live in a rural area with absolutely no public transportation and at least a 20 mile round trip to anywhere, which makes volunteering with no income less appealing. I do have a job currently, not a great one, but at least something, and am doing some volunteer work because I’ve already made the trek into civilization for work.

  11. KellyK

    For those with transportation issues, there are online volunteer opportunities. Distributed Proofreaders (www.pgdp.net) comes to mind right off the bat, and I’m sure there are others depending on your particular strengths.

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