how to answer “how long have you been job searching?”

A reader writes:

I was called about a job I had applied to, and they asked me how long I had been job hunting. I’ve been job hunting for a few months, but panicked because I thought that might make it sound like there was something wrong with me and no one wanted to hire me, so I told them I started looking a few weeks ago.

Logically, I realize many that people end up job hunting for a year or more before getting an offer, so this shouldn’t be held against you, but I don’t know if this is one of those questions where the truth is sometimes a bad answer (like how you don’t badmouth your insane boss when asked why you want to leave your current company).

When asked how long you’ve been job hunting, what are they trying to figure out? Does your answer matter?

Honestly, it’s a weird question, and most interviewers don’t ask it.

Those that do are usually asking because they’re wondering whether you’re just at the very beginning of exploring options and possibly inclined to spend some time looking around, or whether you have a search well underway and might have a competing offer soon (and thus they may need to move quickly if they’re interested).

Or if you’ve been unemployed for a long time, it’s possible that they’re asking because they’re wondering if there’s something else going on — if you’ve actually been searching that whole time or whether you took a deliberate break for a while.

In any case, it’s true that you don’t want to give an answer that makes the interviewer think (even if only subconsciously) that you’ve been looking forever and no one is interested in hiring you. Good answers are:

* “I just started seriously looking recently, and I’m being choosy about what I apply to.”
* “I’ve been taking my time to make sure I find the right fit.”
* Or, if you’ve clearly been out of work for a while: “I had the ability to take some time off and now I’m eager to get back to work.”

{ 81 comments… read them below }

  1. Laurel Gray*

    Putting this question somewhere a few spots below “so, why are you single?” in the list of weird questions to be asked.

    1. Bekx*

      Or my favorite on online dating websites….

      “Have you had any luck yet?” Uh, no. Otherwise I wouldn’t…you know….be here.

      1. Gandalf the Nude*

        I dunno. That one never bothered me. I went on dates with several interesting people who ultimately weren’t right for me, but if someone later asked if I’d had any luck, I’d have said “yeah” even though I was still single and looking.

        Also, if your ratio of “How are you?”s to lewd come-ons is equal to or greater than 2:1, you’ve had A LOT of luck!

        1. K.*

          Yeah, I’ve had relationships with men I met online that ultimately ended, but the guys themselves were good guys. (In one case the relationship was casual, we established that up front, and it was just what he and I both needed at the time. It was a successful relationship even though it wasn’t long-term.) I’m currently single and when people ask if I’ve had luck online dating, I do say yes because I’ve met some cool people that I otherwise would never have come across.

    2. TootsNYC*

      I don’t think it’s quite like that.

      Because there *is* a legitimate use for the information they are trying to get (Are you going to be hired by someone else any minute now, or can we move a little more slowly and deliberately without fear of losing you?).
      And even “are you getting frustrated at not having a new job, and so maybe we can pay you less?” (Not necessarily something you want them to think, but it’s not an unreasonable thing for them to want to figure out)

      But “why are you single?” there’s almost no legitimate reason to ask it. About the only people who have a right to ask that are the guy who’s just started dating you and your therapist.

      1. penelope pitstop*

        Good points, Toots. I hadn’t even thought of the positive spin. I’d gone for the cynical angle as in can we lowball you because you’re desperate enough to take whatever we offer? I prefer your thoughts much more.

        1. TootsNYC*

          Maybe that “would I loose you if I move too slow?” question occurred to me because I’m a slow hire-er. I get sidetracked, etc. (And I can sub with freelancers for a while, so the pressure isn’t as high for me as it is for some others.)

      2. Melissa*

        Well, a better question to ask that is “Do you have any interviews?” or “How far along are you in the search process with particular companies?” Asking someone how long they’ve been searching won’t answer those questions, because someone could’ve been job hunting for 2 months and have multiple interviews or they could have been hunting for 9 months and have nothing yet.

        1. Artemesia*

          Do you have any interviews is just as bad. No one can really ask these questions without making the candidate uncomfortable. How far along with other companies is barely passable but then only when there is genuine interest not as an initial query — If the employer is thinking of making an offer THEN the question is about ‘how fast do we have to move’ — otherwise, it can only come across as ‘if no one else wants you why should we?’

    3. Jennifer*

      Every time someone asks me why I’m single: “It’s because no man wants me.” They don’t seem to know what to say to that, but clearly that’s the answer they were fishing for, eh?

      1. T3k*

        I usually use the “he’s lost and is refusing to stop and ask for directions” but I think I like yours better xD

      2. Artemesia*

        Love this. People who torment other people with questions like this might do it a lot less if people had your courage. I like to think the guy on the airplane who said ‘come on smile, it can’t be that bad’ will not be doing that again after I said ‘My father died this morning, so I am not feeling cheery.’

    4. the gold digger*

      I finally figured out that “Why are you single” was really, “How is it that someone as fabulous as you is not coupled? I cannot believe my luck that I met you! The dating world is full of idiots!”

  2. Long Time Reader First Time Poster*

    Oooh, this is a good one. I almost always take a bit of a break between gigs, so there’s often a 3-6 month gap I need to explain. I typically will allude to the fact that I’ve done this on purpose — I’ll say something about how I decided to spend the holidays/summer/whatever time period with my kids* before digging into a hardcore job search, and now really being ready to get back at it.

    Generally I’ll get an agreeable response from the interviewer about making the most of my time off, the value of spending time with your kids while you can, etc — and if I don’t, I take that as a potential red flag that maybe this company and I won’t be seeing eye-to-eye on the value of work/life balance.

    *I tend to buck the rule of not mentioning family when I interview. Obviously, it’s illegal for the interviewer to ask, but I almost always bring it up myself despite the potential for discrimination because I want to see what kind of response I get. Again, it’s important for me to suss out how that’s perceived (and frankly, if they are the kind of place that red flags ME for having kids, I want to get that out of the way right away so that they take me out of consideration ASAP). Others’ mileage may vary, however.

      1. Connie-Lynne*

        If you’re good enough and you know there’s decent demand for your skills, it’s a great choice! I purposely took 9 months off in-between my last two jobs, and would have spent even more time off if a former coworker hadn’t come to me and been all “WORK FOR ME NOW FOR REAL I MEAN IT.”

        I just had my last day at my formerly-current job July 1, and I am having a *blast* filling the time. I’ve picked up two partial contracts that are essentially volunteer work, doing things I love that pay badly, and I’m working my network for my next gig, but not very hard. I’m hoping to have at least three or four months before I have to go back to the grind.

        And no, I don’t have kids, I just … like to focus on other areas of my life than work, sometimes.

    1. Stranger than fiction*

      Agree with your approach. My significant other both resigned from his last job and took a month breather before beginning to look for new job (exjob was toxic and overworked him to the point there was no way to search while still working there) and I/ we couldn’t believe how many prospective employers were totally baffled by the concept that in this day and age someone would actually have the savings to allow them to do this! But similar to your attitude, we thought if you’re that skeptical/ suspicious you probably dont want to work for them

      1. Stranger than fiction*

        Just to clarify we’re not rich or anything but between some stuff in the garage we sold and an unexpected bonus, we kept afloat for a few months. Another month or two and we would have been in deep financial doodoo

      2. Artemesia*

        A relative of mine took two years off at middle age just because he wanted to and had several job offers within two weeks of going back on the market. Would that we all had careers that much in demand and were that good at it. I was stunned — I figured given his age that he would struggle to find something. I always worked in fields where there were 100 perfectly competent people vying for the job and feel very lucky to have always succeeded in getting something when I needed it.

    2. fposte*

      BTW, it’s not illegal for the interviewer to ask. Federally, it’s not even illegal for them to consider your kids when they’re hiring you; it just tends to have a disparate impact against women.

      1. Long Time Reader First Time Poster*

        Hmmm, maybe you are right. I know they can’t ask about marital status, but I am not sure about parental status.

        1. fposte*

          If you’re in the U.S., marital status isn’t federally protected either; I believe it is in some states.

          Basically, there’s two levels: first off, it’s legal to *ask* just about anything (save for disability-related questions); it only becomes illegal if you make hiring decisions based on it.

          But it’s even not illegal at the federal level to make hiring decisions based on marital status or children. It’s just illegal if you do it in such a way that discriminates against people for an existing illegal reason–in other words, using it as a factor in hiring women but not men. But it’s perfectly legal, federally speaking, to ask every candidate if they’re married and cut everybody who says yes.

          1. Dana*

            Thank you! I saw something floating on facebook that was like “10 Questions It’s Illegal to Ask in an Interview” and was baffled. I figured it couldn’t be true.

        2. LBK*

          They can ask you about anything related to a protected class, they just can’t use that information in their hiring decision. Most people avoid those questions so there’s no appearance of potentially discriminating, but there’s nothing that legally prevents them from doing so. I believe the only thing they actually can’t legally ask you about are medical issues as per the ADA, but they can ask general questions about your physical ability to perform the work.

          1. KJR*

            I use ADA-friendly job descriptions. The end portion contains all of the physical requirements of the job in matrix form. The gist of the question I ask after they’ve reviewed it is, “Can you perform the essentials functions of the job either with or without accommodation?” I don’t ask it quite as robotically as I’ve written it, but you get the idea. Most of the time I get a yes, but if I get a no, that’s where the dialogue starts about potential reasonable accommodations.

          2. fposte*

            And marital status and parental status aren’t, in federal employment law, protected.

    3. cv*

      I tend to out myself as a lesbian for similar reasons if I can do it non-awkwardly. It usually comes up pretty naturally, since we’ve moved around a lot to follow each other to grad school. And now we have young kids so I’ll probably mention them the next round of searching – I figure that any place that reacts badly isn’t somewhere I want to work. It also might get me extra credit in a certain way with some hiring managers – my field is very narrow and it’s not that unlikely for me to interview with alumni of my program, and the idea that I did well in school while having twin infants tends to elicit “I don’t know how you do it” reactions.

      (Grad school with young kids is intense, for sure, but having one parent with a huge amount of schedule flexibility is awesome. I don’t know how parents with clock-watching type jobs manage.)

      1. Artemesia*

        I have a niece in med school who has two toddlers. She and her med school husband decided that having the kids in med school was going to be easier than in the early years of residency and practice. If things had gone awry she could have taken a year’s leave from med school or he could have — it is a lot trickier later.

        I have advised other young women to consider having their kids or at least their first kid in grad school since grad school is generally flexible, you can come and go or take extra time to write the dissertation and then be newly minted when you are job hunting. I had my first kid while writing the dissertation and that was a lot easier than having a two year old when undertaking my first very demanding and stressful professional position — in fact if I had had it to do over, I would have taken another year on the dissertation in order to have more time as a young mother and less stress.

  3. Long Time Reader First Time Poster*

    And I do actually think it’s a relatively common question… but it’s usually worded more like “so… when did you leave Teapots Inc?” than “how long have you been job searching” but they mean the same thing.

  4. Christian Troy*

    This is frustrating. I’ve technically been job searching for over a year, but can get away with saying since December since thats when I graduated. I did receive an offer a few months ago, but had to turn it down because the pay was way too low and I wouldn’t have applied if I knew the salary to begin with. I’m not sure how to answer it either, I don’t want to say I took a break with job searching but it’s not like I’m not unemployable ( re: the offer). Ugh!

    1. T3k*

      I feel for you, as I was in the same boat (took me almost exactly a year since my official graduation to get my first job out of college… and it was only part time). I had an internship the summer before graduation as well, so I didn’t have to explain that technically I’d been looking for almost a year and a half.
      Hopefully you’ll find an employer that’s understanding of the job market (mine was as she tended to always have an intern every summer). If you can, try volunteering or continue practicing for your field so if an interviewer asks about that gap period, you can go “Well, while job searching, I continued to work on improving my skills/I did volunteer work at Lil Teapots” etc.

    2. Hermoine Granger*

      I’m dealing with a similar issue.

      I’ve come across HR / hiring managers who see red flags in people who have been laid off, stayed in positions for 2+ years, couldn’t understand why anyone would leave a job, don’t understand job searches lasting beyond a few weeks, etc. At this point, I’ve decided that people are going to read into it whatever they want and at a certain point it’s beyond my control. I just try to explain the things I’ve been working on since my last full-time position and the kind of fit I’m looking for in my next position / company. That seems to suffice with most places.

        1. Hermoine Granger*

          Yeah, that’s the impression I’ve gotten from them as well. I had two interviews at different companies where the interviewers were put-off for polar opposite reasons.

          The first interviewer was shocked that I stayed at my first post-college job for 4 years. I explained that the company wasn’t perfect but my managers gave me free rein to fix and improve things within the department and I also ran a side business for 5 years that allowed me to develop a wider range of skills.This was during the height of the recession so jobs weren’t just falling out of the sky but she kept harping on how everyone she knew only stayed in positions for two years before moving on. Yet she forgot about our interview, showed up 30 minutes late, I overheard the admins discussing what a mess she was, and then she never followed up or responded to my email after the interview. I think she was put off by me not being a flake.

          The other interviewer was from an academic institution and was just bewildered that anyone would ever leave a job. She didn’t understand that I could be laid off after four years in a position due to the company being acquired. Was incredulous that I chose to end my small business and move on after 5 years. And scoffed at my having worked contract and temporary positions. She was rather hostile and I thought she was going to have a heart attack. I got the impression that she was an older lady and had been at the college for several years if not most of her career.

          The first interviewer was a mess but the second one was actually pretty amusing once I got off the phone with her.

  5. Brett*

    How are you supposed to answer this if you are currently employed? I’ve been casually searching (and even worked a secondary employment position in hopes of using it to leave) for around 3 years, been not been actively searching at all and certainly not putting in any applications.

    1. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

      When I am employed I give the, “a friend shared this opportunity with me and I couldn’t pass it up.” I always feel like it sounds cheesy, but it makes it sound like I haven’t really been looking.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’d use one of the answers I put in the post — something like, “I’m not doing an active search and am being very choosy, but this position really interested me.”

    3. TootsNYC*

      That’s a great time to say, “Well, I’ve been looking at new opportunities for a little while lately, but I’m being strategic about what I apply to.”

      or just skip the “how long” and say, as Not the Droid suggests, “A friend shared…” The nice thing about that is that it doesn’t say, “I’ve been actively looking at all the job listings,” because that sort of makes you look like someone who will leave -them-. Not that this is an unreasonable thing, but you just don’t want that image (of an unhappy employee poring over the classifieds) in their head.

    4. Connie-Lynne*

      What people have been asking me is “so what’s your time frame?” Which I think is a much better question than “How long have you been searching?”

      My time frame is loooong. So I’m comfortable saying “Well, it’s the right time for me to wrap up things at $CurrentJob, and I’d like to have some summer vacation, but I’d also like to know where I’m going to land after vacation.”

  6. Mimmy*

    * Or, if you’ve clearly been out of work for a while: “I had the ability to take some time off and now I’m eager to get back to work.

    This is where I’m hitting a stumbling block and partly what’s made me afraid to jump back in. I haven’t had a proper job in…..awhile. For the past couple of years, I’ve focused mainly on my volunteer councils and school. Originally, my plan in doing so was to gain new skills, build my network, and see what direction I wanted to go in. However, things just haven’t been panning out as I’d hoped and I’ve stalled out, though I always keep my eyes and ears open. I think part-time work is my best bet at this point given my current commitments.

    So if I’m ever asked that question, even if someone just asks, “Are you working?”, how does this sound? (adapting the wording in italics above):

    “I’ve been taking some time to re-evaluate my skills and career goals and I’m now eager to get back into the workforce.”

    1. TootsNYC*

      I might not stick with “re-evaluate” but instead say something like “expand my skills though my volunteer opportunities.”

  7. Workfromhome*

    “I’m always on the lookout for interesting jobs and positions”

    There you answered their question. Now they will need to tell you why they want to know the information.

    I agree there could be a host of reasons but I’d want to know WHY they are asking before I actually answered the question.

    1. Laurel Gray*

      I feel like that wording could be a red flag to them that if they hired you, you would always be searching for something better.

      1. Bea W*

        Ugh. Yes. If a candidate said this to me in an interview I’d have serious reservations about hiring them because we need people who intend to stick around for more than a year or two.long The ramp up alone can take 6 months or more.

  8. Anon for this*

    I actually get this question a lot and I don’t think it’s that weird — but I think it’s because my industry is notorious for 1) hiring very quickly at the junior levels (so if you’re junior, they want to know whether they need to snap you up even faster than normal because you’ve already interviewed at a couple of places) and 2) hurry-up-and-wait at the senior level. Depending on what you answer, that could light a fire under the butt of whoever has potential to hold up the process.

  9. AnnieMouse*

    Skirt the question by saying you are looking for the right job not just a job. They don’t need to know how long because it is not relevant.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      The thing is, though, if they’ve asked the question they want you to answer it and are likely to be annoyed that you didn’t address it at all. I don’t ask this question, but I notice it when people don’t answer what I ask and it’s a flag for me.

  10. Rae*

    Actually, I think that it can be relevant in cases where the job has been posted for a long period of time or re-posted. I worked in a retail outlet that had a captive hiring and purchasing audience (think college) positions were usually only open for busy season temps but occasionally we would need someone mid-year. We asked a similar question to help suss out the “any job will do” from those actually interested in working for us until something better came along. We weren’t as hard on people during the regular hiring periods or when the job was first advertized.

    If I was a full-time manager who noticed that someone had been out of work for 6 months and I had posted a position for the same amount of time I may be very concerned that this person either passed my job posting by casually, or is willing to do it now because they are desprite.

  11. Three Thousand*

    I rarely get asked this, but the first time I did I immediately took it as, “Have you been looking long enough that it’s obvious no one wants you and we shouldn’t either?”

    1. Sherm*

      Yep. I was asked this once, by my least favorite interviewer ever. I interpreted the question from him as “How much of a loser are you?”

  12. zora*

    I’m deathly afraid of getting this question. I was laid off last spring, but I took a few months to just do nothing because I really needed to de-burnout. And now I’ve been temping for a while and I’m not having any luck lately. I reallyreallyreallyreally hope no one asks me this. :oP

    1. Sherm*

      Well, remember that those months of not looking don’t count, because you were not searching :)

  13. JM in England*

    I have had long periods (1 year plus) of unemployment and have been asked this question at interviews during this time. When I say one year, it seems to put the interviewer off, almost as if they are thinking “So why has nobody wanted him? If they don’t, then I don’t either!”. At one interview, many years ago I answered “Because I can’t make someone give me job!”, out of sheer frustration. Needless to say, didn’t get that job! :-)

    1. Steve G*

      That’s what I feel like answering, though they usually ask “how is it out there, out of curiosity?”

      I want to say “well there have been about 4 jobs I could totally have done, but wasn’t offered, and they didn’t even check my references, but I would love to know what I did wrong. I don’t see anyone with the job titles on Linkedin yet though!”

      It’s like, cut me some slack, in addition to the economy, I had a few niche jobs where advanced Excel was the only transferable skill, so obviously I am going to be having a harder time than someone who did the same thing or a generic job since college!

    2. Rachel*

      I hear you. It can be rough. I was laid off in April and have been doing lots of interviews with no job offers yet. Even when companies seem interested in you, the process can take weeks to get through the application and interviews and tests and everything else they may want you to do. It’s very frustrating to feel judged when you are doing everything you can and are already dealing with so much rejection and self-doubt. I was joking with my friend that I feel like I need to make an old-testament-style animal sacrifice in order to get a job, or just break down and tell the interviewer, “I’m so desperate. Just give me the job!!” It feels impossible to sway the powers that be without going a little insane.

      1. JM in England*

        Agreed Rachel!

        Having an interviewer ask this question when, as you say, are already dealing with rejection and increasing self-doubt just rubs salt in an already hurting wound…………..

  14. JustLetMeBorrowYourNotes*

    It’s an outgrowth of the HR “rule of thumb” that people unemployed more than 6 months are bad hires. The reasoning goes that if you’ve been looking for work and failing to get a new job for a long period of time, even if you are currently employed, there must be something wrong about you that more skilled HR people are detecting that raises red flags. (Blame poor HR training — the field has really struggled to modernize since it lost its basic research branch in the 70s when sociology radicalized.) Since many HR folks (especially entry-level front line folks) don’t have the skills to make good assessments in a vacuum, they rely on these rules of thumb to try to scope out what others think, even though if everyone uses them they lose all their value, sort of like trying to copy the test of someone who is trying to copy you. :-)

    1. Three Thousand*

      Many people who should be better than they are at dealing with uncertainty seem to default to making decisions based on what their peers think, from academics to venture capitalists. They seem under-equipped to do any kind of rigorous analysis of their own.

      1. Melissa*

        It kills me how true that is for academics, particularly because they are supposed to be the experts at rigorous analysis.

  15. Kristen*

    I graduated two years ago and include my graduation date on my resume. I am currently employed, but have been looking for two years in my chosen field. I am being asked this question more and more lately. I don’t know how to answer this question. I think the reason is because I lack relevant experience, but I don’t know if I should be saying that (although the interviewer would already know this about me). I have made mention of a job offer and just explain I’m looking for the right fit. I am feeling a bit desperate though and it’s a terrible place to be.

  16. Bea W*

    I had an interviewer ask this at the company I now work for. I was employed but had been looking for a couple months, which is not a long time in a field with few perm openings. She seemed surprised. How was it a person with great qualifications was still looking? She was so used to receiving mediocre applications and getting mediocre interviews she assumed all the good people were just being snatched up immediately.

    No…not really. It’s more that most people in my field don’t have the chance to develop the same skills and/or aren’t interested, and right now no one is looking for them. I was also not going to jump into the first job I found either. I wanted the right fit. I emphasized that over anything else, but the hiring manager was totally asking for a combined skill set that doesn’t often occur in my field. Several years later we still have the same dilemma.

  17. Rachel*

    I have been interviewing a lot lately, and no one has ever asked me how long I’ve been looking. In fact, I’ve never been asked this question in previous job searches either. A lot of people don’t even read my resume closely enough to see that I am no longer working at my previous employer (this comes up when they ask me to describe a typical work week in my current job at X company and I have to clarify that I am no longer working there). It’s funny what people do and don’t focus on during an interview.

    1. Stevie Wonders*

      No need to edify them about your employment status to answer the question. Just pretend they asked “at your former employer”.

  18. AD*

    I am struggling with this very issue right now. I was laid off in April after 20+ years with the same company. I think it was reasonable to take a break and go on vacation and such before diving in. But the honest truth is that I’d really rather wait a few more months to start looking and start working after the new year. I got a generous severance package and wet have the savings for me to take an extended break and there are quite a few logistical reasons why it would make sense for us. But I’m terrified that such a long break will really hurt my job search. I work in IT, so I don’t know how lethal such a break could be.
    Meanwhile I feel like I need some skills updating to be considered for a job similar to what I’ve been doing. So I feel like I would have better options if I upgraded my skills, but taking the time to develop those skills could be damaging.

  19. Missy*

    I hate this, I had one recruitment agent demand to know if I was getting interviews and what people were saying in response to interviews. And frankly after seven months if you can figure out why I haven’t got a job yet do share! But mostly I just get the “what have you been doing since you left your job?” and the “why did you leave your job?” questions, which I find more reasonable.

  20. Katherine Jones*

    I think the response should be to answer with a question… The interviewer is looking for information but has asked the wrong (too broad of a) question. “I think you are inquiring about something that’s not evident to me in your question. Can you re-state the question and I’ll do my best to provide the information you seek?”

  21. Stevie Wonders*

    Occasionally asked this while employed. Usually while unemployed, typically with a tone implying I was some sort of screwup for not getting work yet. Sometimes followed up with “what have you been doing besides looking for work”?

    Looking while employed didn’t go much faster than while unemployed, due to time constraints, greater selectivity, and need to be discreet.

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