In addition to counting their blessings, those lucky enough to manage a year off early in their careers should indeed plan ahead.
Q: I am 24, and about to complete my second year at my first full-time job. I have had a positive experience, but I am ready to move on. It is likely I will take some time (up to a year) to travel before committing to my next job, or to a graduate program. I know I will need the help of my business contacts when I return. How do I maintain my professional network while taking some time off?
A: In addition to counting their blessings, those lucky enough to manage a year off early in their careers should indeed plan ahead. “They need to do a lot of thinking and focusing in on what relationships are most important,” says Jason Niad, senior managing director at the ExecuSearch Group, a recruiting firm. And they need to engage with those people before they leave, he adds.
So worry less about maintaining your entire professional network, and more about making sure you’re forging and keeping connections that matter. Don’t just frame that in terms of mentors and managers; colleagues or clients you genuinely connect with may also prove important in the long run.
Treat the conversations you have in advance of your trip as an opportunity to reach out, Niad says. Try to tap into, or build on, common bonds tied to whatever you intend to do during your time off: where you’ll go, what you’ll do and why.
Once you go, “technology allows you to bring your network along for the ride,” says Alexa Merschel, campus recruiting leader in the United States for the professional services firm PwC (in a response that, fittingly, arrived via email).
You could, for instance, publish posts about your experiences on LinkedIn or “engage others in a dialogue about your travels using all forms of social media,” Merschel says. “You may return home to an even stronger, wider network.”
But proceed with caution: Inundating the world with updates about your special adventures could make you seem like a self-involved spam machine. So I’d say take care in your use of social media: Friends and family may be dazzled, but professional contacts may not be impressed by Goa sunsets and the like. Besides, you probably don’t want to spend this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity managing your public image.
So be thoughtful about how you choose to keep in touch, and with whom. Consider the step — possibly radical in the social-media era — of actually asking the contacts you most care about if and how they want to hear from you. It may be that a single honest and well-considered postcard to someone you really value may be more meaningful than a dozen status updates.
Niad advises giving advance thought to how you will explain this year off to potential employers in the future. “The individuals you’re interviewing with may have been in their positions for many years,” he says. “Taking a year off to travel is not something they’ve done.”
In other words, expect some skeptical questions. Interviewers “don’t want to hear ‘I always wanted to do this, so I just had to go do it,’” Niad says. “They want some more value, some ‘why.’ What did you gain from that experience, and how will it help you in the job that you’re applying for?”
Bottom line: “You’ll have to show an employer what you gained — and how you’re now going to make them more successful,” Niad says.
Submit questions to Rob Walker at firstname.lastname@example.org.