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Managing Professional Conferences While Unemployed, or Answering the “Where do you work?” Question

Managing tough questions about long-term unemployment is challenging. Answering the questions at professional events and conferences is even tougher. Learn strategies for answering some challenging, but oft-repeated, questions when you’re surrounded by peers in your field.

Two years ago, the college where I worked closed with little notice and I found myself unemployed for the first time ever. I documented the experience in my book, Tales of a Displaced Worker, to help others dealing with sudden job-loss. Since posting the original article, many more people have found themselves dealing with sudden job-loss and shifts to their work environment. I thought it would be a good idea to re-visit this topic, with some updates on suggestions.

One thing I can say, looking back years later, is that there is an emotional toll you will need to reckon with. Whether it is having an identity tied directly to the work you used to do, or feelings of restlessness or inadequacy, you will need to address them in order to move on to form a new identity. It would take me another six months after attending my first professional event to recognize what that toll was and how it impacted me for years. Take care of yourself as a priority – these professional events will be there when you’re ready.

Feeling the Dread

Four months ago, I attended a regional conference for one of the national student affairs associations. I wasn’t a member of the association but the conferences’ proximity made attending a very worth-while choice. I was nervous because that meant I wouldn’t know many people, and it would be on-going introductions by the people I did know to everyone in their network. In hindsight I can say that the job leads I got from that conference have paid off and the money spent was well-spent.

But at the time, the conference filled me with this on-going dread that was hard to shake after the first day. You see, I was unemployed and the circumstances around the college closure were pretty well-known within the region. Most questions, after “Where do you work,” were about the closing of the college. At that point, only 6 months had passed so the situation was very palpable and all I wanted was to connect with colleagues in my field about what was going on that I could learn about.

Instead, I spent most of the four days being introduced as the guy who used to work at the college that closed, or as a former colleague, which would elicit the follow-up “oh, so where are you working now?” question.

I found that, once you told someone you were unemployed, they wanted to hear the story. And I would tell this story over and over again.

I didn’t tell many people afterward that I felt incredibly defeated after that conference because, at the time, the relationships I newly formed turned into something useful. At the time, however, it was like living in PTSD-land having to rehash the trauma I had experienced and was so desperately trying to leave behind. I didn’t have a good way to deal with the stress of having to answer over-and-over again a very personal but very obvious question.


Preparing Myself for the Next Event

College closures are very rare and I just happened to be at one that people had a natural curiosity about. Coupled with the incredibly low unemployment rate nationwide, at the time, it’s equally rare to meet someone unemployed in our higher education field. I took it very personally that I wasn’t able to secure even a temporary job at a local college, and remained unemployed at a college.

It can feel very defeating trying to move past those initial feelings of failure, when you’re unable to secure a job. Having people ask about the failure just compounds the feeling.

As I make my final preparations to attend one of the national student affairs conferences, I plan to be a little more prepared for the inevitable stress. I don’t have any good answers on how I plan to deal with the eventual employment questions but I am going to share some of the ways I plan to deal with the questions that I expect will come up:

“So, where are you working (now)?”

This is my triggering question. Among friends, it’s a question I am prepared to go in-depth about, but with strangers or casual colleagues? It’s been a struggle, because I want to be honest and transparent, in case I end up interviewing with them or their peers in the near future. But the short answer is hard to make work, “I’m not working at a college right now.” I think I’m going to try one of the answers and see what works best for a conference setting:

  1. I was working at a college that closed, recently, and I am actively looking to rejoin the field.
  2. I currently interviewing for jobs in my region and hope to share where I’m working once I find the right job.
  3. I’m looking at several leads for my specialty in student affairs. I’d love to talk to you more if you have any openings in your college that fit my skills.

I have decided that my approach to this question is going to about expanding my network and focus on who I am meeting who can help me expand my network within the field, regionally, or within my field of expertise.

“Oh man, it must be tough to lose your job, how did you manage it?”

It’s tough to answer a tough question about something so personal and that isn’t resolved. I don’t know how to answer a question in the past tense when I am currently living with the situation. What I have learned is that the question isn’t really about how I have personally managed the situation, but about how the person asking is equally unprepared to manage this situation. Many of the people I know working in my field of Student Affairs have at least one advanced degree, and our identities are tied to the work we do on college campuses. The very idea of a college closing is surreal, but ultimately likely depending on the type of institution. I’ll try to use one of the two approaches when this comes up:

  1. It’s tough to plan for a surprise but the next time I find a job at a similar-sized college I’ll have more probing questions that I can share with you.
  2. I agree, it has been tough. Right now I am managing it by staying actively involved in professional associations and networking as often as possible to stay abreast of what is going on in our field.

I think these two answers are enough to show empathy and a solution, but to be honest, managing long-term unemployment is a waiting game and staying focused on the end-goal. I will need to work on how to put that into language that sounds like the truth without being to truth-y.

“Oh, all this time-off must be great! You must be getting a lot of personal things done during this time-off. If I had this time-off…”

Because of the rarity of college closures and other similar displaced workers in our field, most people see unemployment as temporary and a respite from the work. I believed this, too, during the first few months of the job search, thinking that the time-off was invigorating and clarifying. After six months, I changed my mind and had to think of ways to occupy my time while job searching. This question isn’t triggering so much as it it reeks of uninformed privilege and misunderstanding the long-term unemployed:

  1. I am actively looking for a position since the college closed, and I have no time-off from the search for a job. However, once I am working again I look forward to taking a well-deserved vacation.
  2. I am sure that how you’re viewing this situation is from your point of view, but personally I am not seeing this as time-off. Instead, I am actively working on furthering my skills to stay employable.

What I Do Differently

I learned to approach my introductions at conferences and other professional events differently. Instead of leading with “Where do you work” I ask “What is your area of expertise?” I want to learn more about the work that is being done than the location or institutional affiliation.

I am still learning to make this the first question I ask when networking, but it feels disingenuous to ask the ‘where do you work’ question that continues to vex. I always believe in the positive intentions of my peers, even when their language doesn’t reflect their impact, and try to model this behavior as much as I can.

I found that re-directing the conversation away from titles to goals, interests and expertise allowed me to talk about what I was doing outside of a professional title.

One of the things I have had to learn to acknowledge is that long-term unemployment in our field is scarce, and quite honestly, we don’t have useful ways to talk to people who are experiencing months of unemployment. So many of our questions are framed by the places of employment rather than the work we do or hope to do.

Even signing up for the national student affairs conference forced me to be affiliated with an institution that I had to delete from my name-tag. I believe that as more colleges close, this will happen to more and more people attending professional development conferences and trainings.

And I hope all of them do some reflective learning to figure out solutions to the conversation starters.


Here to Help You

If you are also unemployed in student affairs, higher education or another field, share your questions below in the comments. I’d like to see if I am missing a critical question that could be asked and make sure I’m prepared with an answer. Or if you have a question you want help answering that you need some feedback on.


The Muse: The Polite Person’s Guide to Answering All the Rude Questions People Ask When You’re Unemployed

7 Questions Unemployed People Don’t Want to Be Asked

Business Insider: How To Answer The One Question Unemployed People Dread

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