What to say if you are job-seeking and get asked “What do you do?”

Heather Krasna is the author of Jobs That Matter: Find a Stable, Fulfilling Career in Public Service, and the Director of Career Services at the Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington.

If you are job-seeking, whether due to layoffs or because you are a recent graduate, you are sure to encounter questions from networking contacts and interviewers (if you’re lucky enough to get interviews) about what you have been up to. Especially if it’s been a while since you were either employed or in school, you will need an answer to “what do you do?” or “what have you been doing since your last job?” Saying “I’ve been job-searching” isn’t terrible, but you can find ways to answer this question that focus more on the positives of your situation. Removing yourself from the category of “desperate job seekers” is essential to the job hunt process. Here are some positive ways to answer this sometimes-dreaded question of “what have you been doing?”

1. “I’ve been seeking an opportunity that’s a good fit with my background and passion, and connecting with people in my field.” To say you are seeking an opportunity sounds a lot better than “looking for a job” because it emphasizes the future and the positive new direction you hope to go in rather than focusing on your lack of a current job. It also makes it sound like you are picky, focused mainly on finding a
career that’s a good fit with your skills and interests, rather than desperately hoping for employment. Connecting with those in your field, via networking and attending industry events, keeps you fresh in your field, provides you with essential information about career opportunities, and shows your continued alignment with your chosen profession.

2. “I’ve been involved in community work.” Serving on a nonprofit board of directors, a local community or neighborhood board, or volunteering in your community is a great way to build new connections, fill your time, and possibly gain new skills, while benefiting those around you. By focusing on others rather than yourself, you show you are not just focused solely on your job search. Many people have found jobs in nonprofit organizations by getting involved, too, so you never know where this will lead.

3. “I’ve been building my skills.” Taking a continuing education course that hones new technical skills in your profession or even builds a relevant credential or certification is an ideal way to spend time if you are not working a 9-5 job every day. By reading job descriptions in your field, you will find out which skills are being asked for, and if you are missing one, take the time to build this skill. You can make yourself a better candidate this way, too.

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Jay S. Daughtry, ChatterBachs

Good pointers, Heather. Thanks for giving a refreshing take on this question. To Harlan’s point, I think the message is to invest yourself in these ways so that you have a good, honest answer that reveals that you are continuing to grow and are not simply stuck in a difficult situation. Also, I’m doing some of the connecting you’re referring to in #1 by being active on GovLoop and through other social media sites.

Heather Krasna, MS

Definitely, you can only say #2 or #3 if you have actually been doing these things–but hopefully if you are seeking new opportunities you can spend a little time on these kinds of activities as well. Breaking up your time into job searching and other activities can make the job search a little more tolerable, and also make you a more interesting candidate on interviews.