#410: How do I tell old professional contacts about my recent name change now that I need a reference?

Dear Captain Awkward:

Last year, I got divorced. At the time of my divorce, I was offered the legal choice to go back to my maiden name, or to keep my married name. I decided to choose a whole new last name, which was something I had always wanted to do. My new last name is a bit unusual. People comment on it positively, but it’s definitely odd. I like it, so that’s all that matters really. However:

This year, I’m in graduate school. I’m also applying for jobs in my chosen field. I have some previous experience in that field, in addition to my in-progress degree, so I’m hoping to find a position that will give me more current experience. 

My previous experience is from five years ago or earlier, and the jobs I’ve held in the interim have been phantom jobs — there’s almost no point in including them on a resume for the positions I’m seeking now. Consequently, the professional references I need to put on my resume are also five years old, although I’ve been in minimal contact with most of the people from time to time, but they’re not people I felt I had to update on my life developments such as divorce or a new last name.

Now we get to the awkward. Practically speaking, if any potential employer contacts my references, they are going to refer to me by name. What is the best, most adult and professional way to tell these people from my past, who only knew me in a work context, that my new last name is [X]? How much information do I give them? Do I need to include mention of the divorce, or just a legal name change? 

I’m a pretty private person, and not naturally forthcoming with personal information. The thought of writing to these former employers and explaining my recent life changes makes my introvert skin crawl with misery. What do I do? 

Congratulations on your new name!

This is very easy to answer, because if you are using someone as a reference, it is polite to get in touch with them first even if you hadn’t changed your name. Script for an email:

Dear former colleague, 

I hope things are well with you! + some comment about child/hobby/pet/shared interest/link to some article you read that made you think of them.

I am about to finish graduate school, and am interviewing for some jobs in x field. Would it be okay if I listed you as a professional reference?

Many thanks. Oh, incidentally, my last name is ________, now, so if someone calls you asking for Firstname _______, that’s me.

Happy New Year!

Also consider scouting out what jobs might be available at your old employers first, and apply. Maybe there is something at the old joint for the new, improved you. 🙂

Half the people will not say anything about the name change. They’ll assume something changed about your marital status (most likely that you GOT married), but won’t comment on it.

Half the people will ask you about it. “OMG, did you get married? Congratulations!”  You can write back and say “Haha, no, I got divorced, actually! Your congratulations are most appreciated.”

Also, if you change it on Facebook, LinkedIn, your email address, etc. enough people will pick up the change and figure it out.

The takeaway here is that most people will take their cue from you about how to handle news of big changes or potentially awkward information. They don’t know (and don’t need to know) all of your history, thought processes, and emotions around changing your name, they just need to know the fact that it has changed. If you treat it like it’s weird and project your anxieties all over them, it will definitely be weird. If you do not, it mostly will not be weird, and when it is weird (you run into someone really nosy, for instance), you’re not the one making it weird.

This holds true for a million aspects of job searching. Prospective employers will ask difficult questions about gaps in employment, changes of field, etc., but often they are doing it because they want to see how you react to the question before they decide if it is an actual issue. They want to make sure that you didn’t lie on your resume. They want to see if you have a coherent reason for whatever it is. And they want to see if you react with grace under pressure, or if you turn into a defensive weirdo.

For example, plenty of people have great experience and are great employees but don’t have college degrees. If an employer is truly hung up on where you went to school, there’s probably nothing you can do. But if they are calling you in for an interview, don’t even bring it up and definitely don’t apologize for it. If they do ask you, tell the truth: “I was lucky enough to start working in my field halfway through school, and I enjoyed the work so much that it made sense to just go for it and stop accumulating more student loans.” “I realized my major wasn’t a good fit, so I took some time off from school to figure out what I am really good at, which is (this job).” “My family’s financial situation meant that I had to readjust my education and career plans.” “There was a medical issue that required immediate attention, and once that was handled, I was more interested in (this field) so I stuck with that.” Nobody has to know that you majored in videogames and crying.

For another example, plenty of people take time out of the workforce to care for kids, go to school, look after aging relatives, etc. and then are in the position of trying to get back into the workforce. If an employer is going to hold your years as a caregiver or student against you in making a hiring decision, that is their bad. Do not apologize! Do not talk about how your skills are “rusty”! If they say “I notice it’s been a few years since you’ve been working in this field, what’s up with that?” say “Yes, I was lucky enough to be able to take some time off to care for my mom at the end of her life,” or “Given the cost of day care, it made sense for one of us to stay home with the kids for a while” or “Yes, it was strange to be a grad student-by-day, bartender-by-night, but my customers were great and I learned a lot from having such a public-oriented position” and then ask a question about the position at hand.

If you get defensive and invite the employer into your personal shame-cycle, you’re doing the work of rejecting yourself for them. If you’re relaxed and confident, it will go a long way toward reassuring them that you know what you’re about. If someone’s taken the trouble to pick your resume out of the stack and call you in, they are interested in what you have to say and hopeful that you will provide the solution to their problems and be a good fit for their team. While it is still an employer’s market, interviewing is too time-consuming to deal with people you have no interest in hiring only to reject them for petty reasons. So be cool. It’s hard enough to find a job you like (or a job you can live on, or, a job, period) without an extra serving of anxiety and insecurity about stuff you shouldn’t have to apologize for.

Also, LW, maybe go ahead and put those “phantom” jobs on your resume, even if you do it as a single line item. “Paid way through graduate school school as a freelance editor, library assistant, and bartender, 2007-2012.” Obviously you want to highlight your most related career experience, but I don’t think people should ever look down on their own work or apologize for what put food on their table, and the skills you took from those passing jobs actually do contribute to who you are professionally.

63 thoughts on “#410: How do I tell old professional contacts about my recent name change now that I need a reference?

  1. Great response, Captain, as ever – I found a lot of useful stuff in those scripts.

    LW, congratulations on your new name! I hope you enjoy much happiness along with it.

    1. Captain, I usually think your advice is absolutely perfect. In this case, I think it needs a little tweaking.

      Most importantly, to say a presumptive thanks as part of a request for a reference is rude. When you’re asking someone the favor of a professional reference or recommendation, you owe them the courtesy of allowing them to say yes or no.

      And the last paragraph also assumes: “Oh of course you’ll say yes, I’ll be sending people your name and contact info immediately”. Rude.

      If you ask someone for a reference, then you feel sure that they will give you a good reference, but there may be details you need to work out with them before using them as a reference. For example, even though it doesn’t apply directly to your work or study with them, they may want to know the details of what’s been going on with with you academically and professionally for the past five years. Also, you may not have the most accurate contact information for them. You need check on that before sharing it with others.

      Also, the most professional way to share your references is to list on your resume: “References available upon request.” If they’re seriously interested, they’ll ask for your references. Then you have a chance to give your references a heads up, so they can prepare for speaking to your prospect.

      I agree that the questioner should just mention her name change casually, in passing. For a while, she also might want to sign correspondence with old friends & acquaintance as follows:


      Firstname Lastname (formerly “Previous Lastname”)

      1. You may be right that it’s best to leave the “By the way, about my name…” part until after the prospective reference has actually said yes, but I disagree that saying “Thanks!” in the initial email is presumptive. I always put a “Thanks” or “I really appreciate it” or something like that in a message where I ask for a favor, and I find that people who ask me for favors generally do the same. I think of it partly as a “thanks in advance” thing, it’s true, but also partly as thanking the person just for taking the time to read my email and pay attention to my request.

        1. Maybe the way to go is “if for any reason you are not comfortable providing a reference, please let me know. Otherwise, thank you in advance for your time and assistance.”

  2. Awesome advice, as usual! The one thing that really hit home for me was this:

    If you get defensive and invite the employer into your personal shame-cycle, you’re doing the work of rejecting yourself for them. If you’re relaxed and confident, it will go a long way toward reassuring them that you know what you’re about.

    No one is the “perfect” candidate. Everyone has something about their work history that is different from perfect. That’s fine. It’s really about how you handle the difference that matters.

  3. Yes to putting the phantom jobs on in some form. When I switched fields a few years ago, I realized that most of my adult life had been spent in grad school, which wouldn’t necessarily register as a “real” job. What did I do? 1) I included a bunch of stuff from grad school that just felt to me like grad school at the time but let me break out things like supervising undergrads on a research project, etc, showing that grad school let me build a range of skills rather than being one undifferentiated mass. 2) I went way the hell back to some internships and summer jobs in college that were more closely related to the field I was trying to enter, but, you know, internships and summer jobs from nearly a decade earlier. And here’s the thing: one of those actually helped me out in getting a job. It was a national program, but a niche one, that someone I was interviewing with had also been involved in running, and he loved that I’d done it.

    1. Seconding this. When I went from a PhD program to fulltime, nonacademic work, I had several different ways of recasting the time I spent in grad school. Depended on the job I applied for. Sometimes I listed my years as a TA or RA under my chronological job history, with some bullet points describing relevant aspects of the job, and then put some extracurricular stuff under a heading like “Service” or “Related Interests.” Sometimes I gathered all of one kind of experience under a header, like “Editorial Experience” or “Teaching Experience,” and put the rest under “Additional Work Experience.”

      It seems pretty common these days for folks to have a variety of experiences and some gaps. You don’t have to account for your employment (or lack thereof) in every year; nor do you have to make unrelated experience invisible (though it may or may not have a place on a 1-2 page resume). For references, I did indeed ask the manager of my last make-ends-meet-in-school-job to speak on my behalf for some of the Desired New Career jobs. She was a lovely warm person and had a great chat with the manager of the job I have now.

    2. I totally agree! You’d be surprised how some of those “phantom jobs” are part of the appeal to potential employers. I spent 6 years in grad school, but when I applied for a consulting job, one major selling point in addition to my research background was the fact that I had experience as a bookkeeper. Part of the prospective job was keeping track of my hours and billing clients; the employer didn’t have to question whether I would be able to perform these tasks because I had clearly done so before! In fact, my tiny bit of dabbling in social psychology research (I am a behavioral neuroscientist by trade) was also a big factor in earning me an interview.

      I recommend taking some of the others advice in these comments and put together 2-3 sentences about skills you gained with your phantom jobs, of course tailored to the position you are currently looking at.

      Good luck!

      1. I also think that even if the work you did at that ‘phantom job’ isn’t relevant, it can often show you’re responsible, love working and are able to hang onto a job, which are all things employers want to see!

    3. Yes, exactly. Penelope Trunk wrote a post about how grad school is like having a felony conviction–that you actually want to lie about it if you have it on your record, like Gillian Anderson in Bleak House, and pray nobody finds out.

      This strikes me as ridiculous. I think there are a lot of good ways to spin grad school: I learned to juggle three completely different jobs; I learned how to do research; I learned how to research diverse subjects and deliver presentations to my superiors; I learned how to collaborate with peers in a structured review process; I spent six months in a tiny village with no running water and on and on and on. I mean, if my grad school plans pan out, I’ll be trilingual. I’m definitely not going to downplay that.

      And phantom jobs–aside from being a nearly universal experience nowadays–show that you are resourceful, hardworking, and responsible.

    4. Excellent point about phantom jobs. And I’d like to say that they should be mentioned even if you didn’t acquire any earth-shattering new skills from them. I’ve definitely gotten jobs because people though that if I put myself through school dusting shelves in a library, I was more likely to be a responsible employee than that the twits who let M&D support them. There’s no need to ever be ashamed to do whatever is needed to pay the rent.

      1. C’mon, Unagi. Your chip is showing. Yes, putting yourself through school does demonstrate responsibility and grit. However, there’s nothing twitty about accepting parents’ support/assistance paying for college if they can afford it. It would be a BETTER world if more college students could focus on their studies rather than juggling jobs and studying, being exhausted all the time, and sometimes taking longer to get through. You can praise one without dissing the other.

        1. Totally agree that the Republican destruction of educational possibilities for many young people is one of the tragedies of the late 20th century. The US would do well to make that better, much better, and quickly. Have you seen the horrifying recent figures on the place of student loans in the current economy?? Education, as close to free as possible, is a basic human right, even the UN says so.

          But while it’s not necessarily twitty to accept parental money, I’d caution young readers that there is no free lunch, and that they should carefully evaluate whether the price of that money is worth it in their own situation. There’s no question that I wouldn’t have been allowed to continue on my math path for instance, if my parents had had anything to say on my choices.

          But I’m sorry alphakitty, I maintain that there is a level of twittyness (twittydom? twittyhood?) that is incompatible with real life and its necessities. Being barely able to tie your shoes at 30 is something uniquely reserved to the ones privileged enough to be supported way beyond the limits biology intended, at least in my experience.

      2. I don’t think people who are lucky enough to have family financial support through school are automatically “twits.”

        For the record I had a combination of family support, scholarships, loans, and odd jobs through undergrad and me, myself, and I through grad school. But if my parents had been able to cover the entire thing so I could focus 100% on studies and taking unpaid internships to advance my career? SIGN ME UP.

  4. Pick one or two skills from every phantom job that you can put either on your resume or mention in an interview, and think about how you frame them.

    As a [lowly ill-paid minion] I learnt to appreciate that every job is necessary to the success of an organisation – this helps me to look for ways in which my underlings are making a contribution.
    [On the factory floor] I learnt to appreciate good managers and that a manager seemingly standing around doing nothing is watching for trouble to develop so they can nip it in the bud. This has taught me to be proactive.
    [as a telesales person] I learnt to quickly relate to a wide range of people, to calm them down if they were upset or agressive, and how to get things done efficiently. I also was able to make suggestions on how to improve the company database and workflow.

    1. I want to completely agree with this. Considering how to frame perceived “gaps” in my work history was not only useful for me in getting a job a few years ago, it was also helpful earlier this year from the other side of the coin when I was asked to serve on a hiring committee and had 70+ applications to read through. As miss_chevious mentions above, “everyone has something about their work history that is different from perfect.” There are any number of valid reasons a “40-hour/week full-time job” isn’t the most recent or most germaine work experience someone has. Mostly Lurking is spot on in their encouragement to frame these positions or situations as solid learning experiences enabling the acquisition of useful skills and attitudes. It also helps show that you as an applicant are an upbeat, positive person who is on the lookout for opportunities to grow and develop in all situations. And that’s very attractive, especially when, as I say, there are 70+ applications sitting in an online folder. The one caveat is not to go overboard and gush about these positions – too much enthusiasm and potential employers will start to wonder, at worst, how truthful you’re being and at best, why you would leave a job you seemed to be super-excited about. Mostly Lurking’s examples are just right.

  5. I was also thinking it might make sense to expand your letter to your old prof a little, by adding a memory-refresher about some project/paper you worked closely on or particularly shone on and even a photo, just because prof-to-student ratios being what they are your prof may be thinking “now, which one was she again?” (Depending on course load, 5 years may = hundreds of students). And if your recommendations are from 5 years out, you’ll especially want them to be strong and specific, not generic-sounding. Then add a sentence or two about your current professional goals.

    Don’t go over about an average-sized paragraph; your old profs do not have time or inclination to read a whole lot of background every time someone requests a reference. Just give enough to make their lives easier, so they don’t have to rack their brains to recall what was special about you.

  6. Maybe other readers have done surname changes not associated with getting married? I was actually really surprised how smoothly people adapted to my name changing. It’s just a thing women do, you know? While I do not love the history behind that, necessarily, or the paperwork, I do appreciate the lack of Dramaz.

    I suspect that people from your past will react just the same way as people from your present about your new name. “Thanks for the update!”

    One thing to add to the Captain’s advice: make sure you check these people on linkedin or whatever is appropriate, so you know where they are now. If you can ask them something about their current situation or offer congrats or otherwise acknowledge that their situation has changed too, they might appreciate it. At the end of the captain’s first paragraph. “I saw on LinkedIn that you were promoted” or “Mutual Contact Joe said you got the Big Grant last year, congratulations!”

    Also, I love the idea of choosing a whole new name for your post-divorce you.

    1. I’m on my third legal name, after two unrelated-to-marriage name changes. It’s been more complicated because in each case I changed my first and last name, but at least the first change was before I got any of my degrees.

      On my LinkedIn profile, I have a note that I am formerly known as $name-before-mintylime and that seems to have made it easier to make connections with previous coworkers/managers. As for telling former employers … like the Captain says, just mention it as a fact.

      Carbonatedwit’s suggestion to check them out and reference something that’s happened with them that’s work-related recently is a good one, as is alphakitty’s suggestion above about reminding them who you are and why you’re special.

    2. Yeah, I changed my last name a number of years ago. I think it’s much, much easier for women. Society is pretty ready to accept a new last name for us. I do the same thing as mintylime on Facebook – I use my “old” last name as middle name, so people from pre-change will recognize me.

      The change felt really momentous for me, but 99.9% of people just shrugged and changed their databases. I’m sure your old contacts will do the same, LW, if you send them an update email like CA suggests.

    3. I changed my name twice, by deed poll, decades ago – my surname and then a little later my first name. It never caused any trouble job-wise, apart from grumbling about having to update my paperwork! 🙂

    4. I changed my last name (after grad school :-)), and agree that it’s much easier for women as everyone assumes it’s marriage-related. If you don’t gush about getting married they won’t ask anything for fear of stumbling into a potential divorce discussion. I’d add a caveat though: I now mention my previous name in the education section of my resume, as it’s much more likely that employers will now be checking I actually have those degrees. No need for any other explanation than (under previous name —).

  7. As someone who hires people all the time, I would love to see that one-line “phantom job” explanation (or volunteering or SOMETHING) on a resume explaining a gap. Otherwise, I have to ask and potentially wade into someone’s personal life. I don’t want job interviews to be any more awkward than necessary!

    1. Seconding this!

      As a manager shortlisting and interviewing people, one of the things I look for is an overall picture that makes sense (as opposed to a candidate who apparently didn’t exist between 2004 & 2011, or whatever).

      I would advise as the best option putting something in your application, based on one of the Captain’s scripts. The second best is to answer the interview question calmly.

      (And by the way, don’t be scared of managers asking this sort of question. Any decent manager is trying to give you an opportunity to show why you’re right for the job, not trying to catch you out. Better to have the question asked and answered than to have a mystery.)

      1. I actually didn’t exist for a few years, employment-wise – I had a nervous breakdown and ended up on sickness. Thankfully I’m now starting to load my CV with shiny things to distract from it….

        1. One good way to account for missed time is to say, “Family emergency.” This is true – you are your family and it was an emergency – and also disuades further questioning. Good luck!

    2. Thirding. I do hiring and Penelope Trunk’s advice is a huge clunker. I don’t AT ALL dismiss graduate school, and the idea that someone would is bizarre to me: grad school is about pursuing a credential, and that reflects well on a candidate, and if you’re pursuing work in a field that flat-out requires that credential then NOT having grad school on your resume would be the black mark, n? And of course if you worked while in grad school, I want to know it. It gives me a sense of who you are. Bank teller, nursery-school teacher, massage therapist? Those all involve working with the public while demonstrating personal trustworthiness. Landscaping, painting houses, short-order cook, even grading for a professor’s intro course? Handling a heavy workload and working in a team. It’s a fairly dense manager that doesn’t put low-prestige work + pursuing a credential together and come up with “highly motivated, smart, and diligent person.”

  8. About “phantom jobs”, I also think there is value in showing that you’ve been consistently employed over time (unless you spent a very short time in each one). As the Captain mentioned, there are perfectly acceptable and very good reasons to have gaps in your employment history, like taking time out to be a caregiver, but if you have a recent employment history it’s always good to highlight that as a source of skills and proof of your reliability and interest in working. And just about anything, as Mostly Lurking mentioned, can be relevant to anything else. I have not hired others but, in my experience, employers are very interested in general qualities as much as specific knowledge: dependable, proactive, ability to learn, enthusiasm, breadth of skills, etc. You can demonstrate any of these through even the most ghostly of phantom jobs!

    1. Even then, sometimes it can be a good idea to include places where you worked even if you were there for a short amount of time.

      I’m just thinking of myself as an example… getting a full time job with the government (in Canada) is really difficult at the moment. BUT I have managed to get myself contracts. They are only 90 day contracts (they aren’t allowed to offer me anything longer as I am not an “internal” employee). But it is valuable experience for me to be gaining in order to hopefully get a full time job with the government in the future, so I include it in my resume.

  9. I’ve had four name changes in my life. All legal, and not all remotely connected to each other. I’ve also attended four colleges, had different careers, etc. The best, most pragmatic way to sort it out, is to have your name change paperwork handy. I keep a small packet from my birth certificate on up in my file case, because four name changes is way beyond what most folks do.

    When I moved and had to switch colleges again, I turned in my legal name change documents with my transcripts, so they could see it was all me, even if three different names were on them.

    When I go to a job interview, I bring up my name change issue at the end of the interview, after I ask if they need to call my old position/references. I then mention I worked under a different name at the old jobs. I offer legal documents, if they need it. It’s far easier for the new job to know than try to get an old job to recognize a new name.

    I’ve honestly, never had an issue with anything except one random insurance company for my husband’s job. That was seriously a one off, though.

    As for phantom jobs? I never put them on. I tailor my resume to the job I’m applying for, so that my experiences match up. I have found the very gender roles I hate, can work in my favor here, because I am female, and can claim “housewife” for that timeframe, often citing “taking care of aging relative” as well.

    1. Oh yes, I should have mentioned keeping legal documents and ID cards with the name changes and prior names. You never know which thing you may need someday to demonstrate that you really are that person.

      (Like the state DMV deciding that one of your name changes was illegal and the only connection you have to that older name that they will accept is your old drivers license. If it was good enough for everyone else, why it wasn’t good enough for the effing DMV, I will never know.)

  10. This is a little OT but I worked at an enormous, financial/media company in a major city in a not at all liberal environment and one day one of my colleagues announced that he was changing his very common name to Johann Sebastian Bach. He sent around an email to everyone in the department after he’d first contacted HR to change his email/phone link, etc. His email very simply said that he’d decided to change his name legally and that he would prefer not to answer questions about why and that from now on we should call him Sebastian.

    We all got the email at the same time, a everyone looked confused for a minute and then work proceeded as normal. Sometimes one of us would slip and call him by his old first name and he’d just say, “no problem” and move. Which I guess is to say that it’s been done before and lived through, you will be fine 🙂 You at least know that these people who are giving you references already respect you, which is fabulous. Best of luck, LW!

  11. “…I don’t think people should ever look down on their own work or apologize for what put food on their table, and the skills you took from those passing jobs actually do contribute to who you are professionally.”

    I needed to hear this. Thank you per usual, Captain Awkward.

    1. I’d been told this too but didn’t properly believe it until recently, when I started my dream job and had the opportunity to talk to the person who had conducted my interview – and she mentioned the particular reasons that my experiences from my years at McDonald’s had made a real difference. It blew my mind a little, because even though I’d been told it did, even though I’d listed the skills in my CV and talked about them at the interview – even through all of this I didn’t really, truly, in my heart believe that it could make a difference. But it really, really can.

  12. I think if you don’t mind saying/writing “After my divorce last year, my name has changed to: firstname newlastname”, that might work well. If I received that news from anyone, I wouldn’t think twice or question it in the least. Maybe some will assume it’s your maiden name but does it matter? I’m not a person that pries when given information but I do appreciate being kept up to date so I don’t address people incorrectly.

  13. Why not just tell the places that you are applying to “Oh, I changed my name a couple of years ago; it used to be xxxxx and that is the name my references are familiar with”? I guess you would have to provide some sort of proof of that, but it seems like another simple, valid solution to the issue, though I have never had my name changed, so I can’t be sure!

      1. I think a lot of applications ask for any previous names, so that may be covered. But it would be worth mentioning (again) if they go on to contact your references.

    1. This is exactly what I have done. In addition to sending my references a note like the one suggested, the reference sheet I gave prospective employers listed my name as Allison (Old last name) New Last Name. That way, when they call your reference, they can say “calling about Allison New Name, also known as Old Last Name.” Just in case your reference spaces out and says “who?”

  14. My only quibble with this is about admitting to having a past illness or kids at home. If you disclose that in an interview, it can open you up to discrimination that can be very hard to prove/fight.

    I’d just say something like “I was out of the workforce during that time, but here are some relevant things I learned/did.”

    Grad school’s a different kettle of fish. People aren’t usually discriminated against for having paused their career to get a degree. But kids/health are not an employer’s business. Especially at the interview stage.

      1. I really have to second this one. (With a slightly triggery response, just fyi!)

        My personal experience with answering the “what have you been up to?” question honestly (“oh, I was so depressed that I had to drop out of school, is all!”) ended quite horribly. I ended up getting the boot from a job search program thing after getting upset when a classmate showed a video mocking “crazies”, along with the “suggestion” that I seek group therapy. Basically I was treated like a ~CRAZY PERSON~ and the issue was pinned on me because I’d admitted to mental health issues previously.

        Take it with a grain of salt, of course, since it was a unique event! However, it’s made me far more hesitant to be transparent about my mental health in the future. I have nothing to feel ashamed of (depression happens! I have to take pills and see a therapist for it! So what?), but that doesn’t prevent people from being decidedly uncool about it. When asked the same question in the interview, I simply answered that I was “taking time to reevaluate my options”, and that ended up being good enough, and I’d suggest other people take the vague route as well.

        1. An employer who sees any kind of illness, medical history, children or disability as a weak point is not the right employer for someone living with any of those. They will be the same employers that put you at risk and fail to step up if a situation arises when you need a degree of flexibility or support. Sometimes I feel like testing the waters with vague references to medical issues or children if the question is asked can really help you gauge the companies attitude to it. Interviews work both ways, and you need to know that the company is right for you too. Maybe keep that in mind if you feel like you’re being grilled about or looked down upon when you talk about your phantom jobs. Also bear in mind, that person across the desk has probably waited tables, or been a check out chick, or a drive-through cashier, or run coffees, or cleaned hotel rooms. We’ve all done jobs to pay the bills that weren’t necessarily our passion or indicative of our skills.

          I once interviewed somewhere and told them that while I’d been at uni I’d waited tables as well as volunteering as a tutor for newly arrived refugee children, aiming to help them overcome language barriers and gaps in their educations caused by war or poverty, and get them caught up with their classmates as quickly as possible – not just for their education, but for their self confidence and to make them feel less like outsiders. I threw up in my mouth a little bit when the person interviewing me made a couple of offhand disgustingly racists and intolerant things in response to that, made a joke about “the Sudies” and all their children milking the system and then laughed at himself. He offered me the job two days later, and I politely declined on the basis that “I don’t think my values and that of the company are a good match” – translation “you’re a vile bigot and I’d sooner swallow hot coals than spend a day in your office listening to your bile”.

          1. On the other hand, sometimes jobs aren’t just about what you want, but about what you need, like putting food on the table, paying the mortgage/rent, and keeping lights and heat on. Or medical insurance. So sometimes people can’t afford to say “well, if you’re gonna be an ableist twit then I don’t want the job anyway!” And while that sucks, you do what you gotta do and people shouldn’t feel bad or dishonest about not laying their vulnerabilities out for inspection.

            Also, the person doing the interviewing is not always a fair representative of the culture of the place — for good or ill. Yes, you should be evaluating the culture and deciding if you even want the job. But an asshole interviewer shouldn’t necessarily be a deal-killer. Just one piece of information (albeit an important one, since that’s who the employer has chosen to make their first impression, and to make decisions about who your colleagues will be).

          2. An employer who sees any kind of illness, medical history, children or disability as a weak point is not the right employer for someone living with any of those.

            People who are just starting out their careers, or who work in small industries or industries experiencing high unemployment, may not have the privilege of being choosy.

            Also, not all discrimination is obvious. I have no way of knowing if a company took into account my health or family status when they decided how much to offer me in terms of salary. Most employers are savvy enough to not come out and say “we’re low-balling you because we think you’re going to take more sick days.” That’s one of those forms of discrimination that can be very hard to prove or fight.

        2. It may just be one event, but sadly I’m not sure it’s unique. One of my first job interviews after college, the interviewer flat-out asked if I had kids/was planning to have them soon, because the position ‘wasn’t suitable’ for someone who was going to ‘need to take sick leave all the time.’

          I should have heeded that red flag, but I didn’t–I took the job, then quit less than two months later because of the extremely hostile environment and bullying.

          I tell that story and people tell me I should have sued, as if lawsuits are silver bullets that right all wrongs. I imagine that what people want to convey when they say that is that they wish we lived in a world where employment laws actually protect everyone, regardless of their age, finances, or place in the workforce. But we don’t live in that world.

          I’m sorry about what happened to you. That’s ugly and gross, and I don’t blame you one bit for keeping your private medical business to yourself.

  15. Hi, LW!

    I am commenting because I have a sort of similar name sitch to yours– I was born Birthname, but was enrolled in school as Schoolname, then married and became ex-Spousename. When I divorced, it was an opportunity for me to claim a name for myself, and after much thought I decided upon the hyphenate of Birthname-Schoolname to make paperwork less complicated. I am still B-S name (lol) even though my kids have two different last names; altogether in our house there are five!

    I am telling you this because you would be surprised how few times in the past 12 years anyone has said boo or even blinked. Sure I do sometimes have to correct people when they Assume and call me by Kidsname or new-Spousename but if there’s discomfort, that’s their discomfort, not mine, and so far there’s been few social and no professional hurdles at all. It is quite common for people to take completely new names now, much more than it used to be, besides which, people get divorced or married all the time. Forging a new identity is part of that process, or can be, and it’s so much more socially acceptable to reclaim ones identity post big life stuff than it was.

  16. I went through the resume thing earlier in the year. I’ve pretty much been only a student and at first I thought no one would hire me. So I put in my experience running market stalls. Nothing to do with my field but it showed my dedication (waking up at stupid o’clock), problem-solving (how to best display the stall to increase business) and my ability to communicate with people. The experience I gained from it was invaluable and the general skills can be laterally transfered to unrelated work. I also treated my PhD like a full-time job, not as a uni degree.
    So don’t automatically discard the phantom work. Evaluate them and see what general skills you have taken away from them.

    I honestly don’t think your name change will be an issue.

  17. Done this! I’ve had no marital status change, I just did it by deed poll at the end of last year. I was leaving my job at that point anyway since it was a casual contract, so it didn’t matter, but when they asked us back I just said, by the way my name is this now. Online I was very open about going through the process to get it changed and why I did it (my old surname was extremely uncommon, my new surname is Miller, and I also de-feminised my first name and changed my middle name entirely). I have had almost zero negativity – the only wrinkle was my dad being a bit put out, but he came around when someone saw him in the newspaper and came to our house to ask for computer help or something, because it made him understand where I was coming from. Just stay either neutral or upbeat about it – either use the “divorced, actually” line or “I felt like this suited me much better” or whatever else feels natural, and you should be fine. Women changing their surnames is common enough that it shouldn’t be too much of a big deal.

  18. ““There was a medical issue that required immediate attention, and once that was handled, I was more interested in (this field) so I stuck with that.” Nobody has to know that you majored in videogames and crying.”

    That’s brilliant. I had issues with depression in college (which shows up really clearly on my transcript), and this response fits me perfectly. I’ve never had a concrete response to the “so, what happened there?” question. =) This is way better, thank you!

    1. And take heart, past the first (couple?) jobs nobody ever looks at transcripts, so this will disappear entirely from your record very soon :-).

  19. Thanks for this. I just totally blew my first interview out of grad school (for a job I really wanted, no less), and I really needed a script for how to deal with difficult interview questions. I’m on the autism spectrum, which means among other things that whatever I’m thinking tends to come out of my mouth–not generally the best approach on a job interview, especially when I’m already dealing with a lot of self-confidence issues at the same time. :/

    I’m writing down these responses, seriously. And trying to remember that screwing up one interview doesn’t make me a complete failure at life. Thanks for this.

    1. As someone who has blown many interviews of the course of my life, I understand. Actually, everyone I know has blown an interview at some point (or multiple points), and I’d never classify any of them as a failure. Still, it sucks. I give you Jedi hugs (if wanted). Good luck on your job search!

    2. I’m sorry your first interview wasn’t very nice 😦
      I’ve had lots of those kinds of interviews too. Just think of it this way: If the interviewers tactic is to intimidate you, put you under pressure and try and ‘catch you out’, that tells you a lot about the overall management style of that company, and that’s going to be a really good indicator as to whether you’ll respond to their style. (btw, it’s ok to take the job anyway if you get it, dream jobs are sometimes worth putting up with or learning new ways to deal with incongruous management styles)
      You’ll find eventually that there are some interviews you go to where the interviewer will seem to be making an effort to put you at ease, to get to know you, and will responding enthusiastically to you. Those will likely be more nurturing environments and sometimes they make better first-full-on-career jobs.
      Try not to stress, bombed interviews aren’t necessarily on you. there can be bad interviewers

    3. Best way to combat job interview nerves? Apply for a few that you don’t want 🙂 if you get through to interview stage you still give it your best shot with the knowledge that if you blow it, who cares, you’ve lost nothing. Practice makes such a difference and it next time a dream job comes up you’ll be an old hand with plenty of practice, scripts and a much better idea of what you are in for!

  20. “Nobody has to know that you majored in videogames and crying”

    And minored in Subway and sleeping! 8D

    This is great advice — I haven’t had a name change, but I did have a shitty year and WOW THE QUESTIONS ARE IRRITATING. Thanks for making them easier to answer! :3

  21. When I saw this linked I was hoping to see more ah… comprehensive advice for this kind of thing I guess?

    I’m legally changing my first name soon, from a female one to a male one (for transgender-related reasons), and not only do I have no idea how to break that to my former employer (my dad, who I’m not out to because he would not take it well to say the least), but it’s not a thing I really want to mention to a potential employer. It’s completely legal to discriminate against transgender people in my state, so my status there is not something I’m exactly willing to disclose during an interview. :\

    1. We answer the questions that come in. I’m grateful for your comment, though – it makes me think hard about privilege and how much transgender people stand to lose or leave behind and how seemingly simple things become heavy with risk.

      I think the key to this will be coming out to your dad and getting him on your side so that you can just use the one name with future employers and have your dad give you references for that name. I hope you can find a way to make it happen and that you have a good support team (friends, therapist, other family members) on your side. In other threads about coming out, LBGT-guest posters have recommended writing a letter that lays everything out and allows the parent to respond with a little bit of time and distance (instead of pressuring them to have a perfect reaction right away), or coming out to a relative or two that you know will be supportive and asking them to carry the news to the rest of the family.

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