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I have worked for two years at a government contractor on a number of classified projects. I am now hunting for a new job, but I am running into a significant problem: I can't answer questions about my previous work experience, because it is mostly classified, and the unclassified stuff is wildly uninteresting. Since this was my first job out of college, I have no interesting work experience to talk about.

How should I solve this problem? I usually just tell the interviewer that "unfortunately, my professional experience is classified" and then try to follow up by describing non-professional experiences, such as college projects, but usually that feels unsatisfactory, since, relative to the work they are hoping for me to do, my college experiences are also uninteresting.

marked as duplicate by jmac, Jim G., jcmeloni, CincinnatiProgrammer, Monica Cellio Oct 28 '13 at 15:44

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    @jmac I'm not sure they are the same. This is specifically in reference to interviews and the other is how to approach a resume. – enderland Oct 28 '13 at 10:41
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    jmac, Jim G., jcmeloni, Paul Brown, Monica Cellio Guys Classified is not the same as Confidential. Classifed implies that you are covered by the Official Secrets Act or the equivalent and have a formal security clearance - and there is a LOT of difference in what you can and cant say. – Neuromancer Oct 29 '13 at 21:39
  • @Neuromancer, I understand 'classified' and 'confidential' have different meanings, but that isn't fundamental to the question in this case, since in both questions the question is how to describe activities without disclosing information that isn't supposed to be disclosed, no? – jmac Oct 30 '13 at 4:04
  • @enderland, would the answer be different? If so, we should re-open this, but if not, then the other could be generalized to 'during the job-changing process' rather than a specific interview/resume-related comment. – jmac Oct 30 '13 at 4:05
  • Jmac if your working for the a job where you have a formal security clearance there is quite a difference in what you are permitted to say compared to the average job. I think there is a considerable difference In some cases you are "allegedly" forbidden from even mentioning you have worked for some organizations under and would be committing a serious offence. A normal employer has no realistic way of penalizing you for discussing in general terms your job - theft of trade secrets is different but this doesn't apply in this case – Neuromancer Oct 30 '13 at 11:27
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and the unclassified stuff is wildly uninteresting

Woah, woah woah. Inaccurate assumptions everywhere.

First, those interviewing you aren't trying to simple suffer through an interview and be entertained. They are trying to figure out whether you would make a quality employee and fit their team. Your primary job as the interviewee is not to simply tell entertaining stories for most interviews.

Second, there is always something in every project worth discussing (unless you literally worked on nothing). Find these and discuss these. It is impossible to have literally nothing worth talking about when you work on teams, have deliverables, have to learn, work on technical projects, or have any sort of interaction with people - this tends to cause conflict regardless as to whether it's classified or not. The majority of this is 100% independent of the details of your assignments.

This means you can still answer nearly every behavioral question which you are presented with without discussing a single detail of your classified information.

For example, compare the following:

  • "I had to work with Brett Spiner on the implementation of a warp plasma drive using C++ and the Trek framework, but we had some serious issues implementing the Picard method - this caused us to need help, but problems with the Borg stopped us from getting it implemented correctly and we had to use a SuperSecritTechnology card to get it fixed. Brett and I had some real problems with communication because he was a prototype secret android and we had to work through those issues by reprogramming him in SuperSecritTechnology."

with

  • "I was working on a project which was highly technical, using a classified framework - we ran into some problems with communication during an implementation problem. This required us to spend some serious time working through these issues, which we found resulted from our unique ways of seeing the world"

Both communicate the same ability - being able to handle communication problems. One is considerably more generic.

Third, if your resume has enough information to get you interviews, your skill-set is clearly generic enough to be able to not hide this due to your classified work experience part. What are you telling people? "I'm a java developer but I can't talk about my java skills because they are classified?"

So:

I usually just tell the interviewer that "unfortunately, my professional experience is classified"

"While the specifics of most of my professional experience are classified, I would love to talk through as much as possible in a more general sense for some of the challenges and experiences I have. I will let you know if I cannot give more details because they are classified to a question - feel free to ask clarifications and I will do my best!"


edit to add - I guess I was assuming you have done this but make sure you speak with your manager from the contract positions about how to handle this work in interviews. If you've not done this, this is Step 0. Also read through any documents you have on this subject (again, assuming you've already done this).

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    I would not recommend talking about classified work in any way -- assuming that it is classified for a good reason, there actually MAY be people out to get him. Once you start talking about it, you can never be sure that they can't correlate it with something else or you just provide too much detail. – jmoreno Oct 27 '13 at 22:24
  • Generalizing works well for confidential information and things covered under NDAs, but in my case, I cannot do even that. The nature of the project is such that people can know that I have worked on a project and said project is classified, but I cannot further discuss any details of the project whatsoever, nor anything about my role in it. – ewok Oct 31 '13 at 2:23
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    That information is classified can be classified information itself, so one must treat very lightly on any acknowledgement of the former. For example, if "FooBars are tasty" is DOE-Q, then you need DOE-L to know that FooBars exist. – Jeff Feb 28 '14 at 17:15
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Would it not be possible to describe in general terms what you without breaching any laws I mention in my CV some of the work I did which would have been covered by the official secrets act as seen in the following extract.

“complex problems involving digitizing data, from both still and high-speed film cameras.“

I don’t exactly say what the experiment related to but it gives a feel for what I was doing.

I would suggest talking to your boss, security officer and hr and ask them for advice.

Or apply for jobs that require a security clearance who will understand that you cant be to specific – assuming you are happy staying in this area.

  • In general, yes, but the issue is as discussed in the comments of the main question. I cannot discuss anything at all about the project, other than the fact that it exists, it is classified, and I worked on it. And actually, dealing with classified information, while kind of cool to say that I did, is highly stressful to me and one of the main reasons that I chose to leave my job in the first place. – ewok Oct 31 '13 at 2:26

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