I'm graduating at the end of this academic year and I have a gap of around two years on my resume before I started my Ph.D. at a top 10 program in my field. This was caused by diagnosed illness, which caused cancer and finally required a major surgery. The whole ordeal took two years to recover from. I was initially surprised to get into my current Ph.D. program and had a tough start, since two years in a bed makes you forget a lot.

It's quite obvious from my resume that there's a gap and even though I have a 4.0 GPA from undergrad and good publications from during my Ph.D., I'm sure someone will ask, since I'm applying for industry positions.

There's also the "toughest challenge?" question that often comes up on interviews. My issues is therefore, whether I should bring this up myself or wait until someone asks? I somehow feel that it would be good to get it over with early on in the interview. Any thoughts?

My main problem with this is if employers might think that I'm a ticking bomb that might go off any second. My cancer was however found in extremely early stages by accident when investigating something else.

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    If they ask, just say you had major surgery that took a long time to recover, and you're glad that is all behind you. It's a) none of their business what that was specifically and b) if they have suspicions/opinions about that they are probably already prejudiced and talking a lot about is is not going to change anything – user8036 Dec 11 '14 at 7:34
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    The point of the "toughest challenge" is just to find out what you do when facing a problem you cannot solve easily - do you cave in and give up/delegate it, or do you study the problem and learn the information you need to fix the problem. – Juha Untinen Dec 11 '14 at 10:45
  • It's not clear to me what you see as the toughest challenge: the disease itself, or your process of recovery from it where you got your PhD back on track? – Vietnhi Phuvan Dec 11 '14 at 11:10
  • FWIW the 2 year gap prior to your PHD is not a big deal. It is probably better to NOT volunteer that you've had cancer if you can avoid it. Companies can and do turn down candidates for "illegal" reasons all the time, they can trivially get away with it as long as there are even the most trite but plausible "legal" reasons. Bharal's answer below is absolutely correct about the "toughest challenge" question-- they're only really asking about work challenges. – teego1967 Dec 11 '14 at 13:52
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    This is a great question and the type of subjective that we can answer. I hope it gets reopened. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Dec 11 '14 at 21:09

Well, I am glad you survived the cancer, and good work jumping into the PhD, so congratulations.

You should never voluntarily offer excuses for anything. Offering up excuses looks bad - for one, it brings people's attention to something they might not even have noticed and moreover, tells them they should be noticing this thing.

I've had a fair few large "gaps" (1 or so year blocks each time) in my CV - fortunately not for dire reasons, but I still don't mention them. Typically people don't do the effort of linking end dates to the next start date. I thought it was weird until I realised that CVs are really boring, and when I read them I just look at company name and length.

In your case, because PhDs don't have a known fixed duration, I really doubt anyone will notice.

As to the "toughest challenge" question... that's an interesting one. See, the deal with these questions isn't really the "toughest challenge" that the candidate faced. It's to outshine other candidates, by proving how useful you'll be to the place you're working.

So sure, surviving cancer is utterly going to be the toughest challenge you faced. But unless you're applying for a role that is about, say, surviving cancer, then that's hardly going to make you shine from the viewpoint of excelling in the company. I would suggest you pick some other tough challenge that is completely not health related, and which highlights an aspect of your character that is impressive.

Maybe it is how you worked on one solution in your PhD, and after spending many months on it, you realised you might need to try a different way. You agonised over it, but in the end realised that getting the job done is more important than pretending you didn't waste time. See, that (made up scenario) is a tough challenge that shows character and lessons learned that is useful for an employee to have.

And if they do end up asking why there is a gap, then yes, of course you mention your health issues. You'll look 100x more impressive when you didn't bring it up as a tough challenge - it will show you're over it, and if you don't care about it, why should the company?

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The Gap

Honestly, if they don't ask you really shouldn't worry about the gap. Some interviewers look at resumes carefully and not these things, some just look for obvious red flags how many years experience you have then move on.

If the gap is asked about it's perfectly fair to say "I had a serious medical concern that had to be dealt with immediately. Treatment and recovery took quite sometime, but that is behind me now and I'm thankful it's over." (or similar with whatever details you would like to share.) Just know you have no obligation to tell the interviewer specifics if you don't want to.

Any interviewer who holds the fact you had a health issue against you is doing you a favor, because you REALLY don't want to work for them.

Toughest Challenge

There's really three ways to handle this question in consideration of overcoming such a terrible disease.

  • Explain the actual diagnosis, the emotions and stress that came with it. Treatment, recovery, finances, etc. How hard these were all to handle especially since while you were handling them you were effectively having a cocktail of chemicals pumped into your body that were keeping you in a limbo of destroying your body and the cancer while trying to keep you alive. (Cancer is probably one of the scariest diseases to face because treatment is often brutal)
  • Explain that after going through treatment and recovery jumping back into the world running going for your PhD was jarring. Treatment effectively robbed you of time that left you well behind where you had been, successfully catching up was a struggle you had to both relearn what you had known while also learning things that depended on that lost knowledge.
  • Omit the disease entirely for another impressive feat of issues overcome in the work place or school so that if the disease comes up the fact it was "no big deal" makes you seem inhumanly strong of will. You do need a very impressive feat though, if you had a minor disagreement with your boss as your toughest issue then drop the cancer bomb on me I'm going to question your priorities.

All strategies have their merits and can be used effectively. There are those that will not receive the medical issues well. Those are people to avoid, they'll likely avoid giving you responsibilities in some unfounded fear you'll relapse or in some messed up feeling you're somehow tainted or something equally messed up.

There will also be others like myself who have seen how terrible this disease truly is, and just how strong of will most of it's survivors become. These are people I can count on to keep it together no matter what happens. (When one faces their own mortality it really puts how trivial many things we stress out about into perspective)

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