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I have a friend who is looking for a job in the technical industry. He is 30 and just finished studying his degree for 12 years, which is supposed to take 5.

Before going on, let me give some context: I come from a country in which technical degrees in the university are very, very hard to get:

On a given year, +500 people may start the course and two years after way more than half of them will have quit the studies. Toward the last years, classes tend to be rather small and no more than 50 people graduates every year (10% from the initial batch). Exams tend to be quite hard and many subjects have a ratio of 2 or 3 people passing for every ten candidates.

Since the curriculum is prepared for a 5 years degree, all the above stated implies that graduate students spend, on average, 7 to 8 years in the university.

In the case of my friend, he did not perform well and there are no excuses for that. He did not feel motivated, worked for a while, spent some time in other countries, etc. Finally he has got his degree, some experience working in his field as a trainee in different European countries and he is also able to speak fluently five important languages in the region.

He is now applying for jobs and in all cases the recruiters focus on the amount of years he spent studying and the poor performance through that time. No matter if he could be good using his extra skills (languages, for example), most of the cases he does not make it to the first interview.

Lying about the curriculum is not an option, so all friend are suggesting some ways to approach it: indicating just the year when it was finished, expanding the explanation on the traineeships he was involved in, focusing on the amount of languages he is able to speak, etc.

However, I wonder what can be a good approach to overcome this first, easy question "why did it take you so long to finish your degree?".

  • @joestrazzere: Please review my tough-love answer. I would love to be wrong, but... – keshlam Mar 15 '16 at 0:58
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    Without knowing more about the country & culture, I can't say, but I didn't get a BS degree until 15 years after graduating from high school. No employer has ever asked about it. Had they done so, I would have told them (at least part of) the truth: I needed to work to earn the money to pay for college. In the US, at least, it's not terribly uncommon, though perhaps less so these days when student loans &c are easier to get. – jamesqf Mar 15 '16 at 4:28
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    most of the reasons for him taking so long, just sound like excuses to me. 12 years to finish a degree is a bit much to chew off and pretend it tastes nice. – Kilisi Mar 15 '16 at 5:53
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    "all the above stated implies that graduate students spend, on average, 7 to 8 years in the university" - if you start from this premise (convincingly), it is not so bad a stretch to say that what normally takes 8 years took a few extra years. Still not great, but it should be an explanation. – Brandin Mar 15 '16 at 9:24
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    @Kilisi I spent 11 years getting my MS. I simply had other priorities that came up, like working full time to support my family, taking care of sick relatives and the like. Life happens and sometimes getting a degree in a timely manner has to take a back seat. – DLS3141 Mar 16 '16 at 13:10
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Here is what I would tell your friend. Your resume is your document. You build it about yourself. You choose what goes on it in what order. It sounds like right now it reads something like this:

  • 2002-2016 Earned a B.Sc. From Prestigious University
  • 2015 internship, France
  • 2014 internship, Germany
  • . . .

Instead, why not redo the whole thing to show a hard working and dynamic person with more experience than most graduates?

  • 2015 Junior Somethinger (not trainee or intern, what was the job?), BigCorp, Germany. Details of duties.
  • 2014 Junior Somethinger, OtherCorp, France. Details of duties
  • Fluent in: list the languages
  • Working knowledge of: list some more
  • . . .
  • Education: B.Sc., Prestigious University, 2016

This is far more than "only say the finishing year." This is moving the thing you don't want to spend the whole interview discussing down to a less important area and emphasizing what you do want to discuss. Build a resume that presents you the way you want to be presented.

Then practice one or two sentences to answer the question of why it took so long. In this case it sounds like:

As I'm sure you know, it's a very hard program. I considered leaving, and went to work in Europe for a while, then came back re-energized and finished the program. Now I'm really looking forward to working as a Somethinger.

That last sentence isn't strictly an answer to "why did it take so long?" It's a bridge to change the subject from that to what you want now. That's a very important technique to learn.

Your friend has to learn to "stay on message". Step 1 of that is deciding what the message is. Then write the resume to send that message and answer the interview questions with that message in mind.

  • More practically useful than my answer.... – keshlam Mar 15 '16 at 22:37
  • Kate, thanks a lot for this answer. I am sure this will be very helpful. I also appreciate both suggestions around the same topic: what to write in the résumé and what to say in an interview. The first one is specially handy, since most of the hiring processes start with a first review of the cv, and that's where my friend is being penalised right now. Thanks!! – fedorqui Mar 16 '16 at 19:17
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I have some personal experience with this, although not exactly the same. It took me 11 years to get a degree, but I didn't spend all 11 years on the same studies but started over 2 times on something else, only to end up with my first choice. I had the same problem as your friend, how to spin this to not look so bad on my resume and in interviews. My degree is also a technical one, Physics, and I get a lot of interest from recruiters but I do always have to explain this point on my resume. And honestly, I don't mind. It's part of who I am.

I am just open and honest about it. From 'high school' I went to college and I failed because I was not ready for it. I never had to do any studying before, and I didn't know how to handle this big bulk of difficult assessments coming my way. I was younger and it kinda broke my self confidence at that time. I gave up. I'm not proud of that, but it did happen.

After this, I chose a different degree (non-technical) to pursue. That went quite well to start with, but it was just not my thing and then I quit because I didn't see myself spending my life in this field of work. Then, I really didn't know what to do anymore so I spent some time working, travelling, more working, until I found out that I was wasting my perfectly fine brain ;) and went back to college studying Physics again. That actually went quite well and I got good grades.

Yes, I spent an awful lot of time getting a degree. Despite being top of my class in high school (or maybe because I was, I don't know) I had a really difficult time adjusting to college. But what I gained along the way, I consider important as well. I finally learned to plan and organise my work, I travelled and saw something of the world and other cultures, I gained life experience and learned some valuable lessons. It's nothing to be ashamed of to park something because it's not working for you now, and get back to it when you are ready for it. It doesn't make me a quitter, on the contrary: I'm proud I succeeded in the end.

I have always, in every interview, told about this period in my life. If they don't want me for it, so be it. I have a lot to offer, partly because of this. Never had the feeling a recruiter/interviewer wasn't satisfied with my story. Sure, maybe they only want straight A students that have finished college in the nominal time, but then they shouldn't have invited me to interview anyway, so there's not really a lot lost.

It's a bit of a long answer, and I don't know if it helps, but this is my personal experience with the matter.

  • Well said. I went through a similar experience. +1 – AndreiROM Mar 16 '16 at 13:20
  • It is very inspiring to read your experience, thanks for sharing it! In my friend's case, he was always commited to the same degree; however, I do believe his "love" towards it has changed, from a naive approach in the beginning on "something to study" to become a degree he really wanted to achieve. Finally, he managed to set up all necessary conditions to get the degree. – fedorqui Mar 16 '16 at 19:04
  • @fedorqui I'm glad your friend succeeded in the end as well. It's sometimes a little difficult deciding 'what do you wanna do when you grow up?' and the amount of different type of studies is (at least in my country) huge! It's impossible, at least, I found it quite hard. Glad you appreciate me sharing this experience :) It was actually my first ever answer on this site tee-hee! – Sabine Mar 16 '16 at 19:14
  • That was a top level start, nicely done and welcome to Stack Exchange! I also had a similiar experience deciding what to study and now I still thing other degrees would've been better. However, I also discovered you can switch profession through little steps between jobs. – fedorqui Mar 16 '16 at 19:22
  • @Sabine: I think I can top "...I didn't spend all 11 years on the same studies...". The subject I finally got my degree in (CS) didn't even exist as an academic field when I started :-) – jamesqf Mar 16 '16 at 19:29
3

I may be completely off base here. And if my interpretation is correct, I wish I had a better answer. But...

It sounds like he might have made a mistake in insisting upon pursuing this particular degree. It doesn't seem to be something he wants to be doing, and without intrinsic motivation it is unlikely he will ever be good at it. He might have been better off being guided into another field.

His best hope might actually be to chuck that degree and start again from scratch.

If this isn't really what he wants to do with his life, I would recommend writing the degree off as an expensive mistake , deciding what he would be interested in doing, and starting again from there. There is always a market for a good tradesman, for example, and some excellent hands-on trade schools (as well as some real stinkers, admittedly).

Or he could go back to school for a different (though possibly related) degree and earn stellar grades, proving that he has indeed learned how to apply himself. Expensive, admittedly.

But if he has decided that the original technical area is the only thing he wants to do with his life, and he can't invest in proving that he has changed... Recovering from demonstrating a lack of motivation is going to be difficult.Best bet may be to take a job at the lowest level of the profession, prove that he is now better than that, and work his way up... Example: start as a sysop or bottle-washer or equivalent, demonstrate you can do more than that, build skills, demonstrate you can do much more than that, ask for a transfer or seek a new job that uses the skills you have spent the additional years developing and displaying... Try desperately to catch up with the whiz kids who didn't detour.

...And all of this is completely irrelevant unless he actually wants to make this work. He has to at least be dedicated even if he isn't enthusiastic (and he needs to at least try to appear enthusiastic while job-hunting). There is very little a friend can do but encourage him to explore his options. He has to do the work, or he can't go anywhere.

(For what it's worth, my own degree was a mistake -- in retrospect I should have stayed with my first love and gone CS with heavy EE rather than the other way around; my grades would have been better and I wouldn't have had to spend several years transitioning back. But I finished on time, my grades were only low compared to the rest of MIT, I had a record of turning Cs into Bs by acing the finals, I had a killer Bachelor's thesis, and I didn't go into the field for the money but because it was something I actually wanted to do.... all of which added up to a demonstration that my grades weren't an accurate representation of my actual capabilities.)

3

Pivot the question from a weakness to a strength.

"Because I finish what I start. I was very young when I started on my degree, and I took some breaks to travel, and to work and gain world experience. However over time I was determined to finish what I started. My course of study was very difficult, and has a very high drop out rate Nevertheless, I was determined to finish, and I am very proud that notwithstanding the difficulty of returning to study after an absence, I did and I excelled.

"Additionally, my breaks to work bring a lot of value to potential employers. I bring maturity and work experience that other recent graduates do not have. I have learned the value of hard work, and have been exposed to several different work environments and management styles, and have learned how to work well with people from many backgrounds.

"Also, my travels are a huge bonus. I used my travel time wisely to become fluent in several important languages. This gives me insight and skills that most recent graduates simply do not have. I know how to get along with people from many places, and can communicate with people from all over the region.

"In short, I know that my breadth of work, travel and school experience bring an unusual amount of value to potential employers for a recent graduate, and I am excited to buckle down and work hard in this new chapter of my life."

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Wow a 12 year 5 year degree. That's a record. You have differentiated yourself from the oversupply of rubbish degrees. Well there are some workarounds.

You can say the degree was part time because you probably did not turn up much. You will have some crappy grades but crap grades from good universities are worth much more than A passes from diploma mills.

If they hassle you about grades - which they probably wont - then you can say this: the German government in the 1930's had the most university grads in it of any cabinet, at the time. This will make them think that good grades may be not a good thing.

Most people that fail are just lazy, like I was, so they repeat and pass when they feel like it. So you are not stupid, maybe you just got a bit distracted. Do an IQ test or even an AQ test and you will do just fine. Show result to prospective employer.

See the employer wants a degree because if its from a decent university it implies some IQ. If you have a learning disability, like I do, then you could turn it to your advantage.

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    Welcome to the site! I highly suggest putting a little more effort into formatting your answers, and also trying to keep on point. That story about Nazi Germany is really not going to help the OP in an interview situation. I edited some of that out, however I highly recommend removing all traces of it, as I believe it is simply poor advice to try and justify low grades in that way. You of course have the right to disagree. – AndreiROM Mar 16 '16 at 13:18

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