June 2022 AccessAdvice

AccessAdvice with Elaine Schaertl Short

Welcome to “AccessAdvice”, a new advice column on accessibility and disability issues written by Elaine Schaertl Short, an AccessComputing co-PI. Before we start, some important disclaimers: everything I say represents only my opinion as an individual, not the opinion of any organization or funder, and I am not a lawyer or medical professional and none of the following should be construed as medical or legal advice. If you’d like to ask a question, email accesscomp@uw.edu with the subject line “AccessAdvice.”

I am currently taking a semester of medical leave and am actively interviewing for internships. Is it okay not to disclose the fact that I’m on medical leave during my interviews? I never lie, and my graduation date is still the same, but I do not feel comfortable informing my interviewers of this. Any advice on how to proceed going forward? – I Never Lie

Dear I Never Lie,

First of all, your instinct not to lie is definitely correct: an interviewer only has a limited amount of time to make a judgment on you as a candidate, and you don’t want to raise questions in their mind about your integrity, even if this is an exceptional circumstance. You don’t have to bring it up, but make sure you have a good answer ready if you’re asked a question about something like your current classes. My recommendation is to aim for an answer with three characteristics: a matter-of-fact tone, minimal information, and a pivot to a new topic. The phrases “medical stuff”, “family issues”, and “a family emergency” are pretty standard in the adult world to mean “something that is personal that I don’t want to talk about”, and most people won’t ask follow-up questions. You can also say things like “I’d prefer not to get into it” if they express concern or ask questions – just use a friendly tone and most people will leave it alone, especially if you then change the topic by turning the conversation back to something relevant to the position. Feel free to use one or more of these examples (adjust to fit your situation):

  • I’m actually on leave this semester to deal with some medical stuff but I’m looking forward to taking algorithms in the spring—I’ve really been enjoying my math classes!
  • I’ve had to take this semester off from classes to deal with some family issues, but I’ve been working on learning to use PyTorch. I recently got a system set up to recognize my handwriting, which I’m very excited about.
  • Oh, I’d prefer not to get into the details, as I’m sure you can imagine they’re not very pleasant, but everything will be under control by the summer. Could you tell me more about the database system you’re using? I’m really interested in getting more backend experience.

As I alluded to above, there are a couple somewhat more valid reasons an interviewer might have follow-up questions: first, they may be concerned about whether you will actually be available when the internship starts, and some internship programs may require that you be a current student at the time of the internship. It’s really up to you whether you want to head off these concerns by addressing them directly (I’ve included one example above), or wait until you’re asked directly. At most universities, you’re considered a current student over the summer if you’re enrolled for the spring before and fall after but you’d want to check in directly with your university to confirm.

If you won’t be a current student at the time of the internship, I would probably recommend you mention that you are on leave (but not why) once you have an offer—if the internship does have a requirement that you be a currently-enrolled student, you don’t want to find that out on your first day while filling out new-hire paperwork. You don’t have to make a big deal of it or reveal any details, just say something like “I wanted to mention that I am on leave from the university to deal with [some medical stuff/a family emergency/family stuff]. Things will be fine by summer, but because of how leave works at my university, I won’t be a currently-enrolled student again until fall. Is that going to be a problem on your end?” If they do require that you be considered a current student in order to start the internship, then I would get in touch with an advisor or the person managing your medical leave as soon as possible; there may be a way to enroll part-time in internship or co-op credits so that you count as a student.

Whatever scripts you decide to go with, you’ll probably want to practice them like you’d practice any other interview question. You’re aiming for a relatively light tone; remember that most working adults have had to take some time off work for some reason or another, so this is a pretty normal exchange to have during an interview. Except to confirm that you will to be available and whether or not you’ll be considered a currently-enrolled student, any additional questioning on the topic should be met with polite deflections (the last bullet above is an example). If you get the sense that they are just being nosy or trying to get you to disclose a disability, just say “I’d prefer not to discuss it. Do you have any more questions related to the interview?”

It’s unlikely to come to that though, so just stay calm, have some answers prepared, and I’m sure you’ll do great. Good luck in your interviews!