Posted November 21, 2014 by

Finding a job after substance use in college

Alcohol abuse: drunk young man or student lying down on a table with beer bock still in hand, focus on glass up front.

Alcohol abuse: drunk young man or student lying down on a table with beer bock still in hand, focus on glass up front. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

College was one of the most memorable and defining experiences of your entire life. Now that you’ve recently entered the “real world”, you’re allowed to be a little sad and anxious. From sparse job openings to the culture shock of re-entering a world full of rules, there are plenty of roadblocks you’ll have to overcome. And if you have a substance use history, you may feel you have to work even harder to secure work after graduating.

Saying goodbye to the lifestyle

College might be ending, but the friendships you formed and the degree you earned will stay with you, arming you with useful knowledge and social skills. However, it’s important to be realistic and accept the ways your life will change. For example, you won’t live in an insular community full of peers your own age, or rely on the stability of a meal plan and class schedule. And if you used substances excessively on a regular basis, you probably won’t be able to do that either with most careers.

Changing old habits isn’t always easy, especially if your body and brain are accustomed to their effects. Navigating the stress of job interviews and making your very best effort to get hired will be easier with a clear mind and healthy body. Don’t hesitate to seek outside help if you think you need it, but have faith in your own self-discipline to make changes too. Sometimes a new environment is all you need to establish change and you can find new ways to relax and connect with friends.

Explaining legal or disciplinary problems

If you were caught with illegal substances or have a criminal history because of their use — for example, driving under the influence — you don’t have to let it mark you for life. While you may not have the perfect record you wanted, these discretions are actually more common than you think, and showing how you overcame them can actually help you succeed.

Today’s background checks, social media and word-of-mouth can turn temporary slip-ups into permanent mistakes. You might be asked to explain a gap in time. If you lie about your experiences or avoid the question and your potential employer finds out later, how can they trust you to be an honest worker?

Employers can’t legally ask you about your substance use history but they can ask if you are still using. Take that opportunity to explain the steps you took to move beyond substance use — for example, taking a semester off to seek help, or volunteering at a community center to give yourself perspective and help others re-build their lives. Don’t be afraid or ashamed of your efforts to improve yourself; after all, their purpose was to help you overcome the influence of substances, and that includes the lingering stigma. Be positive, be upfront and let prospective employers know you recognized the need for change and did the work to make it happen!

If you embrace your own personal growth, it will be easier to find an employer who will respect you for it. These experiences can be even more educational than a college course, and sharing them has a practical purpose too. It proves that you can handle personal and professional setbacks with clarity, maturity, and a commitment to acknowledging and dealing effectively with problems.

Applying for jobs that drug test

Drug tests are a common part of entry-level job applications. While executives and artists don’t usually have to prove their sobriety, recent college graduates are likely to face one “drug-free workplace” after another in their efforts to secure their first professional job. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to find work if you used substances recently; you just have to know a few details.

Every business and industry has a slightly different policy when it comes to substances. Some employers may seek a pre-employment drug test and not test you again unless there is some suspicion you are using on the job. Some require you to consent to random tests if you do get hired; others ask for your consent for legal reasons, but may never actually implement the policy. If it’s not clear, do some online research about the company’s specific policy and the industry you are looking to enter in general. Some industries may have a high rate of testing, especially where safety concerns are an issue and others have few if any recurring tests.

A drug test will likely be a required part of the hiring process. Whether you pass depends on three things: which specimen they sample (urine, blood, saliva, or hair), which substances you used, and how long ago you last used them. Spit tests only catch very recent use, but hair tests can reach six months into your past. Lab-administered urine tests are the most common, but their scope depends on the substances you used, as well as how often you used them. If you try to submit false or doctored samples, this could jeopardize your career in the future, so make sure your system is clear before you take it.

Substance use can only hold you back if you let it. If you are direct about past indiscretions as well as your changes and remain focused on your career goals, your college education will pay off in no time.

Bio: The following is a guest post by Saint Jude Retreats, an alternative to traditional substance use treatment. Saint Jude Retreats provides a program for people with substance use problems that concentrates on self-directed positive and permanent change. Through the program, we offer the opportunity for individuals to self-evaluate and explore avenues for life enhancement.

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