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Returning to Work After a Career Break


Dear CareerDoctor

I'm a mother of two (aged 5 and 3) and have spent the last few years looking after my children full-time. Now I am looking for a job, either full-time or part-time, but something where my bachelor's degree in material science and engineering would be relevant. Before starting my family I worked as a quality control and sales executive, as well as in marketing and translating/interpreting (I am fluent in English, Italian, Macedonian, Serbo-Croatia, and Bulgarian). Although at the moment my career path looks confusing, I am determined to find a job that would reflect my capabilities and education. I am now at the starting point--could you help?


Dear Victoria

If you've had the opportunity to read my previous column Help! What Do I Do With My Degree?, the chances are that you will have begun to identify the issues that are likely to inform your career choice. You can use these to weigh up the following suggestions, as well as any other ideas that might come up during your research. Unless you have to find work quickly, perhaps for financial reasons, don't feel you have to rush into the first job that comes along. Having taken a break you are in the enviable position of having time and space to think through the next phase of your career and find the right job--even though as a mother of two, time and space might sound like totally alien concepts at times!

If you are planning to return to a similar position to the one that you were in before you began your career break, it would be a good idea to start by contacting some former colleagues. An informal chat will help you to get up-to-date on the issues and trends in that area. If you can, talk to someone who knows a bit about recruitment, even if you aren't planning to return to their company--they will be able to give you an honest perspective on the current hiring climate. They'll also be able to tell you what employers in the area think about issues such as part-time work. I've spoken briefly to a couple of people in the chemical and manufacturing industries to research your query, and they felt that part-time work would be possible, so if you are considering returning to quality control or sales this might be an option.

But you should also talk to other working mothers about how they perceive their employers' attitudes toward them and what kind of support they receive if they want to work in a more flexible way. Try asking questions such as: What type of work are people doing? What skills or knowledge have they started using since you left? What are the current skill gaps? What do they enjoy/dislike about their jobs? In which areas are new jobs appearing?

If you want some guidelines on more formal approaches, look at a previous Tooling Up column that offers advice on interviewing skills. And don't limit yourself to former work colleagues. Talk to family, friends, people you meet at Christmas parties ? I'm confident that you will be pleasantly surprised at the support you'll receive and the guidance you'll get from people who have successfully returned to work following breaks.

Having brought your vision of the job market up-to-date by speaking to insiders, your next move will be to revamp your CV. CV fashion does change (although as far as font colour is concerned, brown will never be the new black) so get some advice from anyone you know who is involved in recruitment. You might find that another working parent can help here, too ? I never cease to be amazed by how many people who have, or have had, interesting jobs I meet in the park or at toddler groups. You can also look to your professional body for advice. For example both the Institute of Materials, Mining and Metallurgy ( IOMMM) and the Royal Society of Chemistry ( RSC) have a career advisory service for members. If you aren't a member, then it is worth thinking about joining, even more so as membership rates are often heavily discounted if you aren't in full-time employment.

As you are keen to make use of your degree in material science and engineering, you might find that you want or need (re)training in specific technical areas. If so, you could apply for financial support either from your professional body or the Daphne Jackson Memorial Fellowships Trust ( DJMFT). The fellowships offer 2-year part-time positions so that women--and men--who have taken a career break of at least 3 years because of family commitments can retrain and return to work within industry or academia.

As well as considering full-time or part-time work with one employer, another option for working mothers is to go freelance and fit their work around their life (instead of the other way around ?). To do this you need to identify which of your skills and experience are likely to be of interest to more than one employer. Your language skills and your technical background strike me as an unusual combination, and I think they would suit freelance work well. (For more on this topic, see Next Wave's feature on Careers in Scientific Translating). Think carefully about what you can offer.

I know this can work, because this is exactly what I did myself. I sat down and thought of all the people and organisations who might be interested in the things that interested me. I then made a list of who might be willing to pay for me to work on short or individual projects (sadly, a somewhat shorter list). I then approached people I knew at universities, professional bodies, and so forth and, through the miracle of networking, I built a portfolio of clients.

The advantages of this style of work are that you can often base yourself at home, work hours that suit you (so sudden emergencies--like the sickly children I had to cope with while writing this column--can be worked around without your employer realising), and focus on a fairly narrow range of tasks that interest you. It is important that as a freelancer you offer something that can't be found "in-house," so again it is worth talking to people in the companies that you might once have worked for to find out whether work is ever passed on to external staff, and if so how these are identified and what fees would be suitable.

If you decide to look into this option further, you'll find a great deal of support from your local Business Link office, which can provide training, networking events, and free advice. However, for more specific information, such as how to identify companies in the materials sector that would need your language skills, it would be worth asking RSC or IOMMM whether they have directories or staff who could help you with this.

I'm confident that your range of experience will be a huge asset because it demonstrates flexibility and the ability to transfer skills into new areas. Languages are always useful in technical areas because few scientists and engineers have the opportunity to develop them to the level you have.

The most important thing is for you to have confidence and to be positive about the time you have taken out from work. Don't apologise. Don't accept any suggestion that you've lost your work ethic (in the nicest possible way of course--coarse language is rarely a good idea in an interview) and give yourself time to work out what suits you. There are many different ways of working, many different opportunities, and always more than one job with your name on it. Take your time and enjoy your research.

All the best in your career,

The CareerDoctor

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