The Ultimate Guide to Going Back to Work After a Career Break | Working Mother

The Ultimate Guide to Going Back to Work After a Career Break

Eager to go back to work, but afraid you’ve become too mired in mommyville? If you’ve pressed Pause on your career to stay home with your kids, here’s how to revamp and return.

Interview-back-view

Interview-back-view

Do some soul-searching before deciding to jump back into the workforce.

Photo: iStock

You can’t relaunch from the comfort of your sofa. You need to get out of the house and go public with your job search.—Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO and co-founder, irelaunch.com

Barbra Fordyce has a master’s degree in biology, speaks three languages and has coordinated clinical pharmaceutical research in the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe. It’s the kind of resume recruiters love—except for one thing. Barbra had spent the past decade at home raising her daughters (now ages 15 and 5).

Once the headhunters saw the gap, she says, the conversation usually ended. “They’d say it would be hard to put me forth as a candidate, because it’s been so long since my last job. It was so frustrating,” Barbra admits with a sigh. “They’d see the gap, but never the person.”

In a perfect world, our careers would be as fluid as our lives are: Step away when home demands are intense (the preschool years, for example, or when a relative needs care), retool your skills, return at will. But the reality is that once you’ve left, it’s tough to get back in. Caren Ulrich Stacy says that when she was a law firm in-house talent recruiter, she had an uphill battle convincing partners to interview female attorneys who wanted to return to practice. “People wondered, ‘Does she really want to come back? Can she hit the ground running?’” she says. “Often, women didn’t even get the time of day to answer those questions.”

It doesn’t help, too, that women often stay out years longer than they initially intend because they become “default caregivers” for the extended family, notes Cynthia Thomas Calvert, president of Workforce 21c, a consulting and training firm focused on women’s leadership.

If any of this seems discouragingly familiar, take heart. things are changing. More companies are realizing the potential these seasoned professionals hold and are developing on-ramp programs (see “Resources for Returning”, below). A year ago, Stacy founded the OnRamp Fellowship, which places women who want to return to law with year-long paid training contracts at top firms. The response from firms and applicants has been enormous, she says.

But even without access to a formal program, there are steps any woman can take to restart her career, says Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO and co-founder of iRelaunch, a consultancy aimed at helping professionals get back into the workforce. Here’s what to do.

Before a Job Hunt, a Soul Search

“You need to do the difficult but worthy work of figuring out exactly what you want to do and where you can add value,” explains Cohen. “What employers do not want to hear is ‘I’ll do anything.’”

Do: Conduct a self-assessment. What are you passionate about? What are your greatest strengths? Gather feedback from former colleagues, friends and family members. Marisa Goldenberg, who left her role as director of global business operations at Dell to stay home with her toddler son, says her relaunch started with working to identify strengths where she is “truly differentiated from others.”

Don’t: Assume you have to return to what you did before. A relaunch is the perfect time for repositioning (and some repositioning is inevitable if you’ve been out a year or more). If you want to pursue something new, figure out which skills are transferable and which ones you need to develop.

Resume Refresh

“The best way to address a resume gap is to have something new on the top to talk about,” says Allison O’Kelly, CEO and founder of Mom Corps, which specializes in matching women with flexible, family-friendly jobs. Your gap won’t be so glaring if you’ve added recent and relevant education and updated certifications and/or (ideally) work experience. Don’t worry if the “update work” you take on is unpaid or below your level. By taking the initiative to get warmed up, you send a powerful signal to employers that you are serious about returning, says Stacy.

Do: Seek freelance projects, temp assignments and/or contract work. Take a class that has a fieldwork component so you can learn current industry needs and challenges. offer to work pro bono for a start-up in your field. Your resume doesn’t have to indicate the position was unpaid, says O’Kelly. Also consider a “returnship,” a returning-professional internship program, now being offered by a fair number of firms and companies (go to irelaunch.com for more info on this).

Don’t: Pad your resume with “mom experiences” (class parent, chaperone, minor fund-raising, “ability to multitask” and such). This undercuts your legitimate experience, says O’Kelly. Community work that’s significant in scope—you sat on a nonprofit board, led a five-figure fund-raising effort, created a town-wide recycling initiative—should be included. Include smaller items when they’re relevant to the job you’re targeting; for instance, you’re applying to a children’s book publisher and can talk knowledgeably about reading trends from your work as a library volunteer.

A Public Approach

At first, Barbra tried to restart her career by searching jobs online and posting her resume. It led nowhere. “You can’t relaunch from the comfort of your sofa,” says Cohen. “You need to get out of the house and go public with your job search.” Adds O’Kelly, “The biggest mistake I see women make is thinking they can get their relaunch job the same way they got their last job.”

Do: Reconnect with former colleagues, college alumni, industry association members and friends for advice and referrals. At an iRelaunch workshop, Barbra was told to create a LinkedIn profile and connect with 150 people. After initial reluctance, “I made a list of people I’d worked with, people I’d gone to college with. Actually, it was fun. People responded.”

Don’t: Ask for lunch meetings with people you don’t know well—often too big a time commitment for busy professionals. Better: Set up a 15-minute phone call, stress that it’s informational, and prepare your questions in advance. Always follow up with a brief note of thanks and try to reciprocate by giving some help to your contact.

Advocacy Building

Barbra’s diligent work with LinkedIn (she racked up more than 130 contacts) paid dividends. A recruiter who had successfully placed another woman returning after a career leave submitted Barbra’s resume for a clinical research coordinator position at a major university. When Barbra didn’t get called for an interview, she found a connection—a physician who knew her work and who had an association with the university. That person advocated for her with the human resources department. Barbra got an interview, aced it and was hired as the lead clinical research coordinator for the university’s cancer study.

Do: “Exploit every connection,” asserts Stacy. “There is no reason ever to make a cold call.” One referral is worth 1,000 blind resume submissions.

Don’t: Blast out mass requests or misjudge who can advocate for you. Be strategic in assessing which members of your network will be most influential in a situation.

The Elephant in the Room

When you get an interview, you’ll be asked why you left and why you want to return. It’s the elephant in the room, Stacy says. Your goal is to spend five minutes or less discussing it, so you can maximize your time selling your skills (just as the other job candidates will do). “Don’t get defensive and don’t excuse why you left,” says Stacy. “Answer honestly, but don’t go into detail. Think forest—not trees.” For example: “I took some time off to make sure my children had a good start, knowing I’d come back to a career I’m passionate about. And I’m doing just that.”

Do: Talk about your experience like it was yesterday, says Cohen. Hire a coach or ask someone in your network who routinely hires others to simulate an interview. Get feedback on where you can improve.

Don’t: Overshare. If you’re nervous, you may ramble through an account of working, leaving and mom life. Prepare and practice the “elevator pitch” version. “Do not emphasize your ‘mom skills’ in an interview as qualification for a job,” says Cohen.

Winning the Work

If you need to close the deal, suggest a trial period: “would you consider bring- ing me on for a special project so you could evaluate me based on an actual work sample?” When you prove yourself excellent, you’ll be in a better position to negotiate a permanent offer.

Do: Weigh any job offer in terms of the “3 C’s,” advises Cohen—Content(job responsibilities, opportunity for growth), Control (degree of autonomy and flexibility) and Compensation (fair pay). “You might need to compromise on one of these in getting back on a career track, but you shouldn’t need to trade away more than one,” Cohen says.

Don’t: Force a fit. “A values match matters even more the second time around,” suggests Stacy. Marisa, who is currently consulting on a project for a Fortune 20 conglomerate, advises women to pay attention to how they like to work. “If the environment doesn’t align well with your work style, seek alternatives as you negotiate your package—whether it’s getting permission to work in a bustling coffee shop a few hours a day or working from home in peace and quiet two days a week,” she says. “When you’ve optimized your job fit and environment fit, you’ll be in a much better position to have energy remaining for your family at the end of your workday.”


Resources for Returning

iRelaunch offers back-to-work boot camps and individual coaching and facilitates “returnships” (irelaunch.com).

Mom Corps lists a range of flexible jobs including full- and part-time and remote work across the U.S. (momcorps.com).

Hourly Nerd allows professionals with MBAs to bid on freelance consulting projects. Details, budget and scope are listed on the site, which is used by GE and other major employers (hourlynerd.com).

The OnRamp Fellowship matches women returning to law with a $125,000 one-year fellowship at a firm. It has 80 positions to fill in 24 cities (onrampfellowship.com).

Lynda.com is a website that will train you on office software, including Photoshop, Excel and others. A one-month membership is $25; a 10-day trial is free.


Reentry programs for moms are offered by more than a quarter of the Working Mother 100 Best Companies, which have formal reentry programs for moms who have left that or another company for at least three years and want to return to work. Here are 10 of these companies and their stats.

Company / Reentry moms hired in 2013
WellStar Health System / 166
MetLife / 101
University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics / 78
Booz Allen Hamilton / 71
Baptist Health South Florida / 60
Bon Secours Virginia / 50
Northwestern Memorial HealthCare / 38
Abbott / 20
Goldman, Sachs & Co. / 10
Moss Adams LLP / 6

Considering an Off-Ramp?

Here’s how to keep doors open when you’re ready to return.

  • Take on a business-related project each year—consult, do pro bono work, freelance and so on.
  • Keep your LinkedIn profile up to date.
  • Schedule a networking item every quarter—a meeting, an industry event, coffee with a former colleague. Let your network know your time frame for returning.
  • Stay abreast of industry trends and developments.
  • Find a partner (a fellow at-home parent or friend) and keep each other accountable to your professional goals.

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