How to Keep Your Career Going When You Take a Few Years Off

  • By Jen Dziura
  • May 09, 2016

In an era in which job hopping is the new norm, it can be helpful to think of your career as separate from, and more important than, whatever job you’re in at the moment. Jobs come and go, but careers need nurturing over decades.

opt back in

This is especially true if you’re planning to temporarily stop working to be a stay-at-home parent. Opting back in isn’t easy, and even highly qualified women have a hard time re-entering full-time work after leaving. What you need: a plan to keep current and ultimately break back in.

You can keep your career going — in terms of your skills, network, and knowledge — even if you can dedicate just a couple of hours a week to it. Here’s how.

Tell People About Your Plans to Return to Work
Even if you just had your first of what you hope to be three kids and you expect to return to work in 2031 — tell people! You want them looking out for you, and to lay the groundwork for coming back.

If you had an elevator pitch for your job, you can have one for your new life as well: “I'm an architect, focusing on public works. I'm currently in year two of a five-year family leave, and then I intend to go back to work for a firm that does XYZ.”

Don't be afraid to go to networking events armed with a pitch like that. People will be impressed that you have a five-year plan. If you make just one connection a month and follow up — for five years! — that's 60 connections. Not bad at all.

You can even prepare early on, before you leave your job. Line up your own “advisory board” — people you’ll keep up with and can vouch for your work. Simply say: “I expect to be taking about five years off and then want to onboard again as seamlessly as possible. Would you be willing to have lunch about twice a year to help me stay up to date and eventually find a new opportunity?” You can also ask a sympathetic coworker or two to forward you any emails that would keep you up to date without violating their company's trust. For instance, most press releases people receive as part of their jobs are meant for public distribution. And while your buddy shouldn't forward her boss's emails to you, it's (in many cases) fair game to mention, “Hey, we’re switching from Software X to Software Y. It might be a good thing to learn.”

Now, if you nurture those relationships (and pay for lunch), you have people who will keep you in mind when they hear about new opportunities far down the road.

Give Yourself Time to Think
When you're working full-time in a demanding job, it can be hard to find time to just think and to come up with creative ideas. Many employees — constantly on the defensive from always responding to other people’s demands — resort to booking themselves into a conference room, alone, in order to get to the work that really matters.

Compared to that type of environment, the idea that you might get some deep intellectual work done while caring for a child doesn't seem so crazy. (I know — I’ve done it! It didn’t look or smell glamorous, but that’s okay.)

What if you subscribed to important journals in your field and spent just two hours a week reading something in-depth? That's more than a lot of busy executives manage. Perhaps you could write up a summary or opinion of your reading and post it on a blog, or just email it to a few contacts. Obviously that takes a bit more time — maybe once a month is plenty, or even once a quarter.

If you’re really swamped, why not just piggyback off other people’s intellectual pursuits? Send out short lists of articles from Harvard Business Review or Architectural Digest or whatnot, each with a pull quote or a blurb from you on why the article is useful. Take time to email the authors, too — many writers enjoy getting compliments and smart questions about their work, especially from someone who doesn't want anything in return. Who knows who you'll strike up a new professional correspondence with.

Get Educated
Imagine you finally dropped off your kid at kindergarten, found an after-school program, and now you're interviewing for a new job.

It’s the year 2021, and the interviewer says, “You haven't had a full-time position since 2016.”

You say, “Yes, I took a five-year family leave, which I was able to turn into a mini master’s degree for myself. Here is a list of courses I completed. I'll send you the link to the online portfolio of my coursework.” That is what we call a strong answer.

Getting an education doesn’t have to be an MIT-level foray into differential equations (although that’s an option — and a free one!). There are plenty of classes out there. If you don’t want to design your own curriculum, Coursera offers multi-course specializations created by top universities, like a six-course specialization in social media marketing from Northwestern University. Take the classes for free, or pay $79 per class ($426 total) to earn the Social Media Marketing Specialization Certificate from Northwestern. Each class is intended to take less than four hours per week.

Too much commitment? Lynda charges $20 to $35 a month for unlimited access to all its courses, most of which are simply one- to two-hour videos. And Skillshare offers monthly access (currently $9.95 per month or $96 annually) to a huge library of classes, all focused the student creating a final project — fantastic for those out of the workforce who want to build an online portfolio or have something amazing to talk about during an interview a few years from now.

While you’re at it, conferences are a great way to learn about the latest developments in your field and add to your network.

Work Lite
So far, all these ideas have been ones you could implement in just a few hours a month. What if you're ready for more than that — but not a job? Unfortunately, in many professions, “part time” doesn't exist, or is more like 32 hours a week (plus commuting), not the 10 to 20 you may have in mind.

So rather than take a low-paying part-time job outside your field, offer yourself for consulting or small-project engagements that are very relevant to your career. Could you step in at an entrepreneur friend’s company, analyze one thing, and write a report about it? Maybe you do this pro bono — your friend gets something useful, and you get a line on your LinkedIn profile for an otherwise blank 2017.

Get Support From Your Partner
Whether you and your partner want to share child care equally while you both work, or whether one of you has decided to stay home, you need their commitment to ensure your career doesn’t get tossed away. Part of marriage/partnership is making sure the things the other person cares about don’t get destroyed, right?

Once you decide to temporarily step out of the workforce, talk to your partner about what it will take to keep your network, knowledge, and skills fresh so you can opt back in. If you share money, you might want to sit down and decide on a budget for conferences or professional development. With an infant in the house, it may be crucial to set a schedule and get out of the house when it’s time to work on anything career related — and your partner will step in as the primary caretaker. There’s only so much you can do during naptime, and you’ll need some focused time on certain weekends for more in-depth learning and thinking.

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