by Ruby Mathew
“Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
Exactly 13 months ago, I was experiencing the struggles of a woman whose passion was to get back to work and contribute. Between applying to more than 100 jobs and attending interviews, it seemed like getting back into the workforce would be tougher than I thought. People would ask me a myriad of questions, such as “Why the five-year break? Why wait so long?” I answered all of these questions and was very open about the reasons for my career break. I told the interviewers that I was willing to start all over again and asked them to judge me based on the value I could bring to their organizations.
This is the story of my comeback journey and the roadmap I followed. I hope it helps others out there who are in doubt about how to restart their careers and encourages them to believe in themselves.
Where Do You Begin?
The first and most fundamental question to answer is, “Why do you want to come back?” Think about the ways will you contribute to an organization. Write your answers down and keep them in a journal. On rough days (and there will be some), you can revisit this statement and use it as motivation to propel yourself forward. It is also useful to write your own value hypothesis. For example, “I want to get back to work as (x) because I am passionate about (y) and so that I can contribute to (z).” You may have to keep revisiting your value hypothesis as your comeback journey plays out.
You will be faced with lots of questions, and you might not have the answers to all of them. Just trust yourself and your ability to handle all that comes your way when the time arrives. You may wish to create a timeline for yourself – this worked well for me and gave me some sense of direction. Start with Day Zero (the day you decide to make a comeback) and track each day or week until Day Career 2.0 comes. For me, August 3, 2018 was my first day at work after almost five years. It took 20 weeks for that day to come.
Self-belief + Effort + Grit = Success
Self-belief, effort, and grit are all necessary skills. To keep learning, upskilling, and building your profile online and offline, you need to make a concerted effort. There are multiple channels where you need to keep updating your profile — LinkedIn, in particular, is a very important one in your job search. After applying for roles, you will have to go through interviews, which will require a strong sense of self-belief. To help yourself recover after an interview that didn’t go well, you will need to rely on grit. On days that your ideas get struck down or you don’t hear back from a hiring manager, you will have to fall back on one or all of these traits to help you cope. Although rejection is not a nice feeling, it can help you gain perspective on how to succeed in the future.
Answering the Why
For every loss, assess why you think it didn’t work out, console yourself, get up and try again. It’s similar to testing code that you’ve developed and having an assessment made to help you get some form of closure and move forward. Framing your conversations in positive terms and listening to yourself is essential to avoid going into a downward spiral of self-doubt.
Please try to understand the dynamics from a recruiter’s point of view as well. I, too, used to wonder, “Why aren’t they getting back to me, while other people have heard back promptly from their recruiters?” Empathize with recruiters and accept the fact that many of them have to go through hundreds of resumes on a daily basis. It’s a mammoth task to sift through all of them and select the right candidates. Put effort in to building your resume in a way that gives them some incentive to pick yours out of the pile. Make it visual, make it crisp and succinct, and choose a style that fits you and the job you’re applying for.
My first resume was four pages and included what seemed like my life story. Needless to say, I hardly got any calls back from organizations! I soon realized that a resume is just a summary of your work. Two pages of an outline of professional work suffices. It acts as a catalyst that helps you go the next level: the interview.
How to Network
It’s important to put yourself out there. Attend meetups and events that are aligned with your interests. These can be technical, creative, or domain-related. The question that often arises is “How do I talk to strangers?” Just remember — the moment you initiate a conversation with someone new and invite them into your life, they cease to be a stranger. Once you communicate who you are, why you are there, and what is it that you are looking to learn from that event, they will respond accordingly. Networking is not asking how the other person can help you. Networking is communicating value. It is telling the other person what you know and how you can help them.
Let me be upfront about this: it’s not all rosy out there. Some may snub you, and there are a few cynics out there who will ask you, “Why restart your career now? Why do you even want to get back into the workforce? It is going to be a futile effort.” That’s when you step in and put things into context. Take charge of the narrative and tell them what it is that you bring to the table. People will always have opinions, but they need not affect your mindset. Choose your inner circle well. Coming back into the job market after a five-year gap, it took me a little while to understand the dynamics of group behavior and to determine who means well and who comes with an agenda. You will figure it out eventually — be compassionate with yourself. Focus on those who give you positivity. Keep them close and nurture your relationship with them.
To begin your comeback journey, leverage the various employment platforms that are available. Jobsforher, Avtaar, Hersecondinnings, Women’s web, and Sheroes are just some examples, and there are many more out there. There are also many corporate organizations who are looking to hire women coming back from a career break.
One very important aspect to consider before restarting your career is to get a support system in place. I know this is easier said than done. The first three to four months of work post-career break will take some time getting used to, so have mechanisms in place to manage things at home. For me, my husband and my five-year-old daughter have been a big support. In fact, in the first three or four months when I was struggling to settle down at my new workplace, my daughter helped me stay positive. I also observed that the quality of interaction with my daughter has improved since I started working again.
After settling down in your new workplace, if time permits, try volunteering with dedicated career groups, and attend events based on your preferences and your areas of strength. A few groups that I am familiar with are WIP (Women in Product), AnitaB.org Chennai, LeaninWomeninTech (Lean In Women in Technology), WiMLDS (Women in Machine Learning and Data Science), SWE (Society of Women Engineers), and WomenTechmakers. These organizations are active advocates of knowledge-sharing among women, so participate whenever possible. It has done me a world of good.
The reality is that many of us have missed out on a few things during our career breaks. For me, it was social interaction and the need to contribute to an organization. From my personal association with WIP Chennai and SWE, there is an amazing community of people out there from whom you can learn. Just being in their presence is an experience in itself! Leverage all available community-based platforms and listen to others’ stories – both the successful and not so successful ones. Learn, unlearn, and relearn.
Remember, you decide your sense of self-worth. But the responsibility lies on you to communicate your value effectively. Free yourself from the perceptions that are holding you back.
This is your moment. Own it! Take the first step and restart your career.