18 Tips to Jumpstart Your Career Comeback

Advice on rejoining the workforce and rebooting your professional life

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Consider a "Returnship"

Clever lingo aside, a Returnship is basically an internship for experienced workers who’ve taken a hiatus. You do a short stint at a company for little or no pay and with no guaranteed job afterward, although many Returnships do turn into full-time positions. Goldman Sachs has a program that lasts 10 weeks, and the company has hired about half of past participants. You will also find Returnships at Pace University Law School, the National Institutes of Health, Sara Lee and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It allows you to get back into a field or try out a new field and to reignite your network by making new contacts,” says Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an economist and the founding president and CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation. (Visit irelaunch.com/CareerReentry for a comprehensive list.)


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Write a Great Cover Letter

Start by highlighting a common bond

If someone referred you to the employer or you’re an alumna of the same university, bring it up in the first sentence.

Mention the gap and move on

“Sometimes people get defensive about the fact that they were at home and give too much information about it,” says Vivian Rabin, a cofounder of iRelaunch. State that you’re looking to return to work after a career break. The end.

Don’t refer to yourself in the past tense
“Never say, ‘I used to be a publicist,’” says Amy Gewirtz, director of New Directions for Attorneys, a program at Pace that helps attorneys get back into the workforce. “You are still a publicist—one who hasn’t practiced in a while.”


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Quit Applying for Every Position

“Some people think appearing open to anything and everything will make them a more attractive candidate,” says Rabin. “But most managers are not interested in hiring people who are willing to do anything. It makes them seem desperate and unskilled, with a lack of direction.” Here’s how to avoid the jack-of-all-trades trap:


Think deeply about what you want

Consider your previous field and identify what you liked and disliked about it. If you don’t want to go back, ask: Have you done anything during your career break that might point you in a new direction? “For instance, we’ve known people who had kids with special needs who ended up advocating for them in the school system and then took paid roles at nonprofits that focused on that,” Rabin says.


Take a class

Once you begin to identify the route you’d like to follow—whether it’s trying something new or getting back up to speed in your previous field—you may need to do some course work to make it happen. “It’s usually not as extensive as getting a degree,” Rabin says. “But it could be a class or two that will update you in a specific area and indicate to an employer that you’re serious about coming back to work.”


Be targeted but flexible

“You could say, ‘My ultimate goal is to be the general counsel of NBC, but I know that lawyers function in a number of different departments at NBC, and I would very much like to be in this organization,’” says Gewirtz. That way you’re not limiting or pigeonholing yourself.


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Carry a Card

Create a business card with your name, phone number and email address (which should be professional, such as FirstName.LastName@gmail.com). Include the URL of your website if you have one and a link to your LinkedIn profile (personalize the link under the profile tab). “It levels the playing field when you can exchange a business card with somebody,” Gewirtz says. Try a service such as Moo, GotPrint or VistaPrint ($10 to $40 for 100 cards).


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Pay for a Refresher

If the gap in your work life is significant and you don’t have much in the way of volunteer experience, community involvement or continuing education to demonstrate that you’ve kept your skills fresh, a formal back-to-work program might be a good fit. Pace’s New Directions for Attorneys offers five months of training for $7,000, including skills refresher courses and career counseling. There’s even a 12-week externship (basically a short-term internship). “We wanted the program to be very practical,” says Gewirtz. “Not just theory but boots-on-the-ground experience, a new piece you could add to your résumé.” Albany Medical College runs a 12-week re-entry program for doctors that costs $6,500, and the Flatiron School in New York offers a 12-week immersive course in Web development for $12,000. Many programs aren’t as involved or expensive. Harvard Business School runs a two-day career-strategizing course for $600 (anyone can apply, but space is limited). Find others at irelaunch.com/CareerReentry.


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Network without Apology

“There’s a real awkwardness that women experience in translating personal relationships into professional ones,” says workplace consultant Deborah Epstein Henry. Networking may be the ultimate key to your success, however, so stop the hand wringing and get on with it. One huge tool in your portfolio: LinkedIn.

Check in regularly
Hiring managers are 10 times as likely to visit your LinkedIn profile if you share something at least once a week. When you see an industry-related item that you’re interested in, add a sentence of thoughtful commentary, then post it. “One concern managers will have about your coming back into the workplace is that you won’t be up to date,” says Nicole Williams, LinkedIn’s career expert. “You need to indicate that you know what’s going on.”

Maintain your connections
Your connections on LinkedIn are virtually useless if you never reach out to them. Williams suggests scanning your LinkedIn news feed each morning to see what everyone is up to. An acquaintance got promoted? Send her a congratulatory note. Or endorse colleagues with whom you’ve worked directly. “It’s keeping yourself in front of people,” Williams says.

Follow companies
LinkedIn isn’t only about connecting to individuals; you can also “follow” specific firms and see who’s coming in and who’s departing. If there’s a big hiring push, you’ll notice it. And don’t forget to also follow a company’s competitors.

Include volunteer experience
If you’re doing anything, even unpaid, that enhances or displays your professional talents, put it on your profile. Are you fund raising for a nonprofit? Did you design a website? Did you do someone’s taxes as a favor? Add it.

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How to Deal With a Gap in Your Résumé

If you haven’t held a paid position in years, your résumé may contain a significant date jump. Here’s how to get past it.


Start with a summary

“It’s a chance to spin your experience in the direction that you want to focus on now,” Rabin says.


Organize your résumé by skills, not dates

If you have a break of a year or more, focus on the skills you have that will be useful to any employer. For example: management, market research or team leadership.


Add relevant unpaid experience

If you volunteered in the community in ways that used job-related skills, put it on your résumé.


Account for your time

“Some people are listing the gap in work experience as their last entry, ‘Career break, raising children,’” Rabin says.


Think ahead

Beef up your résumé now if you plan to jump back in later. Find a volunteer position or part-time work. Ask people who are doing the type of job you’d want, “What substantive knowledge am I missing?” Gewirtz says.


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Related: A Career Comeback at Any Age

Related: The No. 1 Secret to Staying Relevant in Your Career

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First published in the November 2013 issue

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