Despite your best efforts to plot and plan a career trajectory that moves seamlessly from graduate school to a postdoctoral position and onto a rewarding job, sometimes life just happens. Some things no one can really plan for, such as a spouse or family member who is suddenly stricken with a serious illness that requires you to become the primary caregiver, or an economic downturn that results in a lengthy period of unemployment. There are, of course, happier reasons for temporarily sidelining your professional plans. Taking time off to raise children or to take advantage of a career opportunity unrelated to one's initial training also accounts for a large number of individuals who wind up re-starting a career in academia or industry after time away.
Whatever the case, the seemingly Sisyphean task of reentering the workforce leaves most people feeling overwhelmed as to where to start and, more specifically, how exactly to account for the time gap on their CV. Before stressing out about having that conversation, making sure that you have done everything possible to prepare yourself for a new position is the priority. This is especially crucial in biotech, where industry trends, scientific advances, and new technologies develop at a rapid pace. "There are ... strategies that you have to follow in order to return successfully to academia and most tech industries, including an academic updating component that is different from when you want return to some other fields," says Carol Fishman Cohen, cofounder of iRelaunch.com, a company that offers career reentry training. "When we look at people who have made the return to a tech field, it often involved taking courses at a community college, online programs, or some other more expensive degree programs."
Back to school
Cohen's iRelaunch program is one of a number of resources available to researchers looking to get back on the career track. The services her company offers include webinars, consulting sessions led by career coaches, and conferences, all geared toward giving job seekers a clear idea of what they need to do to prepare themselves for the challenges of the job search.
Similar career reentry programs have met with success in the United Kingdom. The Daphne Jackson Trust, a fellowship based out of the University of Surrey, offers assistance through part-time, paid fellowships in universities and research institutions throughout the country.
Professionals in engineering, science, or mathematics who have taken a break from their career for two or more years are eligible for the program. In addition, the UK Resource Center, run by the British government, is an organization dedicated to representing women in scientific, engineering, and technical fields and it provides free courses, grants, and career development training to women seeking to reenter the workforce.
And you don't necessarily need a reentry program to help you: you can take the bull by the horns on your own to look for unpaid opportunities such as internships or volunteer positions in a lab or in another position related to your field. "The volunteer piece is huge and I think it's a great strategy because then you have something substantive to put on a résumé and something to talk about in your interview," Cohen says. "Plus, when you are volunteering in an environment in your field, you're constantly meeting people who might know about where the best companies to work are, who might be hiring. They might be in a position to offer you a job themselves, or they might give you leads that will in turn into an opportunity for you."
In addition to volunteer opportunities, keeping up with the literature is important. While the reason for a person's absence from the workforce, such as child rearing or taking care of an elderly or sick relative, may prevent them from being up on the latest groundbreaking papers, investing some energy in catching up prior to a job interview is well worth the effort. Employers will be looking for evidence that you've stayed current on your own. "In this day and age, so many people have been out of work either by choice or not — there's nothing wrong with it — so you need to think about what skills you have built, or what skills you have maintained, and position those as you go and talk to a potential employer about how you can add value," says Dawna Levenson, associate director of academic programs at MIT's Career Reengineering Program.
That program is a four-part course designed for job seekers attempting to reenter the job market or re-make themselves for a new career. Participants must first attend regular MIT classes, either undergraduate or graduate, in the fall in the particular field they are targeting where they're expected to do all of the assignments and take all the exams. During the winter, they must do a project in the same area, interview someone on the faculty in the same field, and then churn out a paper in order to brush up on their writing skills. In the spring, they then do a six-month internship in the Boston area, during which time they also participate in a host of professional development workshops for résumé writing and interviewing skills. "What we find is that when people are out of the workforce for a while their skills get a little dated, they tend to lose a bit of their network, and perhaps even lose a little bit of their professionalism," Levenson says. "The Career Reengineering Program is really designed to reignite all three of those elements."
Levenson says that several individuals have already passed through the MIT program, now in its fifth year, and re-made themselves from other industries into the biotechnology arena. "We had an individual in the program last year who had a PhD in physics. He had been working in the disk drive industry for many years, and after that industry dried up in the Boston area, he came here and took a biotech class," she says. "With the same basic skills, he retooled himself from one industry to another and he's now working in a lab for a medical school in the area and helping them with their lasers to conduct early detection of skin cancer."
In addition to nurturing a new network of potential job contacts through job reentry programs and volunteering, don't forget about the network you may have left behind. Rekindling the relationships you used to have or those that may have grown lukewarm in your absence should be your first port of call on the job search. This also includes people who may have been junior to you while you were working, because — if enough time has passed — these same people could very well become your new boss. "It's important to stay connected to the people in your profession and make sure that you have individuals that will serve as references for you so you're not tracking them down and then asking them for permission to serve as a reference even though it was a few years ago," says Ailen Wildes, president of FPC Newburyport, a head-hunting firm for biotech and pharmaceutical companies. "-Also, keeping in touch with colleagues and individuals that you've interacted with in any company is critical — that old saying 'never burn a bridge' is so important, no matter what profession you're in."
Finally, when it comes time for the -actual interview, your time away from the professional world shouldn't be glossed over, but it's also essential that not too much time is spent discussing it. "Potential employers are not stupid. They can look at a résumé and see very quickly where the gap is and where someone is trying to hide [gaps]," says MIT's Levenson.
"You have to be open and honest about why you took the absence in the first place — it's that fine line between explaining and being honest, but you also don't want to dwell on it," Wildes adds. "I think it's important to bring the conversation back to how excited you are about the position you're looking at now, how your skills and experience apply to that, because you just don't want to be really long-winded about why you took time off."