Telling your return to work story

“I struggle to view myself as anything more than a mother any more”

Ex- investment analyst after a 10 year career break

What do you do?

If you’re planning your return to work after a long career break, one of the hardest questions to answer can be “So, what do you do?”. You’re not sure whether to talk about your time at home or what you used to do all those years ago. When my children were small and most of the people I was meeting were other parents, I introduced myself more often as someone’s Mum than as Julianne. It’s not surprising that as our career break goes on, our independent working selves feel so far in the past that they’re not really part of our story any more (see previous post “Who am I anyway?”).

If your old professional life feels like distant history, then it’s harder to believe in yourself and feel positive about your return to work. This not only knocks your confidence but also makes your job search much less effective. Many women returning to work after a break find a new job through old and new contacts rather than through advertised roles, so you need to have a ready reply rather than a stumbled mumble when an ex-colleague asks “What are you doing now?” And when you do make it to an interview, if your response to the classic “Tell me about yourself” interview question is to spend the majority of the time describing and explaining your career break, you are underselling your past experience and are unlikely to come across as a credible candidate for the job.

The Career Break Sandwich

When you’re putting together your story, don’t start or end with your career break. We suggest you use a structure we call the “Career Break Sandwich”.

  • Talk first about what you did before in your working life – your career ‘headlines’ to establish your credibility.
  • Then talk about your career break. Explain simply why you’ve taken time out of the workplace, but avoid apologising for or justifying your break or spending too much time talking about what you’ve been doing. However do include any study, voluntary work, time spent abroad, unusual/challenging activities or anything else that might be interesting in terms of skills development or updating to a possible employer.
  • Finish with what you are looking to do now in your career and why.

Herminia Ibarra, in her career transition book Working Identity, suggests that a coherent story helps us to make sense of the changes we are making, so building our inner self-confidence. It also makes us more likely to get other people’s support: “Until we have a story, others view us as unfocused. It is harder to get their help“.

Aim to draw out links between your past and future, particularly if you have a varied work history or are planning a career change: Have you always enjoyed helping people develop? Or solving difficult problems in a team? You’re always bringing the benefit of your past experiences, at work and at home, as a foundation for what you want to do now.

Telling your story does take practice. Try out your narrative first with family and friends and get their feedback. Telling and retelling allows you to rework your story until you feel comfortable and convincing. Aim for a longer version to answer “Tell me about yourself” or “What are you looking for?” and a short version so you no longer hesitate when someone asks “So, what do you do?”

Posted by Julianne (updated from original post in 2013)

How to write a “Back to Work” cover letter

We find that returners often struggle with cover letters, which can raise a lot of questions:

  • How do I introduce myself when I’ve been out of the workforce for so long?
  • Do I mention my time away from my career and how do I explain it?
  • Is my previous work experience relevant when it was so long ago?
  • How do I avoid just repeating my CV?

We’ll give you our top tips and help to answer these specific questions below.

General Principles

  • It’s essential to create a new cover letter for every application. Employers sometimes receive hundreds of applications for each job role, and will be quick to disregard generic applications. It’s your job to make it as easy as possible for the hiring manager to understand how you would fit into their organisation.
  • Length: No longer than a single A4 page. Your cover letter shouldn’t rehash your CV, but is the opportunity for you to pick out the most salient points for the role and put them across to the hiring manager in the most succinct way possible.
  • Address your cover letter to the hiring manager if you can find his/her name.
  • Your email address: As you’re likely to be emailing your cover letter, make sure that you have a professional email address that ties in with your CV. Don’t use your husband’s or family’s email address, or an email based on your married name if you’re applying using your maiden name. We would recommend creating your own personal email address for job applications, based clearly on the name in which you are applying.
  • Check for grammar and spelling mistakes – it’s easy to miss these, so try to get someone else to proof your letter too.

Suggested Structure

Start with a clear introduction

  • Start with your background and your target role, not your career break (e.g. “I am a marketing professional with 10 years of international experience and am writing to apply for the position of Senior Marketing Manager advertised on your website”).
  • Then mention your career break. Keep mention of your career break short, simple and factual (e.g. “Following a 5-year parental career break…” is sufficient) and emphasise that you are now motivated and enthusiastic to return to work in the relevant field.
  • Briefly mention anything you’ve done during your career break that is relevant to the role (such as further study, refresher courses, volunteer or paid activities and projects), stating how it has kept your knowledge/skills up-to-date and/or allowed you to develop new skills.

Explain your suitability for the role

  • Show how you fit the top 4-6 requirements of the role (in the job advert), using evidence from your previous work experience and relevant activities from your break. Resist the temptation to list other skills that are not specifically mentioned in the job ad.
  • Avoid stuffing your cover letter with meaningless buzzwords, such as ‘team player’ or ‘good eye for detail’ and instead, give concrete examples of your accomplishments that match the role requirements.
  • Remember that, however long ago it was, you did lead a department, manage projects, produce reports, negotiate contracts or whatever your former role required. You still have these skills, even if you haven’t used them for a while.
  • Your former experience includes both what you did and how you got it done, i.e. both your technical abilities and your soft skills. Even if your technical knowledge feels a bit rusty, you have the same capacity to learn as you always did and you will get back up-to-speed. Your soft skills don’t go away, and many will have grown during your break. For example, although we don’t recommend using parenting as a direct example in your cover letter, if your break was to bring up your children, you will have enhanced skills such as time management, empathy and negotiation!
  • You might be having trouble remembering some of the details of your earlier career. If so, dig out your old performance reviews and any other reports you might have kept. Re-reading these can also remind you of what others valued about your contribution in the past: these will be the qualities that you offer a new employer too. You could also contact old colleagues, who will have a more objective view of your achievements and could provide you with a much-needed reminder of what you did.
  • If you are applying for a role where you are overqualified, address this in your cover letter. Put yourself in the shoes of the hiring manager, consider the possible concerns from the company’s side, e.g. that you may be too expensive, that you might get bored, etc. and explain why you are applying for a less senior role than you previously held.
  • For returnship programme applications:
    • Make sure you mention that you have been on a career break, including the length of your break at the time the programme starts. This is a key criterion for candidates and you risk being excluded from these opportunities if you try to cover up your break!
    • There may not be specific role requirements, beyond ‘significant experience in one or more relevant areas’. If this is the case, use this space to list out 3-6 bullet points explaining the experience you have in the relevant area(s).

Finish with your motivation

  • Explain why you are interested in the role and why you would like to work for the organisation. Make this specific to show your interest and understanding. Base your comments on your research into the company and the job/department, using social media such as the company LinkedIn page, Twitter account and Facebook page alongside the website.
  • For returnships and/or flexible/remote working roles, it’s very important to show that you’re motivated by the organisation (and the specific job role if relevant), and not just the opportunity to get back into the workforce and/or work flexibly/remotely. Show how you can benefit the company, not the other way around!

Good luck!

 
For further advice and support in your return-to-work journey, you can sign up to our free network here.

Note: This is one of our most popular posts from 2015; updated in April 2018.

Telling your story

“I struggle to view myself as anything more than a mother any more”

Ex- investment analyst after a 10 year career break

If you’re planning your return to work after a long career break, one of the hardest questions to answer can be “What do you do?”. You’re not sure whether to talk about your time at home or what you used to do all those years ago. When my children were small and most of the people I was meeting were other parents, I introduced myself more often as someone’s Mum than as Julianne. It’s not surprising that as our career break goes on, our independent working selves feel so far in the past that they’re not really part of our story any more (see previous post “Who am I anyway?”).

If your old professional life feels like distant history, then it’s harder to believe in yourself and feel positive about your return to work. This not only knocks your confidence but also makes your job search much less effective. Many women returning to work after a break find a new job through old and new contacts rather than through advertised roles, so you need to have a ready reply rather than a stumbled mumble when an ex-colleague asks “What are you doing now?” And when you do make it to an interview, if your response to the classic “Tell me about yourself” interview question is to spend the majority of the time describing and explaining your career break, you are underselling your past experience and are unlikely to come across as a credible candidate for the job.

When you’re putting together your story, don’t start or end with your career break. We suggest you use a structure we call the “Career Break Sandwich”.

  • Talk first about what you did before in your working life, then talk about your career break and finish with where you want to go now.
  • Explain why you’ve taken time out of the workplace, but avoid apologising for or justifying your break or spending too much time talking about what you’ve been doing. However do include any study, voluntary work, time spent abroad, unusual/challenging activities or anything else that might be interesting in terms of skills development or updating to a possible employer.

Herminia Ibarra, in her career transition book Working Identity, suggests that a coherent story helps us to make sense of the changes we are making, so building our inner self-confidence. It also makes us more likely to get other people’s support: “Until we have a story, others view us as unfocused. It is harder to get their help“.

Aim to draw out links between your past and future, particularly if you have a varied work history or are planning a career change: Have you always enjoyed helping people develop? Or solving difficult problems in a team? You’re always bringing the benefit of your past experiences, at work and at home, as a foundation for what you want to do now.

Telling your story does take practice. Try out your narrative first with family and friends and get their feedback. Telling and retelling allows you to rework your story until you feel comfortable and convincing. Aim for a longer version to answer “Tell me about yourself” or “What are you looking for?” and a short version so you no longer hesitate when someone asks “So, what do you do?”

Posted by Julianne (updated June 2018)