Creating your own returnship

Returnships are a fantastic way of building confidence, skills and current experience in a short-term role before applying for more permanent positions. It’s a new concept in the UK so if it appeals, you may well have to get creative and develop your own. Here are some tips on how best to create your own.

1. Think about what you’re looking for

  • Are you looking to refresh skills and experience in an industry you previously worked in or to develop skills and experience in a new area?

2. Prepare

  • Do as much research as you can before you make any formal approaches. Speak to old colleagues or people working in the industry you are keen to enter, sign up for relevant e-newsletters and look at professional body websites or magazines.

3. Be clear on what you can offer

  • Remind yourself of your skills and achievements and update your CV.
  • Be realistic about the hours & days that you can be available and the length of project you will accept.
  • Can you afford to work free of charge? It is easier to gain opportunities if you aren’t a cost to the business. But if you are not charging for your time, you must be sure to clearly define the scope of the project to ensure it is valuable experience. You may be able to scale your offering – maybe begin with a couple of weeks of unpaid observation/shadowing, then offer to undertake a specific project review. If your proposal is well-received, you could negotiate to be paid to deliver it.

4. Identify your targets

  • Concentrate on using your network, including friends, family, other school parents, contacts from volunteer/community organisations and local businesses you deal with as well as old colleagues and clients (use LinkedIn and alumni groups to renew connections). Avoid ‘cold-call’ approaches.
  • Don’t just think about large companies. Smaller &/or local organisations may have more flexibility to accommodate an intern and to value more highly your professional skills and experience. You can also potentially make more impact.
  • Don’t rule out regular internships, particularly if you are looking to change career direction. Employers which use sites such as may be open to mid-career interns as well. Some charities such as Cancer Research offer (unpaid) internships which they state are also open to career changers.

5. Develop your pitch

  • Prepare your ‘pitch’. What are you asking for (a short-term consulting project, specific work experience)? What are you hoping to achieve? How could you benefit the organisation that you are contacting? Practise this with family and friends.

6. Be brave

  • Often the hardest part is the initial approach. Remember that you have little to lose and a lot to gain.

7. Check the details

  • If you get the go-ahead, be clear about the scope and timing of what you will be doing.
  • Make sure that any work you do will look meaningful on your CV, with a specific outcome that you can talk about at future interviews. Aim for work at a professional level, using your skills and experience.
  • Establish a ‘go-to’ person within the organisation with whom you can discuss your experience and ask for advice if you come up against unexpected challenges.

8. Create a good ending

  • At the end of the project, leave the door open for future opportunities or projects. Connect with everyone you worked with via LinkedIn.
  • Arrange a review with the person who managed you for feedback about what you did particularly well and gaps they saw in your skills. Develop an action plan for any additional work or learning you need to do before you start looking for permanent roles.

You can read a few real-life examples of how UK returners have successfully created their own internships on our website: Stephanie and Fiona.

We would be really interested to hear from you if you have experience of a returnship. Did it work well for you? Did it help you to find a permanent role? Maybe you work for an organisation that has hosted such a programme – was it valuable for the business? Please get in touch with your stories…

Guest Blog by Tamsin Crook from Making Careers Work

Routes back to work stories: Accounting to MA Publishing

What is it like to go back to higher education to retrain to another career after a nine year career break? Our guest blogger Suzanne Westbrook tells her story.
One semester in to my MA in Publishing at Kingston University and it’s a good time to take stock.  As one of only a handful of mature publishing students I am often asked about my motivation to return to studying. My friends’ reactions have been varied and colourful. Some think I am ‘crazy’ to be studying so hard with 3 young boys (Calum: 9, Iain: 7 and Harris: 4). Others consider me ‘brave’, and some ‘lucky’ to be able to change career direction at this stage in my life. And me?
Am I crazy?
It does feel a little mad for sure as days are often hectic and I feel stretched by the many demands of Uni and life with busy children. ‘Do you REALLY need dinner tonight? Mummy is just finishing up a little research here’. I have still to find a perfect life/work balance. I know I should be working as hard as I can when the boys are at school but I sometimes find this hard as I’m ‘not in the mood’ after a rushed school run. So, if I’m not up for assignment writing I do some research; if I’m not in the mood for research I do some course reading. You get the gist! And there’s always laundry…

Iain (7), Calum (9) and Harris (4): little bookworms already!
I try to plan for down-time to get the numerous jobs done to clear my head for concentrated study. When I am working well, I am annoyed to be interrupted by the school pick-up. I then get cross with myself as I mull over unresolved issues in my head when I should be chatting about the minutiae of the school day with the boys, which I love to do (so funny, so revealing). Therefore I am studying part-time over two years and trying to keep realistic in my expectations although I really want to do well on the course.
It has been a whirlwind of a first semester with assignments coming thick and fast. Whilst often hard to do at the time (it is an MA after all), I can look back with a real sense of achievement when I consider how much I’ve learnt already, with a blog, a case study on literary agents and a higher education market analysis under my belt. We also had the unique opportunity to present our product proposals to real-life Editor-at-Large, Liz Gooster of Kogan Page – nerve-wracking but amazing! The emphasis on practical application is immensely beneficial. I also enjoy the publishing Masterclasses presented by industry specialists where we get to hear how it really is, and we can talk further with them often over a drink or two. After all, it’s important to network!
And I really enjoy studying alongside the ‘younger’ publishing students, who have welcomed us ‘older’ students, without question, into the fold. It is so interesting to hear of how they have come to publishing, and to hear their stories of home and their hopes for the future. I try to picture myself at their age and admire how focused and confident many of them are. They have taught me how to tweet and to use Facebook groups (love the Facebook groups) and I try not to mother them in return!
Am I brave?
Well, I suppose that turning my back on my previous career in accounting and finance and my degree in languages is a little brave. And of course, the road into publishing is less obvious for students with the ‘life experience’ that I have (I can never hear that too many times…). But, in today’s publishing industry where it’s all about the margins, I’ll put that accounting (and life) experience to good use. And who knows, maybe I’ll get to use my languages too.
And why publishing? Well, I have long been interested in the industry, love books and languages and am reminded every day how important literacy and books are. My boys have all turned out to be little bookworms, which is beyond wonderful. Calum enjoys being cross-examined on his reading tastes for my Uni assignments and loves to hassle me over my ‘homework’. Iain has promised I can edit his manuscript for his first comic book, but I foresee considerable slippage with the publication schedule! As for Harris, where do I start? He has embraced reading with gusto, bounds out of his class every day to tell me what he has learnt and regales us with his alphabet songs. One song for each letter – quite a repertoire!
Am I lucky?
Absolutely! I am extremely lucky to be studying a subject I find endlessly fascinating and to be supported so wholeheartedly by my wonderful husband Mark. In my career break of nine years I have had time to sit back and think clearly about my future. Returning to the workforce was always a given although I do not regret, in any way, taking time off to be with the boys. It has been a delight and privilege to be there to see them grow, but it is now time to ‘get back to me’.
And lucky too to be studying alongside my new friend Helen, also a mature publishing student and mother. We are able to remind each other of our considerable achievements so far – wearing matching shoes to lectures, turning up on time and so on. Oh and we’re doing ok at Uni too. Although, Iain is concerned that ‘I could do better’ with my marks!
suzanneSo yes, I am crazy, brave and lucky and very very busy… but happy too!
Suzanne Westbrook has a degree in Languages and worked in finance for many years as a Chartered Accountant. She is now studying on the MA Publishing at Kingston University.
Republished with Suzanne’s permission from her original blog for

We’d love to hear your return to work/study stories – do get in touch if you’d like to contribute a guest blog

How to creatively craft your next role

Are you struggling to work out what role you can return to?  You might think you have few choices or are attracted by many possibilities.  One way to look at this question is to think afresh about the kind of role you would like to create for yourself if you were free to do so.
Amanda*, formerly a Board director of a PR company, consulted me about her return to work after a 10 year career break during which she’d carried out some individual PR projects.  She was uncertain as to what to do next: although she enjoyed some aspects of her previous role, there were others that didn’t interest her at all anymore.  During our work together, Amanda identified the specific elements of her former role that still appealed (qualitative research and guiding guests around exhibitions and historic places) and set about researching how to pursue her career in each of these fields.
Rosie* had taken a six year break from a City law firm.  While she loved working in the law and felt strong loyalty to her former employer, she knew that the demands of returning to the partnership track were not right for her.  At the same time, Rosie knew that she had lots to offer her firm: she understood the pressures on trainee and newly qualified solicitors as well as the business needs of the organisation.  She believed that she could help her firm by providing specific support to the lawyers as they set about building their own practices … and the HR Director agreed with her!  The firm funded Rosie to gain a coaching qualification and she has continued to develop and evolve her internal career management role as the needs of the firm have changed.
Both of these are examples of women who have designed a role which stimulates them, builds on their skills and expertise as well as taking them in a new direction.  While Amanda is crafting a role from elements of her former career, Rosie has been able to create a role which was new both for her and for her employer.
If you’d like to try this approach, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Which elements of my previous roles did I most enjoy and excel at?
  • Can these elements exist as roles on their own or as key aspects of other roles? Did I notice any gaps at a previous employer which I would like to fill?
Posted by Katerina

Too few choices: advice on identifying post-break options

I’ve already talked about how we can get stuck when we see too many options. You may be experiencing the opposite problem – not being able
to think of any exciting and realistic options at all. Are you still searching for your (elusive) passion? Or are you not quite ready to let go of your old work identity and create a new one?

Maybe with time away from the workplace, you have realised that you drifted into your career but never really enjoyed it that much, and now you want to find a role you love. One client said to me recently “After working for many years without much fulfilment I’d like to follow my passion now … but I just don’t know what my passion is!” Career change advice to find your passion or your ‘dream job’ can be more harmful than helpful.  The reality is that we all have a number of possible paths we can take that could lead to satisfying and fulfilling work. Herminia Ibarra*, a professor at INSEAD who has studied many professionals and managers in career transition, suggests that the biggest mistake we can make is to delay taking a first step until we have settled on a destination.  She advises that the best way to move towards a satisfying new career is to learn by doing: try out a variety of things that appeal to you to any extent and say yes to opportunities that come your way to find out about new areas and create new networks (a project for an ex-colleague or a friend, volunteer work, a short course, …). See it as a journey of exploration, be open-minded, and you may well find a role that inspires you along the way.

Or maybe you did enjoy your pre-break career but it was in an area where you can’t see any interesting possibilities that could fit with your life today. You might
have been an investment banker or a brand marketing director and loved the excitement
of the job but can’t contemplate the 60+ hour weeks you’d need to sign up for
if you went back. However your work identity is so entwined with your old role that it’s hard to think of any interesting alternatives.

In this situation, a useful exercise is to create your ‘Ideal Work Day’. Think of all the activities you did in your previous
roles, regular and occasional. These might include meeting with
clients, developing new ideas, analysing data, recruiting, coaching, writing, researching, presenting, etc. Now choose the activities you most enjoyed and would include in your ideal day. This gives you
a starting point to think creatively about where you could find these aspects in another more
flexible role, either employed or self-employed. For example Marian recognised that she’d most enjoyed the relationship building
and presenting aspects of her consumer goods marketing roles which eventually led her into corporate fundraising. Acknowledge the sadness you may feel in letting go of your old professional identity and then focus on what aspects you can take forward into your new working life.
* Ibarra has written an excellent book for career changers “Working Identity”
Posted by Julianne

Thinking small: an alternative route back to work

“I’m worried about being sucked back into working too hard and feeling like I’m back on the ‘treadmill’ … stressed, guilty and no time for anything”.
Carol*, an ex-marketing director, had quit her demanding job 8 years before to be a full-time mother and admitted that she was afraid of work taking over her life again if she went back to a corporate job. A career to Carol was all about 50+ hour weeks and high pressure.
I often come across this ‘all-or-nothing’ thinking among professional women returners – seeing only the extremes rather than any middle ground.  The thinking goes: either I have a full-on demanding job or I don’t work and have time and energy for my family/personal life.  Seeing this as a black-and-white choice between work and family leads many mothers to wait for the ‘right’ time to return to work:
“I’ll go back when the kids are at full-time school … when they’ve got through their exams … when they need me less …”
But there is never a perfect time to return to work – there will always be multiple demands on your time and energy. Even when your children are at school, the days can easily be filled with numerous small tasks for the home, the family or the school, plus visiting ageing parents, staying fit and so on.
If you think that you may want to return to corporate life at some point in the future, the consistent advice from successful returners is to ‘keep your hand in’ with some form of skilled work, no matter how small-scale. This helps to keep up your confidence and maintain your ‘professional self’. I found that starting small was also a good way to ease back into work after a break as a full-time mother. Taking on a series of one-off consulting and training projects rather than leaping into a larger employed role helped me to regain my professional identity in a manageable way with a young family.
Other returners have found many ways to adopt this ‘small steps’ approach. Carol* got back in touch with some old colleagues and was offered a six-week brand consultancy project that she worked on in school hours. Janet* took on a freelance role as a sub-editor two mornings a week, Maria* took on a non-exec role for a few days a month and Justine* became an occasional lecturer in legal education. Katerina found skilled volunteering to be just as effective (for ideas see Some of these women, like us, have since ramped up to make work a larger part of their lives; others have chosen to stick with small-scale work as it continues to give them the life balance they are looking for at this stage of their lives.
*names & some details altered to maintain confidentiality
Posted by Julianne

Too many choices: how to focus

When I was on a career break after stepping out of my first career in strategy/marketing, I realised after a while that being a full-time mother was not for me. I knew that I wanted to do something enjoyable and flexible and spent many hours dreaming and chatting with friends about what this might be. One month a friend and I got excited about importing baby equipment from Australia … then a few months later I was inspired to set up a family-focused travel agency … then it was a flexible childcare business … then studying psychology. I was never short of ideas but the interesting thing was that the more options I thought of, and the more I talked about them and researched them on the internet, the more problems I could see and the further I became from actually doing them. Eventually I was reluctant to share my next great idea with my friends as I had stopped believing myself that I was actually going to make any of them happen. Somehow having too many choices was stopping me pursuing any one option more seriously.
When I went on to study psychology, I found that my experience is so common that it has a label: the Paradox of Choice. Too much choice in everyday life can make us confused and paralysed. The psychologist Barry Schwartz in his book and TED talk on this topic explained “with so many options to choose from, people find it difficult to choose at all”. As no choice is perfect, we can always imagine that we will find a better alternative. And the effect can be stronger with more complex choices, such as career decisions. We are less likely to hit “choice overload” if we are clear on our preferences or have a simple way to compare between options.
What got me out of the choice paralysis was realising that first of all I needed to develop some decision criteria to work out what I wanted from my life so that I could weigh up my alternatives. While all options were appealing, with some positives and some negatives, I was unable to prioritise. When I became clearer on what was most important to me and where I could compromise, I was able to discount many of my ideas and to focus on the one that seemed the best fit. Then I needed to push myself to stop thinking/talking and start taking action. I dipped an exploratory toe in the water by enrolling on an introduction to psychology course and that was the first step on the road to retraining as a psychologist.

Some of the women returners I meet also see too many possibilities and may have been thinking and talking about all the things they could do for years without making any concrete progress. One of my clients brought a list of the 16 options she had been considering to the first meeting – unsurprisingly she felt very confused about where to go next! If you too are hitting choice overload, aim to narrow your focus to get down to a manageable number of choices to investigate:

  • Work out what is most important to you in your future job. Fine to start with 1) flexible 2) pays enough, but then go beyond that. What are you missing about work (is it using your brain, the achievement, the social aspect, …), what are you really interested in, what are you good at and love doing?  If you’re wondering where to start with this process, look at  Windmills online or Build your Own Rainbow.
  • Use this to work out what you want from work, decide what are ‘must-haves’ and where you can compromise. You can then choose a few possibilities that really appeal and seem like they could be a good fit for you. And don’t fall into the trap of looking for the perfect job as all jobs involve trade-offs (see my last post!).
  • Critically don’t spend more time thinking – practically reality test your short-list: talk to people in the area, maybe take a short course, go to a conference, work shadow, do an internship … test your ideas and learn along the way. (We’ll talk more about how to go about these steps in future posts).

Having choices and being open to possibilities is a great thing – don’t let it keep you stuck!

Posted by Julianne