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)