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4 Tips to Make Re-Entering the STEM Workforce Easier

Jan 26, 2023

by Patricia Flynn Weitzman PhD

Women take a break from the workforce for lots of reasons—parenting, caregiving, burnout recovery, relocation, etc. Sometimes the break is planned, and sometimes it isn’t.

Either way, when it’s time to re-enter, you can feel some trepidation. Will anyone want me? Have I missed the boat for advancement? Will people take me seriously? That’s your inner saboteur taking full advantage of your jitters (as inner saboteurs always do).

The antidote to the saboteur is your inner sage. She’s the one who knows that the break was needed. She also knows that you’ve now got a valuable opportunity in front of you: A chance to choose the kind of work you want to do, rather than the kind of work you think you should do. That sense of “should” can be linked to other people’s expectations of you or a good salary tied to the old job and/or a graduate degree that you (or your parents) paid a lot of money for.

Often the women who come to me for coaching do so because they chose a career path that seemed sensible, but now they’re unhappy. “You’re good at x. You should be a y,” a well-meaning parent or teacher may have advised. Which is not even always terrible advice, in the short run. In the long run, however, doing work that seemed sensible or that you thought you “should” do, will likely lead to unhappiness, career malaise or burnout.

That’s why I encourage women who are ready to re-enter the workforce after a break to ask themselves the following questions:

  1. Are you going back to work you really want to do? If the answer is no, think about the skills you have and how to apply them in new ways. A break (even a layoff) is a naturally-occurring opportunity to pivot or start something new. Working with a career coach can help you figure things out.
  2. What capacities and skills have you grown during your break? Caregiving skills, for example, include planning, risk reduction, crisis management, time management, constructive conflict resolution, and compassionate communication, etc. Similar skills are required for parenting. If the break was due to burnout, what did you do to restore yourself? What capacities did you develop as a result? Any kind of break can lead to the enhanced capacities of flexibility, resilience, optimism, social intelligence, perspective taking, etc. Organizations are increasingly emphasizing these capacities. Be ready to talk about them with a prospective employer.
  3. Are your skills & knowledge current? It’s important to know what’s going on in your industry and the current tech tools being used in it. If you are not up to speed, get there. Read, attend a webinar and/or ask someone to teach you. Women with STEM degrees, in particular, understand that tech changes rapidly, so it’s important to tool up. If you’re unsure about what tech is most important right now, talk to your friends in the field. Research scientists or academics should, likewise, be current on the latest research (content and methodology) in their area and ready to talk about how they might apply that knowledge in the work they hope to do.
  4. Who else can you connect to? Tapping other women who have taken breaks for tips on dealing with the practical and emotional challenges of re-entering the workforce can be hugely helpful. Join a professional association like AWIS and talk to other members to solicit their advice. Lots of women in STEM have taken breaks and have useful info to share. Also, get your support team in place for dog walking, house maintenance, laundry, etc. If you have a partner, create a plan for who will handle what.

I advise any woman who has taken a break to never apologize for the choice. Women who take a break are showing courage, and courage should always be applauded. On a practical level, it can be a good idea to discuss the break right up front in the cover letter, e.g. “I spent the last nine months caring for an elderly parent, and I’m ready to re-enter the workforce with renewed energy.” Then move directly to your skills and capacities and how they are a good fit for the job. An employer who would wrinkle their nose at someone who took a break probably isn’t an employer you’d want to work for anyway.

Know your value. You possess unique skills and capacities and a desire to share them with the world. Most importantly, you are a human being who has been through something challenging and come out the other side. If that’s not a superpower, I don’t know what is.

[Editor’s note: AWIS offers career reentry scholarships. Apply by February, 28, 2023.]

Patricia Flynn Weitzman, PhD, is a behavioral scientist, certified career coach, and public health tech entrepreneur. She loves coaching women with STEM degrees or MBAs who want to pivot to work that feels meaningful. She is also an AWIS member. Connect with her in the online AWIS Community or on LinkedIn.