Should I Rethink My Career Level After My Break?

Returning to work after a career break can be daunting in many ways. One common uncertainty amongst career returners is what level of jobs to apply for. Many returners who’ve achieved seniority in their professions assume that, because of their breaks, they’ll only be offered positions that are lower than the previous career level they’ve managed to achieve. 

However, when job searching — with or without a break — the best strategy is to assume nothing. Don’t assume you won’t be offered jobs that are challenging. Don’t assume that a job with a lower-than-desired title can’t be challenging. You won’t know until you are having conversations what amazing opportunities might exist.

Having a vision of yourself as capable is a good thing. We often hear from recruiters that they meet returners who seem to have great skills and experience but lack the confidence they will need to be successful. But too much of a good thing isn’t always good — if your vision of yourself blinds you to an opportunity to show an organization what you are capable of, for example. 

You should apply for a range of jobs both above, below and at the level you were at when you exited the workforce. You will get feedback in the form of interviews — what jobs seem to lead to you getting called? If you aren’t getting interviews you need to refine your approach. But if you are called in for jobs at or below your previous experience level, go! First of all, these interviews can be a great chance to practice your interviewing skills. But you may also find that these jobs are more interesting than you imagined. You will never know without exploring further. 

If you are offered a job you think is too junior you certainly don’t have to take it — but think seriously about the potential benefits before you turn it down. At Path Forward, we’ve met a number of returners whose first post-break positions were lower than their previous career level, but who successfully used their existing skills to work their way up. The important thing was getting their foot in the door. For instance, one returner, who’d been out of the workforce for about 15 years, exited at a very senior level. Coming back after a divorce she initially took a temporary assistant job. She knew it was way below what she was capable of — but it put money in her pocket and, more important, got her out of the house and into an office. She was able to get back into the swing of work and made a bunch of great connections. She eventually got an executive position at a startup where both her prior experience as an executive, and her demonstrated ability to roll up her sleeves and get work done, landed her the job.

Tami Forman is the founding executive director of Path Forward and a frequent speaker on issues related to caregiving and workforce participation.