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Your career is a journey: is a returnship right for you?

It’s often a tough decision to take a career hiatus. But it can be an even tougher choice to return to work. And from here, the hard questions just keep coming. Should you go down the traditional path of a full-time job? Experiment with the risk of the gig economy? Or toe-step into the workplace through an internship?

While internships are nothing new for the soon-to-graduate sector, internships for adults are. Often known as returnships, these programs aim to assist returning caregivers with a reentry point into longer-term employment. This may sound wonderful, but is a returnship right for you?

What to ask before returning

Are you ok with uncertainties? In a returnship, as with any pilot program, there are uncertainties and ambiguities—with the job scope, processes, department, and sometimes with the company itself. You have to be somewhat of a self-starter who can take the initiative to chart your own course. It also helps if you have full support from organizations like Path Forward—a nonprofit organization that helps people restart their career after taking two or more years off for caregiving. You’ll also learn to rely on your cohort of fellow returners and your manager at the company.

Are you ready for a life transition? Christine at Path Forward sums the transition up well. “It’s a different SLA (Service Level Agreement) when you return to work.” You’ll need to reset everyone’s expectations —kids, partner, spouse—and they’ll have to help with the heavy lifting of house chores, dinner, and all the things you used to do as a full-time caregiver. It will be tough at first and frustrating, but they will get through it, just like you will. You will learn to let go of a lot of things and know that your family will handle it, maybe not to your expectations, but it will be handled nonetheless.

Where is the company located? How far and long do you have to go? Is it manageable in the long-term if the job becomes permanent? Ask about the role and if employees have flexible work schedules. Do they work from home? Are teams virtual? Can you work remotely one or two days a week? This is important to know now should you fall in love with the job, people, and company. If it takes you two hours a day, one-way, you may need to weigh the job benefits against the length of your commute.

Are salary and job titles unimportant to you? (At least for now.) If you are expecting a certain career title or salary, then a returnship may not be for you. Internships serve as a stepping stone back into the workforce, Some mothers I spoke with were once senior-level executives, accustomed to making six-figure salaries. An internship was seen as a step or two back for them. However, if you are willing to pivot, and are not into titles or have lofty salary expectations, returnships are an opportunity to learn and add recent skills to your resume.

Are you willing to accept that there are no guarantees? As I mentioned earlier, there are no guarantees that the internship will end with an actual job offer. But knowing that there’s no obligation for either party also gives you a lot of freedom and flexibility. The goal of the internship is to give you the skills, knowledge, and ability to launch back into your career track, whether it be with the company you are doing the returnship with or the next company you land on. There’s really no downside; you will be recent, relevant and confident because of the experience you gained.

If you answered “yes”, to all of the above, then a returnship is right for you.

The answer is yes; it’s time to return

Now that you’ve decided a returnship is good for you, here are some tips to make the internship successful.

Before your internship. Take any and all of the courses offered by Path Forward and their partners. One of the partners offered a resume writing and elevator pitch workshop specifically targeted to career returners.

Continue to read as much as you can about the industry you are joining. Attend industry meetups and networking events. Coursera and Udemy offer free online courses; take advantage of them. If you are a social media person, start following and liking influencers and sign up for their webinars and tweet chats.

Keep your skills proficient by doing pro bono work and learning HTML, WordPress, MailChimp, Slack, Asana, Hangout, and even a tad bit of JavaScript. You’ll be amazed at how a layman’s understanding of today’s tools will come in handy.

Keep your skills proficient by doing pro bono work and learning HTML, WordPress, MailChimp, Slack, Asana, Hangout, and even a tad bit of JavaScript.

Complete as many household tasks as you can—doctor appointments and kid appointments—

Take time for yourself—eat right, visit a spa, and take a vacation before you start. Once your returnship is in full swing, you likely won’t have time for extensive self-care and that week away.

During your internship. Learn as much as you can and ask a lot of questions. Don’t be afraid to ask dumb questions; my mentor said a dumb question is one not asked. Ask until you understand and don’t be afraid to ask again if you still don’t. There’s a lot of information and you can easily become overwhelmed. If that happens? Allow your manager to help with prioritizing your projects.

Leverage your allies, team members, and others in your department if your manager isn’t there or works remotely. Build good relationships within your department and across the organization as a whole.

Go in with an open mind and stay focused on your goal of learning and contributing. You might be older than the rest of your colleagues, peers, and even manager. Don’t let age be a barrier or hindrance in working effectively as a team. My mantra is: if you don’t make age a problem, then it won’t be. There’s something to learned from everyone regardless of their age. I even talked to an HR executive during one of our coffee chats about reverse mentoring, which is something companies like Cisco and Target have been doing for years.

Know your limits, but also take on new projects to challenge yourself. Learn something new whether it’s a tool, technology, or even a presentation skill.

Network with as many people as you can—coffee chats, lunch, and LinkedIn. Build your contact list; this should be a lifetime act as you can never have enough business connections.

Establish your own success metrics and development plan—alongside your manager, of course. List goals and accomplishments, and identify areas of strength, weakness, and opportunity.

I cannot stress enough the importance of soliciting feedback—constantly and consistently from your manager, colleagues, and peers. Welcome feedback as constructive and don’t get defensive; it will only serve to make you better. Know what is valid and what you can just file away.

Welcome feedback as constructive and don’t get defensive; it will only serve to make you better. Know what is valid and what you can just file away.

After your internship. If you land a position with the company you are doing the internship with, great. Congratulations! If your internship takes you elsewhere, you are now recent, relevant, and have a huge network of connections to tap into.

If you find yourself without a full-time offer, don’t despair. Revise your resume and reach out to your connections. Since your career path is non-traditional, do not be afraid of the gaps—own the gaps. Focus on your key accomplishments and what impact you made. List your most recent and relevant accomplishments at the top, especially your returnship.

And don’t forget the attitude of gratitude. Thank the company and everyone Keep the doors open, you never know what the future will hold.

Stephanie Won is a marketer who is reinventing herself. When she's not consuming social media, news, and technology or dabbling in content marketing, she's the Chief Mom Officer to two kiddos, who love both human and computer language.