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Returning To The Workforce

After a hiatus to care for family members, scientists find ways to restart their careers

by Susan J. Ainsworth
August 23, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 34

Credit: Fred Schleifer
Returning to Air Products & Chemicals after a five-year family break, Boulton (center) provides process support for air separation units.
Credit: Fred Schleifer
Returning to Air Products & Chemicals after a five-year family break, Boulton (center) provides process support for air separation units.

Katy van Kirk had been well on her way to building a successful career in big pharma. In 2006, she had already spent eight years as a research chemist in drug discovery at Bristol-Myers Squibb in Prince­ton, N.J. But at the same time, she was also raising three small children, including one with special needs. Juggling both roles, she found, was more than she wanted to handle at the time. So, she decided to exit the workforce, at least temporarily.

However, in the fall of 2008, in the midst of the recession, she felt the need to help her family financially and decided to try to return to the working world. After posting her résumé on, she was pleased to quickly land a job at Massachusetts College of Pharmacy & Health Sciences as a lab instructor, even though it took her down a career path she had not previously considered.

Like van Kirk, many relaunchers—those who take time off to care for their families—eventually decide to restart their careers, often spurred by a yearning to return to science or by financial pressures brought on by poor economic times. Finding a job, however, can be particularly difficult for those with glaring gaps in their résumés, especially when high unemployment rates prevail.

To break back into the workforce, relaunchers contacted by C&EN say they employed strategies from connecting with former colleagues to enrolling in professional development programs. Although some found jobs that were lower in stature than those they had left, the positions allowed them to jump-start their careers and recalibrate their future goals and objectives. Their stories may inspire not only other relaunchers, but anyone looking for a job right now.

After taking six years off to care for her two young children, Farzana Masood knew she needed some training to reenter the job market. Previously, she had worked as a scientist in the area of preclinical pharmacology and toxicology for antiviral and cancer therapeutics at BioChem Pharma in Montreal. When her husband accepted a demanding position in Boston in 2001, she decided to stay home full-time with her children, who were four and two at the time. “Life with kids, seeing them grow, was pretty good, but there was always something missing,” Masood says.

When she eventually decided to return to work, “I knew full well that it was almost impossible to go back to basic research, because I was unable to keep up with the field during my time off,” she says. “I was sure I needed to take a detour and choose a related field.”

She learned of a new program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology aimed at helping people enter the workforce after a break. She applied for the fall 2007 session and was accepted.

MIT’s Career Reengineering Program was designed in 2006 initially to help those MIT alumnae who had earned a degree in science or engineering, built a successful career, left to raise their children, and then struggled to get back into the workforce, says Dawna Levenson, associate director of the program. “Often, those women found that their network had dried up, their skills were a bit outdated, and they had even lost a bit of their confidence,” she says. “Many questioned what their value would be in the workplace.”

Under the program, Masood took two courses related to drug discovery and development, completed a project focused on translational medicine, and then secured a part-time internship with the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, a hospital affiliated with Harvard Medical School. The program “gave me confidence, the opportunity to network, and all the necessary tools to prepare myself to return to the workforce,” she says. The internship led to a full-time position at Dana-Farber as a regulatory coordinator, a position that she is happy to have even though it is “not at the same level” as the one she left at BioChem Pharma.

Not surprisingly, inquiries into the MIT program, which has always served both men and women, have risen as scientists seek to jump-start their careers or retool to break into new fields, Levenson says.

Although career development programs are valuable, some relaunchers say they were able to land a desirable job without such help. Many find positions with the companies or organizations they left.

That was the case for Laura Boulton, a chemical engineer who had worked for Air Products & Chemicals for 15 years before she left in 2001 to spend more time with her children, then six and three. Granted a two-year leave of absence from Air Products, she ended up taking off more time—a total of five years, says Boulton, who had previously designed air separation units within Air Products’ Process Engineering group.

In 2006, when her youngest child was in second grade, she was just beginning to look for part-time chemical engineering work when a former Air Products manager called her about a job opening. She accepted an offer to come back part-time as a plant process engineer, providing process support for air separation units in the company’s Global Operations group. She plans to return to working full-time in October.

Relationships built with former colleagues at Air Products also opened the door for Janet Mitchell to return to regular work at the company. After 15 years of working full-time for the company, she reached a point where the demands of her job, her pursuit of a master’s degree in chemical engineering during evenings, and the needs of her two young sons caused her to decide to take on only temporary or part-time work for 14 years, sometimes logging only a few hours per week.

Then in 2001, when her oldest son was entering high school, she eagerly began searching for a full-time engineering position. Unfortunately, the job market for engineers was not good at that time, she remembers. After years of searching, “a former colleague called me out of the blue one day and asked me if I was interested in joining the Liquefied Natural Gas Process Engineering group,” the group she had started in at Air Products in 1977, she says. Although the principal process engineer position was an entry-level job and a step down from where she worked when she left full-time employment, she accepted it and has been “thrilled with it” even after four years, she says. “I love the business, and I love working with so many high-quality engineers, who have different ways of approaching problems. I couldn’t be happier.”

Credit: Arshad Siddiqui
Now a regulatory coordinator at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Masood cherishes the six years she spent at home with her children, now 11 and 13.
Credit: Arshad Siddiqui
Now a regulatory coordinator at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Masood cherishes the six years she spent at home with her children, now 11 and 13.

Some relaunchers say that they have remained open to taking positions that they might have eschewed earlier in their careers. Time at home, they say, led them to reevaluate their career goals in the context of balancing work and family.

During her 23-year career with Rohm and Haas and now with Dow (after the 2009 merger), Jennifer McIntyre, a global supply chain leader at Dow Chemical in Philadelphia, says she has learned to look for roles that fit with the changing demands of her life, which includes a husband and three children, now ages 18, 16, and 13. “I’ve found that at one point in your career, you may want a huge challenge and you take that stretch role because you can really invest in it. But there are other times where you need to take the easier path, at least for a little while,” McIntyre says. “I’ve been really lucky to work for companies that support those choices.”

After her third child was born in 1997, McIntyre decided to quit her job as an environmental, health, and safety engineer, which she had negotiated to do on a part-time basis. “The climate in the plant changed, and my work hours were being challenged, so it all became too stressful,” she says. McIntyre then spent a couple of years working as a self-employed consultant, which she says gave her more control of her time. In 2000, she was able to return to Rohm and Haas, moving through two positions before being promoted in 2003 to manager of the Philadelphia plant, a full-time position that she really wanted.

Other companies also welcome the return of employees who have taken a break for family. “We find that they are motivated, committed, and very productive when they return,” says Lynn Scheitrum, Air Products’ manager of talent management and central staffing. “Unlike a new hire, they know the company. We know their strengths. We have already made a significant investment in these individuals, and quite frankly, they are a safer bet as far as staying with the company and continuing to grow and contribute their ideas and experience.”

However, not all organizations greet relaunchers with open arms, especially if they are not former employees. “Voluntarily leaving the workforce to care for family very loudly announces your priorities to any potential employer, probably negatively coloring their opinions about hiring you,” says Brian Polk, a Ph.D. analytical chemist who has struggled to find work since taking off for two years to care for his two young daughters. He left the workforce in 2008 after a stint as a visiting assistant professor in American University’s chemistry department. Before that, he worked for five years at the National Institute of Standards & Technology in Gaithersburg, Md., focusing on microfabricated chemical sensors, and served as an adjunct professor at Montgomery College in Germantown, Md.

Like other scientists aspiring to reenter the workforce, Polk believes that he must combat the perception that he is out of touch with the latest developments in science. “I’ve been out of the active research game for more than two years now, and that’s more than enough time for my skills and knowledge to seem obsolete,” he says. “Even my general experience in analytical chemistry isn’t helpful because most companies now want scientists with experience with proteins, or DNA, or pharmaceuticals that I just don’t have.”

In response, Polk has taken on short-term work and completed a computer programming course “with the intent of leveraging my experience in instrument interfacing into a range of skills that would have broader appeal to employers,” many of whom need computer programmers and Web developers, he says.

“Although I have a wide variety of transferable skills and feel I could quickly learn a new specialty, I worry that employers won’t take a chance on me because there are so many candidates that already have the desired training,” Polk says.

Credit: Fred Schleifer
After a long family hiatus, Mitchell (right) is “thrilled” to be back working with Air Products’ Liquefied Natural Gas Process Engineering team.
Credit: Fred Schleifer
After a long family hiatus, Mitchell (right) is “thrilled” to be back working with Air Products’ Liquefied Natural Gas Process Engineering team.

Time away from science may be an obstacle, but it also is an opportunity to develop new skills, as W. Chris Florian, a lab technician, realized. He left the corporate world for four years to care for his ill, elderly father-in-law, and when his father-in-law died in August 2008, Florian began the difficult task of finding permanent employment. Despite having more than 10 years of experience with companies including Amoco, Nova-Borealis Compounds, and Schering-Plough, he could not be placed because he had been out of the lab too long, one staffing agency told him.

However, he believes that other factors—his age of 49 and his aversion to relocating—may be bigger deterrents to would-be employers. Florian has found that most staffing agencies will excuse an employment gap once they understand the reason behind it, he says. Rather than try to hide his work break, Florian has highlighted his caregiving experience on his current résumé, outlining how he coordinated treatments and interacted with a team of doctors, pharmacists, nurses, and social workers.

When looking for work, van Kirk, too, was eager to sell the skills she developed during her time off. “My time away from industry was a time to appraise my talents and build new strengths,” she says. In the course of interviewing, she touted her work managing the budget for the local parent-teacher association and her efforts to lobby her school district to support the inclusion of arts in education, says van Kirk, who is now an adjunct faculty member at Endicott College and at Massachusetts College of Pharmacy & Health Sciences. These experiences have given her opportunities to show leadership—something she says she had not yet been able to do in industry.


Similarly, when reapplying to Air Products, Boulton highlighted the skills she developed during her five years away from the company. During that time, she acted as copresident of her local home and school association, earned a real estate license, and worked in a number of part-time jobs that were closer to her home than the Air Products facility. “I have been able to demonstrate that I have the flexibility to learn new skills, interface with many people, and build consensus—all skills that engineers need to have,” she says.

Indeed, would-be relaunchers should tout skills and experience that mesh well with those outlined in the job description for a specific, desired position, Air Products’ Scheitrum says.

She also advises relaunchers to do all they can to rebuild their network. “Take advantage of all the ways you can stay connected with friends, family members, coworkers, and others through LinkedIn, Facebook, and other social media, as well as through more traditional means such as e-mail, phone calls, and get-togethers,” Scheitrum says.

Especially in today’s job market, finding a job after a break can be frustrating and challenging. Although relaunchers often must reenter the workforce on a career rung that is lower than the one they left, most say they are not sorry that they spent time at home.

“I have no regrets,” Masood says. “There are trade-offs in terms of my career path, but I will always cherish those memories of spending time with my kids. I definitely feel I did the right thing.”


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