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How to make the most of a career break

Look for the point midway between ‘a change is as good as a rest’ and ‘you’re never too old to learn’ and you’ll find the career study break.

“A career break is best taken when you are at senior or executive level, with a significant number of years of experience under your belt, so you don’t look flighty or unfocused in your career journey,” says Jane Lowder, career coach and founder of Max Coaching.


Do employers generally look favourably on people who do this? “Yes, they do,” says Heidi Winney, founder of Strategic Career Development.

”Any formal learning or professional development you do is going to be useful because it adds value and shows that you are keen to develop your career.”


It’s now widely appreciated that lifelong learning is a necessary ingredient for a successful career, says Winney.

“For one thing, look at how quickly technology changes. You have to keep up to date, no matter what age you are. And if you’re older, it’s even more important to be perceived as keeping up.”


Sabbaticals and new directions


A career study break, usually spanning from several months to a year, might be something you can do with your employer’s blessing.

You convince your boss that, after an extended sabbatical to learn new skills and capabilities, you’ll come back as an even better employee. Possibly in a different or more senior role.


Or it might mean quitting your job and going it alone to build on your existing field of expertise, or to set yourself up for a whole new career path. In either case, there’s the option of not looking for another job when your studies are complete, but working for yourself instead, as a freelancer or consultant, or by starting up your own company or venture.


“Many people who want to make a change into something more senior or go in a different direction can’t do that without some formal qualification or study,” says Winney.

“The qualification that’s really valued is what you get from a top management school because it’s experiential learning that leads to acquiring skills as well as knowledge, and the opportunity to gain a local and international network of people.”


It is quite common for working people who are studying part-time for a qualification such as an MBA to accelerate completion of the last few units by taking a career break to study full-time.

A good place to start looking at the huge range of courses available is It also lists many scholarships on offer.


Plans and challenges


Organisational and professional development specialist Dr Janet Fitzell stresses the importance of thoroughly planning a full-time study break and being clear about your aims.


“Professionals fare better, and avoid stress and anxiety, when they manage a break well and avoid leaving things to chance,” says Fitzell, cofounder and a director of FourLeaf consulting. 

This includes documenting your budget while still at work.

“Unless you are confident you can sustain that level of expenditure, look for where you can cut back.”


Staying connected with individuals and organisations, and continuing to attend events put on by professional associations you are member of, can help you keep up to date and aid your smooth return to work.


“It’s also useful to be proactive in thinking, in advance, about what your particular challenges might be,” says Fitzell.

She cites the example of an industrial engineer who turned his retrenchment into an opportunity by enrolling in a full-time MBA, then found that he had underestimated the challenges of postgraduate study after 10 years away from academia as completing the course took him six months longer than expected.


Volunteering to make a difference


Going back to school isn’t the only option for a career-focused break. Volunteer work in Australia or overseas can teach you new skills and rejuvenate your sense of purpose in life.


“In my coaching practice I’ve often noticed that, after the initial 10 to 20 years of their career, many of my clients shift their focus to what difference they can make to the world and what they want their legacy to be,” says Lowder.


“This sort of volunteer work can be one way of dipping your toe in the water and connecting with that. You’ll very likely have to deal with situations you’ve never encountered before and challenge your ability to cope outside your comfort zone.”


Lowder recommends the website where not-for-profit organisations advertise for people with professional skills to voluntarily assist them on a project basis.


“They’re looking for a commitment that has a time limit and a specified outcome. A number of my clients have enjoyed a positive effect on their career progression as a result. Particularly for people who have been in one role or industry for a while, what they gain from exposure to different organisational systems, technologies and cultures can be very valuable to take back to an employer.”

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