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Week 8: Planning your next steps


This is the last week of the course, but rather than viewing it as an ending you should consider this as the start of the next stage of your journey and a new phase in your career development.

This week you will develop a powerful action plan that will help you move forward with your return to work. You will start by identifying your long-term goals and ambitions, and then outline the steps required to get there.

Before you go on to creating your own unique action plan, you’ll look again at the strategies that have worked for others returning to STEM.

First, listen to Sue talking about what this week is going to involve and hear about how she returned to education to study computing:

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Hello again. Welcome to this, the final week of the course, Returning to STEM. This week, you’ll be revisiting the five main strategies for returning to STEM employment. And you'll get a chance to reflect on these in light of the knowledge that you've gained throughout the course.
This week is all about the next steps. You'll come away with a powerful action plan that will set you on the right course. First of all, you'll look at your vision – where do you want to get to? And then how to create smart and achievable goals and turn these into actions. You'll revisit the options for further training and returnships.
As usual, you will finish this week with a quiz. This time, it'll be a chance to reflect on your learning from the second half of the course. So it will be another longer quiz. Like Week 4, this quiz counts towards the badge for this course.
I went back into education nearly 30 years ago now. I was shy, scared and hoping that I was doing the right thing. But I didn't really know that I was. Since then, I've worked hard and kept moving towards goals that I wanted to achieve.
A degree, a PhD, becoming a full-time academic, and then head of department – I honestly can't believe where I've got to now, and some of the things that I've done. I've had a great career. I've spoken at the UN. I've met the Queen – lectured around Brazil, written a book, led a successful campaign to save Bletchley Park, and set up my own not-for-profit company, #techmums, which teaches tech skills to mums. I've done so many things.
It's not always been easy. Sometimes it's been really difficult and many times I felt like giving up. But I haven't.
I wish I'd known when I was younger that everyone gets tough times. And that the best way to get through them is to realise that you're not alone. There are people everywhere having a tough time too.
The trick is to just keep going. Keeping going, resilience, is what's got me where I am today. The journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step. Once you get going, keep going. If I can do it, so can you.
Good luck on your journey. If you keep going you will be successful.
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By the end of the week you should have:

  • reflected on everything you’ve learned on this BOC
  • identified your long-term goals and ambitions
  • created an action plan which breaks your long term goals into a series of achievable steps.

1 Strategies for returning to STEM

Figure 1 Strategies

In Week 1, you read about the strategies that worked for people who have successfully returned to STEM after a career break. While the types of work they went back into varied considerably, there were five main strategies that had helped them:

  • Foot in the door – a great way to get started on the journey back to work is volunteering, carrying out unpaid work, or working in a non-STEM role within a STEM organisation, which can give you access to hidden job opportunities.
  • Networking – your contacts and networks can help you find jobs that have not been publicly advertised. These can include friends or family as well as previous professional contacts, and you can use LinkedIn to reconnect with employers or former work colleagues who you have previously lost touch with.
  • Retraining – you might decide to undertake a completely new qualification that will take you into a different but related career. On the other hand, you may need to refresh your skills and learn new techniques that will update you in your specialist field.
  • Helping hand – remember, you are not alone in your quest to return to STEM work. There are a number of agencies and funding resources specifically for women returners, such as the Daphne Jackson Trust, as well as other organisations, advisors and formal networks.
  • Back to basics – sometimes it might be necessary to make a trade-off and work in a lower status job, perhaps at low rates of pay, in return for flexibility and proximity to home. You may decide to use this as a stopgap until a future time when you can commit more time to work. Remember that you need to consider your work life balance as a whole when you are planning your return, so, by all means be ambitious, but you must also be realistic about what is feasible.

1.1 Reviewing your progress

Before you start setting goals and making plans, it’s worth taking a bit of time to review what you have done so far on the course, and also to look over some of the notes you’ve written and the activities you’ve carried out. These will give you a firm basis for writing your action plan.

Activity 1 Reflecting on the course

Allow approximately 20 minutes

Make a note of one thing you have learned from each week of the course. This could be something you have discovered about yourself, something you have learned from another person, or something that you’ve read or thought about.

For example, you might have found it challenging in the second week to account for the gaps in your employment record when creating your LinkedIn page and CV. Understanding the valuable skills and experience gained while being, for example, a carer, living abroad, changing career direction, doing volunteer work and/or running a parent/teacher group can help you be positive and unapologetic in addressing this.

In Week 6, you looked at how you may have lost confidence as a result of being out of work. What did you learn from this week and what strategies did you decide might help to overcome this barrier?

Remember, these are just examples – you should focus on your own insights and learning that are specific to you.

Here is a reminder of what you have covered so far:

Study Week Main topics covered
1 Learning from your experiences
2 Presenting yourself – online and on paper
3 What’s going on in your industry sector; what are the possibilities and future trends?
4 New ways of working – flexibility and other options
5 Achieving a harmonious work–life balance
6 Getting support – mentoring and networking
7 Finding your way round the job market

Fill in your notes using the week-by-week reflection table.

2 Where next?

During your study of the course, you should have started to formulate an idea of what you want to do next. The action plan that you will create this week will act as a map to guide you on the next part of your journey. However, before you start creating this, it’s important to have a destination in mind, so you’ll now take some time to clarify exactly where you are heading.

You will now look again at some of the options that you’ve explored during this course.

Figure 2 Signpost

2.1 Update your skills or study for another qualification

If you are thinking about updating your skills or retraining and making a career change, you will need to do some investigation into possible courses.

2.2 Volunteering and returnships

In Week 2, you considered the benefits of volunteering and good places to look for opportunities. These are ideal strategies for getting a ‘foot in the door’.


Most people have heard of internships and know that these are increasingly being seen as a useful way to gain experience within a company. Internships can be unpaid (in which case you are considered a volunteer) or paid. They can also provide a ‘foot in the door’, leading to appointment in a permanent position – it’s a chance for the employer to try out the employee and vice versa.

Returnships are similar to internships, but have been developed specifically to support people coming back after a career break. They are usually short-term, paid contracts (typically 12 weeks) and help provide a first step back into work, offering a chance for both you and the employer to test the water before committing to a permanent job. Goldman Sachs in the USA started the idea in 2008 and since then, a number of high profile large companies have been offering these internships for returners in the UK.

A useful list of returnships offered in the UK can be found on the Women’s Engineering Society website. As these opportunities are constantly changing and being updated, we suggest you search online for ‘returnship’ to find the latest opportunities.

One example of an engineering company which has taken this approach is Tideway. Listen to Julie Thornton, Head of HR, talk about returnships with Tideway:

Download this video clip.Video player: return_to_stem_week8vid2_512x256.mp4
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We started a returner programme in 2015. And the theory behind that was really to say there are a lot of people out there who are looking to return back into the marketplace and finding it difficult. And for us as employers, it's a huge untapped pool of resource, and particularly in STEM type subjects, where there are less people available in the marketplace than jobs at the moment.
So for us it was a real win-win situation. So we went out to market. We had a range of roles from finance through to engineering, project managers, legal. So there's this whole range. And we actually took seven returners onto the project. We were originally looking for six, but we couldn't resist, and we took seven. And they came on for a 12-week paid internship doing very specific roles on the project.
Everyone stayed beyond that 12-week project, and currently we actually have six of the seven are still employed on the project. A number of those are in permanent roles. Others are in project roles that are going on several months.
For us, the benefits of a returner programme was that you have someone who's done it before. And what you're doing is you're helping them get back into the market. Now they might need a bit more support, but that investment really repays itself incredibly quickly. I mean, within the first week of people being on the project, they were starting to make a difference. They needed a bit of help getting their confidence in some instances. But actually, their contribution from very, very early stages was phenomenal.
And it did give us all that skills and experience, that if we'd have gone out to market generally, we may have found, we may not. And for us it was a win-win situation. And what is really important to us as well is the passion for the project. And people came in, and that's what they wanted. And actually, if you think of graduates and their enthusiasm, we have the same enthusiasm from the returners, but actually with experience.
So it was a great, great success. And we are running another programme. We're literally just out in the market at the moment advertising again.
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Self-employment or consultancy

In Week 4 you looked at different ways of working, including self-employment and consultancy. If this option interests you, you will need to do some more ground work; for example, looking at costings and business planning. Useful links about self-employment are given in the Further reading section.

Job seeking/recruitment agencies

You looked at job seeking strategies in detail in Week 7. When you start seriously looking for jobs, you will need to set goals and targets that will keep up your momentum and maximise your opportunities of finding a job that you want.

Get back into research

If you have previously been a researcher in one of the STEM subjects and want to get back to a research career, you may want to consider the Daphne Jackson Trust. This is a scheme to support researchers in returning to their research careers , with part-time fellowships at universities.

Watch this video of Katie Perry talking in more detail about the Daphne Jackson Trust scheme:

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Many researchers, when they've had a prolonged career break away from the workplace, suffer with a huge lack of confidence. They need retraining. It's almost impossible for a researcher to make a really successful return to a research career without some form of help.
Obviously, with the fellowships that we offer, we offer a really tailored programme of guidance, advice, support, mentoring throughout the application process and throughout the fellowship. We also offer training courses during the fellowship. There are four individual training courses.
The fellows that come to us have the opportunity of working with one of our fellowship advisors. They've all undertaken research themselves. Two of the three of them have a family themselves, so they're very well placed to offer really good guidance and advice to people who are wanting to make that sometimes quite large step of returning back to a research career in STEM.
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Further careers advice

If, after reviewing all your options, you feel like you still need further advice and guidance, you may like to talk to a professional careers advisor. If so, you can get some advice from the Open University Careers Advisory Service pages and find help at the National Careers Service.

If there are any parts of this course you would like to reflect on again, you can look at the OpenLearn Reboot Your STEM Career interactive toolkit. This includes a dashboard depicting which actions you’ve completed and those you need to work on further.

3 Setting your goals

Thinking about your return to work can be a bit bewildering with so many options, so it’s important to have an idea of where you want to go before you start planning specific steps. A good place to start is with a vision statement, projecting yourself into the future and imagining yourself as you wish to become.

Figure 3 Crystal ball

In her book Playing Big (2014), Tara Mohr suggests that it is your inner mentor, the person who you really want to become, who will guide you better than any external mentor to defining your own criteria of success and to taking your next step to achieving this.

Activity 2 Vision statement

Allow approximately 30 minutes

You might want to find a quiet place to carry out this activity and a peaceful time without disruption when you can spend as much time as you need to make the most of it. Imagine yourself in five years time (if you want you can choose a longer timescale, maybe ten or 15 years). Don’t get distracted by negative thoughts for the moment, such as how you have got there or what obstacles might get in your way. Allow your mind to really imagine yourself in the future.

Think about how it feels.

Where are you?

What do you hear and see?

Who are the people around you?

What are you doing?

Write down your thoughts and feelings and then try to condense this into a long-term vision statement. Think carefully about how you phrase this. It’s important that you believe in your vision and are motivated by it. Be as specific as possible – the more focused your vision, the better. It should be inspirational, clear, memorable and concise. Your vision should be a long-term goal that will take some time to achieve and it might seem unbelievable and unrealistic today. Don’t be afraid to aim high and discover what it is that you deeply want.

In 5 (or 10) years time I am…

You can type text here, but this facility requires a free OU account. Sign in or register.
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Here are some examples of the completed activity:

Vision statement 1

In five years time I am working in a stimulating job that I really enjoy and where my engineering background is well utilised. I am a member of the product development team in which my contribution is important and I command a good degree of respect from my colleagues. I am flourishing personally and professionally and have plenty of opportunities to develop my career; including pitching to clients. The environment I work in is pleasant, close to home, and the company for I work for recognises the need for a contented workforce and is amenable to me working from home for some of the time.

Vision statement 2

I am the project leader of a plant genetics laboratory, in charge of a small group of research technicians, postgraduate students and postdocs. I am an integral member of the laboratory respected by all staff for my in-depth knowledge of my chosen discipline. The staff and I communicate well, with the result that each person is aware of where everyone else is heading in their work. As a result, all the staff are empowered and enjoy their research. The laboratory has a relaxed feel but each week we have a dynamic group meeting to reflect, set targets and improve practice. I ideally leave work by 5 pm each day.

Vision statement 3

I am self-employed as a web developer. I have a good income from my business and although I have flexible working hours I work hard and efficiently. Being able to work online means I am free to work in any location. I also get to choose my clients and will have a degree of freedom and independence. My previous experience in company employment will aid me in providing a professional service and I am a member of a professional institute, which ensures my training and expertise is constantly refreshed. I am confident but realistic about my skills and experience and I’m organised with a list of work in the pipeline.

You might like to share your vision statement with a friend or family member. This step of sharing your vision is a small step but one that takes courage. The wishes and hopes we have often stay in our heads, yet formulating and sharing them with others is usually the first step to achieving them.

4 Creating your action plan

Now that you have a vision, this will guide you in the next part of the process – creating an action plan with goals that, one step at a time, will take you towards achieving your vision. Your vision will keep you focused and ensure your plans are heading in the direction you want them to.

Guidelines for powerful goal setting

We are constantly making plans, but sometimes it’s difficult to see them through. This is why a well thought-out set of goals needs a realistic action plan to achieve them. Take New Year, for example, which is traditionally a time for resolutions – we all know how quickly well-intentioned plans can slip away once the reality of life kicks in by February.

Figure 4 New Year's resolutions

The purpose of this section is to help you set realistic goals that can and will be achieved.

First, here are some general guiding principles:

Look forward, not backwards

It’s important that when you set your goals you should try to adopt a positive approach, rather than framing your objectives in a negative tone. This will help you develop a sense that you are moving forwards and onwards towards the vision that you have created. Goals that are moving away from something and include the word ‘don’t’ often have the result of reinforcing the negative feeling associated with them. Have a look at the examples below and see if you can think of any others:

Negative Positive
I don’t want to be stuck at home for the next two years. I will find myself a new opportunity by the end of the year.
I don’t want to remain out of touch with my subject area. I will subscribe to New Scientist and check websites every week for relevant news.
I don’t want to end up stressed by trying to do too much. I’ll organise my time effectively and regularly review my commitments.
I don’t want my children to end up losing out as a result of my return to work. I will plan childcare carefully and set up contingency plans in case one of the children is sick.

Measure your progress

Achieving your goals will require persistence and determination, and there will be plenty of times when you might think that it’s all too difficult and consider giving up. You should try and set up some kind of system to measure how you are doing, or even to amend your goals in the light of new ideas and experiences. In fact, measuring your progress can become a goal in itself: ‘I will look at my action plan once a month’. Make an appointment with yourself and put a note in your diary for the days that you will do this.

As you work on progressing towards your goals and measuring how well you are doing, you should also be aware of how you might feel if you are not moving ahead as well as you had hoped. Don’t treat your goals as a rigid business plan with sales forecasts that need to be met. Be kind to yourself and celebrate what you have achieved. Your goals are there to guide you on your journey and you should be prepared to celebrate small steps and achievements along the way.

Top tips on goal setting

  • Step beyond your comfort zone – don’t just do what is familiar
  • Set yourself mini challenges and take up opportunities when they arise – for example, giving a presentation
  • Do something to boost your confidence every day
  • Do something that revives you and gives you energy every day
  • Celebrate achievements – keep in touch with other returners via the LinkedIn group and let each other know how you are doing
  • Goals can be as small or large as you like – you just need to make a start! Set daily goals for small achievements if the thought of a big ambition is too daunting
  • Share your goals with someone – that will make it more real and also ensure you are making a commitment
  • Try to avoid negative thinking – it’s all too easy to fall back on familiar excuses for not achieving what you really want.

4.1 Goals as SMART objectives

The acronym SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time bound) is used in project management in business, but also increasingly in many other fields. This is a useful tool in setting goals because it forces you to be much more precise about what you are aiming for and therefore more likely to achieve your desired outcome. While they are used regularly in a business context, you can apply the following principles to your own action plan:

  • Specific: say exactly what you want to achieve
  • Measurable: how will you know you have achieved it?
  • Achievable: is it feasible – what barriers are there that will need to be overcome?
  • Relevant: how does it relate to the overall goal?
  • Time-bound: when will you do this?

Activity 3 Creating your action plan

Allow about 45 minutes

This activity will guide you through creating your own action plan.

First, open your Action Plan template.

Next, enter the following details:

  1. description of goal
  2. what it will involve
  3. exactly how you will do this
  4. resources needed
  5. when you are going to do it
  6. in the Notes section you can enter things like the possible consequences for yourself and others, and any barriers that need to be overcome.

You can now go on to create more action points related to specific goals for work, education, and personal life. You might well find that as you start to think creatively in one area of your life, you begin to develop ideas for action in others. Think of this as the start of a process. There is a sample action plan in the Further reading section.

4.2 What if I don’t succeed?

However well thought through your action plan is, there may be times when you cannot achieve what you have set out to do. On a practical level, the best thing to do is to go back and review your goals in response to the changed situation.

It is not always that straightforward, though. You will also need to deal with the emotions that result from not achieving your objectives. Whatever the reason for not succeeding, this can lead to a sense of disappointment, possibly even of failure. It’s important to think about how you will deal with knock backs on your journey, and what resources you have to call on when things get tough.

Some of the ways you might help yourself recover from a disappointment and deal with stressful situations include:

  • talking to a supportive friend
  • doing physical activity such as sport or exercise
  • active relaxation such as meditation
  • getting away –a weekend away or even a short walk
  • treat yourself – buy a box set
  • listen to or play music
  • watching TV or a film
  • playing with the kids
  • even cleaning or other housework can be relaxing!

Activity 4 Learning from failure

10 mins

It’s a well-worn cliché that we can all learn from our mistakes, but it’s one of the most important things to hang onto as you head off into this next phase of your life. There will inevitably be times when you will face disappointments but there is always something to be learned from each difficult situation.

Think back to a time when you were faced with a disappointment. What were your feelings associated with this event? What did you do to help yourself overcome these feelings and make yourself feel better? You may wish to revisit the lifeline activity  that you did in Week 1 to trigger your memory. Think about what you learned from that experience and what you might do differently if the same thing happened again.

You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.

Maya Angelou

Activity 5 Final activity

Allow approximately 20 minutes

Write a letter to yourself, describing what you plan to achieve in the next six months. This should relate clearly to the goals and objectives you have detailed in your Action Plan. You should save this in a safe place for six months, at which point you will re-read the letter – mark that date in your diary now. If you have put your plan into action, you may be surprised, not only by just how much you have accomplished in six months, but also the tone of the letter, which will indicate how your confidence has grown.

5 This week’s quiz

You're now ready to take the final quiz for your badge. This quiz is another 15-question quiz, like Week 4.

Week 8 compulsory badge quiz.

Open the quiz in a new tab or window (by holding Ctrl [or cmd on a Mac] when you click the link).

6 Summary

Congratulations – you have almost completed the Returning to STEM BOC! This week you have spent time thinking about your vision, finding your inner mentor and setting some realistic goals to help you in getting back to your STEM career. During this course, you’ve heard stories of other people who have been on a similar journey, and hopefully their experiences will act as an inspiration to spur you on. So before you go, take a look at this final video where you will hear some words of advice from those who have been on this journey before you. Most importantly, this week you have produced your action plan; this will act as a map and compass to help you on your way.

Don’t forget that in order to finish the course and get your badge you will need to complete this week’s quiz.

Good luck with your return to STEM!

Download this video clip.Video player: return_to_stem_week8vid4a-512x256.mp4
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Start to talk to your network. Via LinkedIn is always a good start to see who friends know on LinkedIn. And then just start to– that's what I did. I just rang them. I said, can we just have a lunch? And just ask for advice like what would you do if you were in my situation? And all those conversations always lead to something and give you new ideas. It doesn't give you a job necessarily, but it gives you some ideas where to go, where to start looking.
Advice to somebody returning after a career break would be to take things very easily and don't be afraid to say no. It can be very tempting to jump at the first opportunity that presents itself, but you might not be able to maintain your work–life balance with that first opportunity. Take it easy. Take it slowly. Do what I did, which was build up from two and a half days a week, to three days a week, to four days a week. And I've only now gone to full-time, when my children are teenagers. And don't be scared to tell people that you have a family, that they are important to you, and that they will make demands on your time. And I think you'll find that most other people that you work with are in a similar position and will be very supportive of you.
For people who are looking at returning back to work within a STEM career, I would say don't be discouraged about a career break, or your feelings about your lack of experience potentially, or your recent current knowledge. Because for me, what I can bring to a company is very different. It's not necessarily a traditional background, but all of the skills that you develop dealing with your children, with people at school, with people in your community – they're all very beneficial roles. And any voluntary work that you've done, it might not seem relevant, but it's very important. It shows that you've an interest, and you've wanted to give back to the community. In terms of professionally, use the people you know. Speak to your networks, your friends, your former colleagues. Mine were great at bolstering my confidence, because I didn't feel with having nine years away from work that I would be able to fit back in easily. And I think within six months, I feel that I'm at no disadvantage to anybody that has been working all that time, when that I've been at home with the children.
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Further reading

UCAS offers information on university courses.

For more information about setting up in business, take a look at the Prowess website.

Further useful advice is available on the UK government site.

Sample Action Plan

Reboot Your STEM Career is a comprehensive interactive toolkit to help you relaunch your career and navigate your way back into the world of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths.


Mohr, T. (2014)Playing Big, London, Hutchinson.


This free course was written by Clem Herman and Katie Chicot.

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Figure 4: © Alex Belomlinsky/

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