Returning to STEM
Returning to STEM

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Returning to STEM

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 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] . 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.


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