Self-Education During a Career Hiatus

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As many of you know, before The Simple Dollar became successful, I had an enjoyable career as a software developer. I wrote code to analyze, dig deep into, and share scientific data.

I deeply enjoyed the professional work that I did. I also deeply valued the camaraderie and friendship with my coworkers.

In fact, I only walked away from it for two reasons. The biggest one was that I felt a growing distance between myself and my children, as I was missing many of their milestones due to travel. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when I called home on a trip in January 2008 and my son asked me if I would ever come home again. The other reason is that I felt very uncertain about the future of the project I was working on, but that was a much more secondary concern. The Simple Dollar afforded me the option to make a career switch into writing and online content that gave me the flexibility to spend a lot more time with my family, so I took it.

I would like to someday be involved again in those earlier professional areas. Off and on, I’ve dabbled in contributing to open source software projects in my spare time, but at times I can feel that my skills are rusty. I can still understand the ideas well, but I’m spending much more time looking at language references than I used to.

This leads me right into a question that many stay-at-home parents and people that try different career paths eventually ask themselves: how do I maintain my skills and connections throughout my time away so that I’m competitive when I return?

The key, I think, is maintaining a level of self-education during your time away from your work. This can take a lot of different forms, of course.

Projects In some careers, you can actually continue to work on projects of some kind that will help you keep your skills sharp. If you’re a programmer, look into an open source project, for example. Other career paths may offer freelancing opportunities. A technical writer, for example, may be able to find occasional freelance work that will only take up a handful of hours a week, earn a bit of income, and keep the skills fresh.

If you’re unsure where to go with this, look around online. Are there projects you can participate in using the internet or in your community? Are there charities that could use your skills a few hours a week?

Reading Go to the library and request books that will keep you up to date on whatever your chosen profession is. Set aside some time each day for reading and include those books in your reading (along with others to mix it up a little).

For example, given my background, I mix in books on software development and the scientific area in which I worked along with a variety of other books. This keeps my mind active.

Classes Many universities and colleges offer evening classes. Take one in an area connected to your career. Not only will this keep the skills fresh, but it will add a few new skills to your repertoire. This is particularly useful if you’re a stay-at-home parent with a partner that comes home in the evenings, as the partner can take care of the child while you take care of the education.

Online education While the quality of online education varies, it can certainly provide enough material to help you maintain your knowledge. You can certainly use an online university like the University of Phoenix for this, or you can use other resources such as Treehouse. You can also keep your skills fresh using tools such as Khan Academy.

Ideally, if you’re using online education, you’ll have some sort of method of verifying your progress, such as a degree or transcripts or some sort of page outlining your achievements using the learning tools. This not only allows you to learn from the materials, but you can demonstrate your achievements to potential employers when you return to the workplace.

If you’re taking a detour from your career path, it’s incredibly valuable for you to keep your mind active while you’re on that detour. Ideally, you’re generating some resume-worthy achievements along the way.

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