How Projects Can Help with Changing Careers and Returning to Work


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Recently I coached two individuals who were embarking on new but different career ventures: one was preparing to make a career change (Sarah*) and the other was getting ready to return to work after staying home with her children for seven years (Ellie*). Both were in the process of thinking through how to best present themselves to employers, whether on a resume or in their cover letters, LinkedIn profile, networking situations, and interviews. They had to determine the best job search strategy for their situation. What’s their story? What unique skills and experiences do they offer?

Both were ready and eager to launch their searches. However, neither client had recent employment in their targeted fields, which can make the job search process a bit easier. It is the old catch-22; how do you get a foot in the door when everyone wants someone with experience? Were they doomed?

Absolutely not! The first step was figuring out how they could gain some kind of “work” in their chosen fields, even if briefly, to demonstrate to employers that their skills are up-to-date and relevant to the industry. One way to do this is to seek out short-term projects and highlight them on their resumes.

The Power of Projects

Oftentimes I find that clients initially dismiss or do not even think about short-term, professionally related activities in which they have been involved, subconsciously believing they are of little value to employers. For example, you might have helped a friend with her website, worked on an academic assignment, assisted a non-profit, or volunteered. As I met with these particular two clients, it became apparent that each had taken on recent projects directly relevant to their designated career paths.

The career changer, Sarah, would soon be graduating with a PhD in the social sciences. However, instead of continuing on the academic track to become a professor, she wanted to enter the business world focusing on human behavior and user experience. As we reviewed her CV and discussed which elements to include on a resume, she began to recall various tasks she had completed that were connected to user experience: parts of her dissertation, a gig for a friend, and a couple of projects completed in collaboration with professors.

Similarly, during my session with the return-to-work client, Ellie, she also explained that she had been volunteering with the PTO of her children’s school and had worked on some consulting assignments related to her targeted field while she was at home with her kids.

Highlighting Projects on a Resume

In both cases, these projects were the next best thing to having an actual job doing the same type of work. The next step was making sure these professional activities were strategically highlighted on their resumes. The career changer, Sarah, decided to create a section dedicated to her relevant projects and call it “Human Behavior Experience.” She then listed the projects as separate entries, treating each one as a job with its own set of bullet points highlighting accomplishments related to the industry. As Lily Zhang mentions in this Muse article, you can also label this section “Projects,” or even get more specific, such as “Human Behavior Projects.”

The relauncher, Ellie, decided to take a slightly different approach by combining all of her projects into one entry under her “Professional Experience” section. She felt this consolidation would have a greater impact in showcasing her skills. She gave herself a title, “Independent Research Consultant” (or you can use a business name if you have one), and wrote a brief overview of her work and the organizations or entities with which she consulted. Note that if you don’t have permission to list company names, you can instead describe the types of organizations, such as “Fortune 100 IT company, healthcare start-up, educational non-profit.” (And by the way, PTO work can be categorized as an “educational non-profit”).

Once she had her title and description, Ellie created bullet points highlighting her accomplishments across all the consulting assignments, carefully choosing which ones were most pertinent and valuable to her targeted employers. Here is an example of such an entry:

Independent Research Consultant, New York, NY, 2010-Present
Collaborated with a range of organizations to complete brand and market research projects; clients include a Fortune 100 IT company, healthcare start-up, and educational non-profit.

  • Designed global survey exploring consumer attitudes toward Artificial Intelligence, leading to 
thought leadership platform for communications client.
  • Conceived and managed online consumer panel research into Gen X retirement and health 
planning, providing communications guidance for financial services providers.
  • Bullet Point 2 – Describe another project and its result.
  • Bullet Point 3 – And so on.

Most likely you will be asked about your listed projects during an interview, and of course you would be forthright about the scope of your work as well as other details. Keep in mind that employers value both paid and unpaid work, as they recognize that professional work is professional work, even if it was in a volunteer capacity.

Don’t Have Any Projects?

What if you don’t have any projects relevant to your field of choice? Do not despair – you can start seeking them now. Think about friends with businesses and how you might be able to help. Consider non-profits that are related to your work. If there is an organization you admire, you could approach them with a proposal for a short-term assignment. (This is usually more feasible with non-profit organizations and smaller companies.) You might also look into temporary jobs and internships in your line of work, as both tend to be good entry points for those without recent experience.

While a small project could take a couple of months, having something recent and relevant on your resume goes a long way. And most likely you already have something you can talk about.

*Note that clients’ names and some identifying information have been changed to protect their confidentiality.

Do you have a “forgotten” project that you can add to your resume?


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In addition, I am conducting a study on career change for better work-life balance. If you have made a career or job change to improve your work-life balance, I’d love to hear about your experiences! Please complete the following survey and be entered for a chance to win a $75 Amazon gift card:

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