Saraswathy Rajagopalan, an engineering graduate from the University of Madras, started her career with information technology (IT) firm Honeywell Technology Solutions Inc. Rajagopalan mostly helmed project management and consulting roles in her 16-year career, of which a larger part, over a decade, was spent in Kuala Lumpur with Canadian IT consulting firm, CGI Group Inc.

Life and work were good for Rajagopalan in Kuala Lumpur. However, she had to give it all up and move to Chennai in December 2015 when Rajagopalan’s mother was due for her leg surgery.

“It was my mother’s second leg surgery and the doctors had said that the recovery could take up to six months. At that time, my brother was in the midst of relocating overseas with a job and it was difficult for him to stay back in Chennai. I volunteered to take care of our mother as moving back to Chennai was always at the back of my mind," says Rajagopalan.

“Once I decided to put in my papers, my manager tried to talk me into taking time off for a couple of months instead of quitting. But since my mother needed longer care, leaving seemed most plausible," says Rajagopalan.

Taking a break

The post-surgery month just flew by as Rajagopalan was completely snowed under nursing duties. It became a bit easier after she hired a help to look after her mother. “I slowly started picking up the pieces and settling in. It took about six to seven months to get my family set-up going," Rajagopalan says.

Speaking of the early months into her sabbatical, she says, “Initially, I was very happy that I did not have to fight deadlines but as my mother recovered and my family settled, I started missing work. After a while, I was really looking forward to getting back to work.

Making a comeback

Soon enough, Rajagopalan found that even with the kind of experience she had, the journey back to work was not as smooth as she thought. “I applied for jobs, I kept abreast on the latest," she says, “but most times, recruiters would circle around the one-and-a-half-year gap in my resume. I often wondered…I have the skills and the experience, then why is this career break being perceived as a shortcoming by placement consultants."

It took her around six months of actively seeking out before a friend told her about PayPal’s Recharge program. Rajagopalan found a way back into the workforce when she was accepted into the 16-week program after a few rounds of interviews. At the end of the program, she was offered a full-time job as a release-configuration engineering manager.

Although Rajagopalan’s transition back to work turned out to be less difficult owing to a supportive team and landing a role related to what she had done in the past, working with a new technology meant she had to work extra hard to bring herself up to speed. “It meant starting from scratch, which more or less rendered null my past experience and expertise. I had to put in hours of extra work to gain a reasonable level of proficiency with the new technology so that I could quickly move from learning to doing," says Rajagopalan.

Keeping abreast

Rajagopalan does not regret taking a break. She, however, recommends planning a sabbatical well in advance—whether a short or a long-term—if one has a choice. When you take a career break, the gap can make you lose touch with the latest in your field, especially in a fast-paced sector like information technology. “In an industry where new technologies and standards get released on an almost daily basis, one needs to stay on top of disruptions in the industry.

Employers today want people who would be able to work across different domains, interfaces, operating systems, and platforms."

She suggests taking some time out daily to read, attend meets, and follow influencers on social media to keep updated. “When you decide to return to work, you can look up all the job-skills which are most sought-after in your field and then see if you can upskill or reskill yourself to be job-relevant. It is easier to do this today, with several options available online."

Her advice: “One must be ready to work hard after coming back from a break, learn fast and put in extra efforts to be at par with peers."

The Sabbatical Story is series that explores reasons behind a break from work, and the journey of the return to work.

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