There come times in your career when, whether it’s your choice or not, you have some time off. Maybe you’re between jobs, or waiting for a visa, or on maternity leave. And while each of those situations are a little bit different, there’s one thing they all have in common: You have to find a way to prevent your professional skills from getting rusty.
In a fast-moving field like tech, staying fresh while on leave is particularly important. I am soon going to be on an H4 visa—a visa issued to immediate family members of temporary foreign workers in the U.S.—meaning that I won’t be eligible to work in the U.S. (or volunteer in any position that someone could be paid for). At first I was scared that the time away from work would hurt my chances of being hirable in the future. Not to mention, this is the first time in several years I’m going to have more than five days of vacation in a row!
So, here’s the plan I’ve come up with, to help me stay on top of things in my field while I’m away. Turns out, it looks a lot like the list of things I’ve always wanted to do but never had the time to. Whether you’re in tech or not, I hope my list can be an inspiration for the types of strategies you can employ to keep yourself current (or catch yourself up).
1. Online Courses
Perhaps the most obvious way to stay fresh is to take online classes. Whether or not you’ve thought about going back to school, taking a few classes for their own sake (as opposed to working toward a degree) can be a great way to refresh your knowledge base—and learn skills or broad trends in your industry that you might never have had the time to step back and learn before.
For technical skills, there are interesting courses on Coursera and Udacity. For a broader range of classes, check out General Assembly (which has an entrepreneurial focus) or iTunes U (which has just about everything).
For some courses, you’ll get a certificate of accomplishment that can serve as a credential when you do go back to work. Alternatively, if you could benefit from a certificate that requires a standardized test—I’m looking at an Oracle, Java, or Cisco certificate—you can take online courses that will prep you to pass those exams.
2. Open-Source Projects
In tech, there are literally thousands of open-source projects that you can get involved in during your spare time—or, well, your time off. Open-source projects are projects where the source code is available to the public, meaning that anyone can study, change, and make improvements to the project. Even if you’ve never contributed to an open-source project before, consider doing it—it's a great way to build your experience even when you’re not working.
For women in tech, there are several groups that focus on helping women get involved in open-source projects. They’ll not only offer a great community while you’re away from work, but also lend you support and encouragement as you become a fledgling open-source contributor. A couple I would recommend are Ubuntu Women, Debian Women, PyLadies, and GNOME Women.
If you’re not in tech, you can get the same benefit by volunteering your time and professional skills on a project you care about. Start by checking out local community organizations, nonprofits, or clubs whose mission interests you, and volunteer your skills on a part-time basis. You’ll stay fresh, plus you’ll almost certainly learn a thing or two you can bring with you when you return to work.
3. Pet Projects
Do you have a pet project you started several years ago, but never got around to publishing? A site you always meant to start? Now is the time to fix major bugs, polish it up, and get it out in the world. With your newfound free time, you’ll also have a chance to advertise your project, solicit feedback, and add new features or take it a new direction based on the responses you get.
Finally, don’t underrate the value of having a real-live community in the absence of your old work friends. Start by taking a look at meetup sites like Meetup.com—there are plenty of interesting groups and meetups going on, no matter where you live.
Also consider creating a group of your own to connect women with similar interests—hey, if you want something that doesn’t exist, there’s no better time to start it than now. You’ll be surprised how many people out there share your interests, even if you think they’re obscure. Plus, it’ll help you build your network—and, well, you already know that’s a good thing.
Even if you aren’t working, there are many opportunities to improve your skills, both technically and professionally. And, of course—make sure you also take some time to rest, stay healthy, go out, and have some fun!