I had to take a 3 year career break to deal with a long running family commitment and I am now returning to my normal career and applying for jobs. How should I answer the usual question of "What salary are you expecting?". It could come up either on application forms or in-person at interview.

I am applying for senior software engineer roles and I am quite rusty after 3 years out of the field. I was very good at what I did previously and I don't doubt my ability to eventually get back up to speed again but I am going to be rusty for a while.

I'm not sure if its wisest for me to:

  1. Ignore the career gap and just submit the going rate for people with my years of experience as if there was no career gap.
  2. Propose a lowball number to get my foot in the door, in which case what % below the normal rate should I use? But my experience in the past is whatever salary you start at then limits future pay rises - I can remember managers saying "we are only allowed to give x% increase on your current salary". So once I got up to speed again, I'd have to move on I think.
  3. Politely refuse to answer and tell the employer to propose a number (I could say that at interview but how to answer the question on an application form?)

Or any other advice?

  • Possible duplicate of How can I determine a reasonable salary to ask for?
    – gnat
    Commented Jun 19, 2017 at 11:39
  • 2
    @gnat OP is specifically asking how to deal with negotioations after long career break; not with negotioations at all.
    – Crowley
    Commented Jun 19, 2017 at 11:52
  • 2
    @gnat nothing to do with that question. This is about picking the right approach after a long absence for an industry that changes every five minutes. Commented Jun 19, 2017 at 12:41

3 Answers 3


Never low-ball yourself unless you're in an extraordinary position. I had to do it after my stroke to get back to being employed. Again, mine was an extreme example, and I only did it for my first job after my illness to establish a work history again. I was out of work for a much longer time as well.

After a gap, low-balling yourself sends a message to employers that you are either desperate, or your skills aren't up to date, or that there is something about you that makes you worth less.

Option 3 is the best approach unless you have to put an amount down. If that is the case, give a range around the average. salary.com will give you the range for someone with your experience.

If pressed to explain the gap, explain that it was a family commitment and then talk about how you kept your skills fresh during the gap. De-emphasise being rusty. I've been there and it only took me about a week to get back to speed after being gone for over 5 years.

You may have forgotten some syntax and details, but your methods and skills never rot.

Be confident and go in like you deserve to be paid at least the average for your field, and you'll get the job. If they hold the gap against you, then you've just screened out a bad employer.

The demand for IT people is fairly high right now, so you shouldn't have too much difficulty


A couple of thoughts:

  1. While three years is a long time in IT in general, it is also a short time in the particular. In other words, while it is true you are behind cutting edge firms, it is also true the technology that you implemented three years ago is probably in production and probably still considered a standard in most companies - so your skills are not useless or even out-of-date in that respect.

  2. As a senior engineer, you know HOW to code well and properly. You know HOW to design solutions "the right way" and you know HOW to troubleshoot issues and find solutions quickly and HOW to avoid messes. In fact, a senior person is best to put in front of new technology precisely because of their background of knowing how to do stuff the right way. You still have this -- and should use that fact in the hiring process.

Therefore, you have only one worry: Jobs that require skills that you have missed in the past three years.


If you are applying for a job in a cutting edge shop where nobody will have any more experience than you in that tech stack, stay with market rates.

If applying for a corporate job where the technology from three years ago is the matured standard, stay with market rates.

For jobs that use technology you missed, be a little flexible if the position excites you - but, still remember you are a senior person - that is your true value - and that is what they are buying - not technology of the moment skills.


Honestly market yourself for a fair price and be able to explain why. If you were off for 3 years, but your skills did not become stale or otherwise suffer, there is no reason to take a hit on your pay, especially if you bring more to the table such as uncommon management skills.

Keep in mind that the overall labor market is very much in the worker's favor right now, especially anyone with technical skills.

If you have some difficulty backing up your message in the interview, your credibility could be questioned a bit. But you should be able to tweak your message a bit and go to another potential employer. You should go in with full confidence.

  • Just to add in the banter conversationally: this answer reminded me when I was off for a couple of years, with a flash or inspiration, similar to the tone of these answers, feeling positive I thought to apply for more senior, or related but lateral roles, as well as the dev, ones I naturally go for. I got back into code though, in the end, but thinking this way (possibly delusionaly) got me some interesting interviews for some interesting roles and perhaps even, thinking about it now, the job I ended up with Commented Oct 31, 2018 at 20:50

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