Career Track Live

Mary Ellen Slayter and Brad Karsh
Washington Post columnist; President of JobBound
Monday, April 10, 2006; 2:00 PM

The Washington area is a magnet for smart, ambitious young workers. Post columnist Mary Ellen Slayter writes a regular column for these professionals who are establishing their careers locally, and offers advice online as well.

Read Mary Ellen's latest Career Track column.

This discussion is part of a series created for The Post's Grad Guide , an interactive collection of stories, resources and information aimed at easing the transition of the Class of 2006.

Find more career-related news and advice in our Jobs section.

The transcript follows below.


Mary Ellen Slayter: Good afternoon!

Did y'all pick up a copy of the Grad Guide? I think it turned out fabulous!

Anyway, we've got lots of good questions, and Brad Karsh, our guest is just the guy to answer them.

Brad Karsh: Thanks Mary Ellen, I'm excited to be here!


Washington, D.C.: Four weeks till college graduation and no job in sight. However, I may be offered a six-month intern position in New Jersey. This internship is only offered to college graduates and pays $7 an hour. Please tell me how these companies have the nerve to offer such an opportunity to someone just out of college and in debt from college bills? How does a company expect the intern to work full-time for them for $7 an hour and be able to pay for rent and food? I would have to get a second full-time job at night to afford living expenses and pay student loans and therefore, not be at peak performance for the intern job. And then there's no guarantee that I will even be offered a job after the six months!

Brad Karsh: You'll soon find out that lots of companies have nerve! The sad truth is, most companies don't care too much about your loans or your rent or much else. They are in business to make money, and turn a profit.

Fortunately for you, you have the option to simply decline the offer. That's the beauty of the free market system! If no one takes the offer, then they will have to raise their salary.

Another approach is to take the job, do wonderful work, make them fall in love with you, and perhaps you'll get a raise or a full time job before 6 months.

Brad Karsh: Think about your first job or two as an investment. They may not offer the best pay, or the best job responsibilities, but you have to start somewhere. If you think there is a career path for you, if you think it will look good on your resume, and if you think you can learn, you may have to make that investment in a job to ultimately pay off in a career.

Mary Ellen Slayter: You wanna know what's even nervier? In a lot of cases, they'll except you to work at those internships for FREE. Count your blessings.

_______________________ Here's a link to The Post's 2006 Grad Guide .


Possibly Stuck in Virginia Beach: I am in a pickle and hopefully you can help.

After working for this non-profit organization for close to two years, I realized I'm barely making enough money to pay my student loans. I didn't get two Masters degrees to be making under $40,000.

I went to the VP of my department and asked for a raise. He said he'd see what he could do and then offered me a position in Nashville for more money. I eagerly said yes! I love Nashville, and it would make my job a lot easier because I deal with music.

Well, a month later, my VP left the company. He told my immediate supervisor to continue to push this offer through. However, my supervisor has done nothing. He's too afraid to even bring it up to the new VP. He also says it's way too soon to ask for a raise from the new boss.

So am I just stuck in Virginia making pennies? I'm concerned that if I go to the new VP without any support from management, it will look like I'm a peon employee trying to get a free ride to Nashville.

Mary Ellen, I love my job. It's perfect except for the money issue. What should I do?

Brad Karsh: A pickle indeed. I say go for it. Talk to the VP. Say you had a discussion with your former boss and see what happens. I don't think there's much downside.

One thing you will learn is that no one is looking out for your career. Oftentimes the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Now remember, if the wheel is too squeaky, it can also get thrown out, so watch the fine line between assertive and whiny!

Mary Ellen Slayter: I'm with Brad on this. You've got nothing to lose by bringing this up with the VP.


New York, N.Y.: Hello! I'm not really sure if this is your area of expertise, but I thought I'd give it a shot.

I'm a recent grad ('05) from UPenn. I always had a conflict of head v. heart in terms of career path. I found business interesting and found that I was pretty able in learning the concepts, but my true passion is definitely in political science. I graduated with degrees in both.

When recruiters came to campus, I was still debating which path to take. I got discouraged by the grad school stats for political science and was won over by the nice starting salaries from Wall St. firms.

You can probably guess the rest of the situation from here. I started work at a big financial services company. The people are very nice, and the money is good, but I am bored out of my mind and know that I can't do this for the rest of my life.

I would like to study for an MA/PhD in political science, and completely change paths. However, since I veered, and would be fairly young (23 when I apply, 24 when I would start), do you think it is feasible that I could get into a good grad program at this point? My GPA is strong, as are my GRE scores and my recommendations. I'm just afraid I won't be able to get in with my different career track and my age.

Thanks so much!

Brad Karsh: The old "heart vs. head" debate has raged for years. If you ask most people after the fact, they almost always say, "Should have gone with the heart!"

I don't think you're in trouble if you try to jump back into it now. Good school, good grades, and good test scores are a nice combo!

Good lesson for everyone - Don't be seduced by money or what you think other people would want you to do. You may say, "I don't think I'd be as happy here, but I'll just suck it up for two year." But after about 6 weeks, those two years seem like eternity!

Mary Ellen Slayter: This sort of shift is completely normal.

My only question is, what kind of career do you foresee this master's translating into? Academia or something different? I'd at least have a understanding of the professional possibilities (and what they pay) before I jumped back into grad school so quickly.


Bethesda, Md.: Going to a career fair tomorrow. Already made my list of the companies I want to talk with, but what is the protocol for starting the conversation? Just go up say I saw that you were hiring for entry-level positions and I'd like to hear more about that? Any other advice?

Thank you.

Brad Karsh: Working a career fair is a bit like speed dating. You have about 60 seconds to get them to fall in love! Be interesting, be personal, and be yourself. Try to mention why you like the company or why you'd be a great hire. It sounds easy for me to say, but act natural!

Mary Ellen Slayter: Like anybody acts natural at speed dating!

But yep, that's an apt comparison.


Baltimore, Md.: Two months ago I started a new job with an employer rated as one of the best companies to work for in my market. Between great benefits and work experience, it was an opportunity too good to pass up. During the interview process I repeatedly stressed qualities that I looked for in an employer, such as a friendly team oriented environment. I was assured that I had found a perfect fit.

Within a few weeks I realized that I was misled in an effort to fill a position with a tremendous amount of turnover. My true job responsibilities require a minimal amount of the skills for which I was originally hired. Instead I spend the majority of my day wading through red tape and attending pointless meetings. To add insult to injury, my co-workers are the complete opposite of the friendly personas they showed in interviews. It's to such an extreme that most days we barely speak to one another, even though we're a small department.

I tried to take a proactive approach to change the situation, but each time I was either reprimanded or given a brush off. I feel between the position's history and the office environment, I'm treated as little more than a glorified temp with benefits. I now know this job was a mistake and feel used. My question is how do I deal with a short term employment in future interviews? Also, should I cut my loses now or wait a professionally acceptable amount of time (i.e., one year) before leaving?

Brad Karsh: This is a tough situation, but certainly not unique. It appears as if you were "sold a bill of goods." It's interesting that the company was rated so high, given your experience. I might look around the company and see if there is a different department/area you may be able to transfer to. If the situation doesn't get much better. I'd give it a month or two and then move on.

When talking about the short stay in future interviews, make sure you don't bad mouth the employer, but simply say, "There were some differences in terms of what I was hired to do, and what I was ultimately asked to do."

Brad Karsh: One thing all new employees should think about - especially those embarking on their first job. So much of your happiness on the job is determined by the people you work with. If you hate your co-workers/boss, chances are you'll hate your job - and vice versa!


N.Y.: How would you recommend going from a cover letter for the world of scholarly research to a resume for the real-world?

Brad Karsh: Two very different birds. Scholarly research is all about long, detailed, comprehensive. A real-world resume is short, direct, and to the point. Nobody likes to read in the real world! For the resume, use bullet points, focus on your accomplishments, and remember, you don't have to tell your entire life story - just enough to get them to hire you!


Washington, D.C.: I applied to a job over a month of ago and was not selected for a phone interview. I recently came across the listing again in an e-mail listserv. I was recently promoted in my present job, so I wanted to know if I should re-apply to this job, highlighting my new position. If so, would a phone call be appropriate or should I stick with e-mail, the way I applied to the job in the first place? Thanks!

Mary Ellen Slayter: If you just got a promotion, why are you already itching to leave?

Brad Karsh: If you do decide you need to cut the cord at your company, then phone them. Email didn't work the first time!


Philadelphia, Penn.: What is the best approach to take if you have been out of your primary field of work due to starting a family (and now you are trying to re-enter)?

Brad Karsh: Couple of tips.

1. Don't worry about it too much. A lot of people freak out if they have a gap in their resume. It's so much more common these days.

2. Show them you've stayed in the game. Don't tell them you learned organizational skills taking the kids to soccer practice, but do tell them about volunteer work, classes you've taken, and other "business" involvement

3. Let them know why you're back. In your cover letter or in your interview, talk about why you want to get back into work, and why you'll be dedicated. "Now that my kids are in high school, I'm completely committed to reentering the workforce."

Mary Ellen Slayter: You might also want to take a class or two, to freshen your network and update your skills, even if you're going back into the same field.


Mary Ellen Slayter: Brad, why don't you tell us a little about what inspired you to write your book?

Brad Karsh: As someone who had read more than 10,000 resumes and interviewed 1,000 people, I was truly amazed at how much misinformation there was about getting hired.

"Confessions of a Recruiting Director" tells the untold story of what actually happens inside a recruiting department.


Washington, D.C.: What's the appropriate way to state that you are leaving your current position because of a change in management? We have a new company structure that has changed my job and I'm beginning to look elsewhere, but I don't want this to be held against me at interviews (if I get them). I've been here almost six months.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I don't think you need to go into that at all. No one really wants to hear it.

Of course, six months is not a long time to be at a job, so unless they drastically cut your pay or something, you might want to stick it out a few more months while you start networking and researching other opportunities.

Brad Karsh: I agree completely. Even if management changed, even if your boss was a complete jerk, or even if your coworkers were evil, an interview with a new company should be all about the positives and what you can do for them.


Washington, D.C.: What I think is more critical than coaching about to be grads is letting these kids know what is in store for them while they are still in high school, or maybe as part of freshman orientation. I think high school-ers don't understand fully how much rent is on average in the area, how much per month student loans will run, how much health insurance will be, etc. Kids don't get that even "just" $30,000 to 40,000 in loans is like a payment on a new car, that has a ten-year term. They also don't seem to understand how their chosen major will affect their quality of life. It seems like a lot of kids are encouraged to do "anything they want" without the advice that perhaps an English lit degree will not allow them to make it in a high cost region like this.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I'm with you on the practical advice part, BUT I don't think that means avoiding liberal arts degrees. If you look at the roster of corporate leaders, you'll find lots of poli sci, history, and even *gasp* English degrees. An undergrad degree is a starting point. What matters is what else you do. Internships, volunteer work, the right entry-level job, etc., all play a role in helping you launch a career. College doesn't need to be technical school to be useful.

Heck, my undergrad is in agronomy. How often do you think I make direct use of that on the job?

Brad Karsh: I don't even know what agronomy is! But then again, I'm a history major.


Washington, D.C.: I have been fired by a bank that I was with for over one year. It was due to an error on my part and am currently looking for another office-type job. I've done three years at a college, two years at a community college and one year at a four-year university. Where do you think I should start looking for another job?

Brad Karsh: Anywhere you can! Talk to people and network with all your friends and acquaintances. Touch base with the schools you attended to see if they have any career resources for former students. If you have a lot of free time, volunteer. You never know who you could meet.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Can I nudge you into taking this as an opportunity to go back to school and finish that degree? It really will open a lot of doors for you.


Philadelphia, Penn.: Do you have any interviewing tips or resources? I've perused countless books, am sure to shower before the interview, maintain eye contact, am upbeat, honest and answer questions with more than a one word answer. Any tricks of the trade to share? After choosing a first job poorly I went on over 20 unsuccessful interviews. I feel confident about my skills since I can get through to the interview point, but cannot figure out why it all falls apart. If a mock interview would be helpful, any tips on how to make the most of that session? Thank you so much for your help!

Brad Karsh: A mock interview is a must! Try to have a professional conduct the session, wear your suit, and go through the entire interview as if it were real. Have it videotaped (I know, kind of scary)! You may be quite surprised to see the tape.

One important interview tip. An interview is not a contest to outwit, out bluff, or outthink the interviewer. It's a conversation between two people. Be relaxed, be insightful, and be yourself.


A corporate recruiter: A few thoughts from out in the trenches: (1) It seems the market is tightening up a bit--at least in computer science/IT. Not as bad as 99, but definitely fewer grads seem to be out there.

(2) I have to disagree with the Sunday column about summer jobs -- in my opinion an unpaid internship will set you up so much better than a lifeguard job that it's worth eating snack ramen (or working at the mall at night) to get that on your resume. Resumes that only say "lifeguard" go to the bottom of my heap.

(3) Common sense, please! I wish grads spent a minute reviewing the details (like capitalizing their own names) when posting on Monster, etc. An online resume is a RESUME!

Thanks for letting me vent ... Missed Mary Ellen's Sunday column? Read it here: Before the Job Comes the Internship , (Post, April 9).

Mary Ellen Slayter: I don't think that Fran would disagree with you that a resume-building internship was better than a life guarding job. I think she was just trying to be realistic about some kids' ability to work for free, even for a summer. And if they have the right attitude, they can even get something out of a McJob. Anything is better than doing NOTHING all summer, right?

I know I sure couldn't do unpaid internships as a student. It wasn't a matter of eating ramen; it would have been a matter of being homeless!

Brad Karsh: Amen! Or should I say Ramen! You definitely have to show that you've worked over the summer. If you can't do an unpaid internship over the summer, then make sure you get involved big time in college. I'll take the student government president/lifeguard over the mediocre intern/campus deadbeat any day.

Great point on the resume typos. If you can't be flawless in a one page resume, what are you going to be like on the job.


Ft Belvoir, Va.: Hello. I'm a 25-year-old government contractor, who, after some active duty time, is finally finishing her degree. The problem is that I don't fit into the "grad" category (I joined the military at 17 after early high school graduation) and have eight years of full-time, progressive management experience. Baby boomer-aged hiring managers seem to resent the fact that I am just completing my degree, and that I am not entry-level, and won't accept the entry-level jobs.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I have bad news for you: Despite all the military service, at age 25, you still are pretty much entry-level in the private sector. You've got something that a lot of other entry-level candidates don't have, but it's not enough to catapult you more than a step or two, I don't think.

Brad Karsh: Very few companies will give you credit for your experience BEFORE you start working for them. Take a job you like, and then prove to them you need to be promoted by doing an amazing job.


Reston, Va.: I am a 32-year-old recent college grad with a bachelor's in management. Between earning my associate's degree at age 20 and going back to school at age 30, I had a successful career in an unrelated media field. I have sent hundreds of resumes out since January. But, only two or three interviews -- even though I graduated with honors from a prestigious local university. Any tips for someone who is just starting ... for the second time?

Brad Karsh: I'll give the same advice to you that I would for a "traditional" college grad - network. The fact that you sent out hundreds of resumes and only had two or three interviews isn't a function of your age - it's that it's not the most effective way to get a job. Talk to people to try to network your way into the companies that you want to work at. Networking is the single best way to get your foot in the door.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I also feel I should warn you that your "prestigious" degree isn't worth that much.

Did any of you read the recent Post stories and online chats about the cost of private colleges and whether they are really worth it? What did you think?


Washington, D.C.: How true is the idea that "Master's is the new Bachelor's"? Is a Master's degree really required to be competitive these days (in the non profit, political, government fields)? I have found a MPP program I really like, but it seems like the debt could be more restraining than the new skills and connections I make would be liberating. As a recent grad I'm just unsure where to focus, on long term stability through educational investment and debt or on short term stability with my current job and timely loan payments. Thanks.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I think you're smart to be skeptical about the cost-benefit equation involved in going to grad school. DEFINITELY don't head back to school while you are still fuzzy about your goals. Take a few jobs. Test the waters. See what you like and what you don't like. The upside: People will pay you to do this, unlike grad school.

Brad Karsh: And if you do want to go back, you may be lucky enough to find an employer that will pay for your degree!


Low salary expectations: I agree that more needs to be done to educate young people about salaries for positions. I remember a Glamour article years ago that someone wrote whining about how they couldn't find a job with their PoliSci degree. My friend wrote a letter to the editor that basically said that regardless of your degree you need to have some actual skills in order to get a job (like being able to type and use basic computer applications). Get your foot in the door and then you can think about moving up. Just be sure to pay your dues for a while. I have so many young staff who come on board and then suddenly think they are "above" their assigned duties. I didn't start at the top and did my fair share of data entry, phone answering, and envelope stuffing.

Brad Karsh: And I walked 5 miles to work each day - uphill! Seriously, great point here. It's a huge transition to go from student to worker. As a student you've just dropped from $20,000 to upwards of $140,000 to pay someone to teach you. Now the tables are turned. Some company is paying you to work for them. You have to play by their rules, and you have to prove yourself all over again.


Northridge, Calif.: I just graduated with a BA in Urban Studies and Planning. I have had many internships, but I am not qualified for any entry-level jobs. How do I get a job if every job I apply for requires experience that I do not have?

Brad Karsh: Transferable skills. Of course as a recent grad you don't have much experience, but I'm certain there are things you did in your internship that will be relevant and compelling to a recruiting director - even if they don't match up perfectly to the job requirements.


Washington,D.C.: If I've only been paid through internships (which wasn't very much). What should I put down for desired salary/salary history when I apply for a job that asks for it?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Ooooh, I hate those requests. Salary history is nobody's business but mine and the IRS's, IMO. But if you're afraid to ignore it, give a range for your desired salary. Do some research and make sure it's based on actual pay for entry level jobs in your field here on planet earth.

Brad Karsh: Desired salary is such a misnomer. Hmmm, my DESIRED salary is $500,000. Mary Ellen hit all the great points on how to deal with that evil question.


Mary Ellen Slayter: Well that went quickly! Thanks for all your great questions, and to Brad for being such a great guest!

Brad Karsh: My pleasure. It was a lot of fun. Good luck with the job search everyone!


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