Career Track Live

Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post columnist
Monday, May 8, 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.

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

The transcript follows below.

____________________ Good afternoon! Mary Ellen is running a little late, but this discussion will begin momentarily.


Mary Ellen Slayter: Good afternoon! Sorry I am a bit late. I'm in lovely Minneapolis today and got stuck in the only traffic jam in the history of the city, I think.

This place is just fantastic, I have to say. Very clean, organized and polite. Parking costs $10 a day. (Try that in downtown D.C.!)

I just have to remind myself what it's like in December ...

On to your career questions!


Washington, D.C.: Hi, Mary Ellen. I should say first that I love my job. It took a lot of work and some luck to get here. My family feels I've achieved a lot, but I have this overwhelming feeling that there's not enough time to do all the things career-wise that I want/need to do and I'm not moving fast enough to get there. I'm turning -- gasp! -- 25 this year and it should seem like there's time to get the master and PhD degrees and work my way up, then retire into a university (having a family on the way?). I've had this plan since I was 18, though not unfolding exactly as planned (in a good way) -- I feel like time is slipping away. Does this feeling ever go away? I think Hax would tell me I'm a control freak and Gene would tell me I'm a nutcase. What do you think? Thanks. (P.S., I wanted to e-mail in response to your "early choosers" request, but when I went home I couldn't find the page again!).

Mary Ellen Slayter: I would tell you that you're a Control Freak Nutcase.

Just kidding!

I think this feeling will go away, once you realize that you really CAN'T do everything, and more importantly, you don't really even WANT to. Your priorities will sort themselves out over time.

You certainly can't do everything before you're 30, and no one expects you to. Relax.

(I know. Easier said than done.)


Washington, D.C.: I'm a mid-20s professional with a graduate degree. I have had five successful years working at one place since I graduated from college. Because my rise here has not been as meteoric as I had hoped, I'm looking to move on, possibly to change tracks within the same field and definitely to change employers. Any words of advice on how to deal with the prospect of failure in any new endeavor when I've had nothing but success so far?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Am I being too repetitious if I tell you the same thing I told the last person? Relax.

If you've been doing just fine so far, why would things suddenly come undone?

However, if you currently enjoy that job you have right now, you want want to check your expectations about that "meteoric" rise you're not getting. Are you being realistic about how fast things happen in the workforce?This isn't school, where things are measured out in one year increments, and it's very easy for ambitious young workers to get frustrated in their first few years.


Washington, D.C.: Can you give some general advice about the difference between a government resume and a general one? I gather the former is much more detailed and you don't have to stick to the one page requirement? I have to submit hard copies of my application package for the govt. job, but is it helpful to follow the fill-in-the-blank resume model you can create on USAJobs? Thanks!

Mary Ellen Slayter: That fill-in-the-blank form is a pretty good guide for getting all the right info in there.

Maybe some of our fed workers can offer some tips?


Washington, D.C.: Hi, Mary Ellen. I'm 26 and have worked in advertising, film production, publishing and PR. I feel like I've been eliminating one job option after another, hoping to find the "right" career track, but I haven't yet. I don't want to go to law school or b-school. Frankly, I'm just tired of working all together. Is this an early midlife crisis or am I just bored because I haven't found my passion yet? How do I find out what career path is right for me?

Mary Ellen Slayter: First, just find a job you like. And stay there for a while. Put aside worries about finding "passions" (which I think creates some really counterproductive pressure on people.) Stop worrying about finding a career even. Just relax. (How many times do I get to say this today?)

You already know better than to run off and just go back to school, so you're ahead of most of your peers in this situation.

You'll be fine.


Arlington, Va.: Hello!

I recently completed my master's degree and am working a great temporary job for one more month -- which means that I am desperately job searching.

A contact of mine recently mentioned that I should 'come and see her' when my job ended and, from her tone, I believe that she was hinting that I might be able to work with her org -- my dream job!

The issue is that I don't know how to approach her. Any tips or ideas for touching base with someone regarding a job opportunity? I don't want to bluntly ask for a job, but is that the best approach?

Thanks much!

Mary Ellen Slayter: Why wouldn't you bluntly ask her for a job? Otherwise, how would she know you are looking? By all means tell her you would consider it a dream job. This is a great spot to be in. Give her a call now rather than later. Good luck!


For the youngsters ...: I wanted to be married by 25, and done having kids by 30. I'm 32 and haven't had a date in four years. Things don't always go as planned. It took me over seven years to find my "dream job," and now I have to hope my boss gets re-elected so that I can keep it!

Mary Ellen Slayter: So true!


Vienna, Va.: I'm considering going for an online MBA class. First off, do you think they are decent? Will some employer look at that and laugh?

Also, I don't currently need an MBA, I just kind of want on "just in case." And also cause it's been weird for me to not have schoolwork to do for a whole year.

Am I wasting my money here? Should I just wait and see if 10 years down the road I really do need one?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Eh, don't do it.

Missing school work and wanting one "just in case" are two of the worst reasons I can possibly think of for getting an expensive degree.

You can take an adult education class in something that interests you to take care of that school itch, for a fraction of the cost.

Grad degrees are best when you know specifically why you want one, and know it can contribute directly to your career goals. You'll get more out of an MBA -- online or traditional -- with some work experience under your belt, anyway.


Washington, D.C. : I think they prefer the online application package (I'm not in OPM, though, so I wouldn't say for sure).

One quick question: I came to govt from a non-profit, but it seems most govt people come from other agencies. I'm always asked, "where did you come from" -- as in, what agency? I usually don't want to respond because it's not in the same particular field and I don't think it's anyone's business really. What should I say? I usually just say a non-profit and change the topic. What is appropriate?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Just tell the truth. They want to know your background. Even if they do mean agency (which I'm not sure they always do), I doubt it hurts you to be from a nonprofit -- unless the nonprofit advocates the overthrow of the government.

Many people in the public sector come from elsewhere. It's certainly nothing to apologize for or be ashamed of. Treat it like a conversation starter.


RE: Doing it all: Some of life's best laid plans fall to the waste side for the unexpected and even better unplanned life happenings. I never got that final degree, worked in that dream industry and a few other high-achieving dreams, but it turns out that the final degree didn't matter that much, my current career offers more than I imagined and it's fine by me. I liken to to never having the chance to take all of these extra classes that I didn't have time for during undergraduate or graduate school. While disappointing at that time, it certainly wasn't the end of everything I knew and how bad could it be if I changed my "life goals" at 5, 18, 25 and beyond? It just means that I learned a little more about myself and that's a GOOD thing! I guess what I'm saying is that the poster should relax and not try to achieve it all. One step at a time and a change of plans it not the end of the world.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Of course I agree with you.


Anonymous: I just started a new job and now take the Metro every day and I have to know ... do the young women wearing flip flops with their suits actually wear them all day? I would guess they commute in the comfy flip flops and change into appropriate work shoes, but that is just me.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Oh don't we all wish they were changing into real shoes, but alas ...


Washington, D.C.: Hi Mary Ellen,

I graduated from a top-tier institution, and I'm in a new luxury automobile load of debt. My family was affected by the hurricanes down South, and I want to stay out of their pocketbooks. Yet, with housing prices in D.C. and inflation it's hard to pay my bills on the average $30,000 salary. I have many skills and went through some job hopping (at one point working three jobs) over the past year, but I wonder if it'd be best to make a career move or re-invest in my education so that I'm more marketable to employers. I majored in English, but I wound up in mostly sales and customer-service gigs. What do you think?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Well, what do you want to do? What kind of employers do you want to be marketable to?


Washington, D.C.: In your recent column on Brad Karsh's book, you mention that he points out the resumes and cover letters are rarely read. If this is the case, how does one gain the attention of potential employers? What piece of information should be front and center on a resume to catch their eye? Here's that article: A Recruiter Tells What Won't Impress , (Post, March 26)

Mary Ellen Slayter: Your resume has to show what's special about you.

But the best way to make sure your resume is read is to attach it your face, via networking. You want to meet people through professional associations and referrals.


Salaries: I am an executive assistant and might be moving. The salary range in my field is huge -- from $20,000 to six figures. I am at the very top of the range and don't want to waste my time interviewing at places where the pay is low. Obviously, I can glean a bit from job descriptions, but you'd be surprised how many companies hire assistants to top level execs and expect to pay peanuts. I find that nowadays you don't just interview once for a job -- at my current place I had to come in four separate times before salary was even mentioned. How can I find out the salary range for a job before I actually interview? Is it appropriate in this instance to mention my requirements when I am on the phone arranging to meet with the HR dept.?

Mary Ellen Slayter: You're one of those rare people who should always include your salary requirements in your cover letter, as many companies request. If they don't want to pay it, they won't call you.


RE: Former nonprofit: The former nonprofit person needs to relax. The question is typical w/in government. It's harmless and there is no "right" answer. If anything, it means that they are being polite.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I kinda think so too, but there may be other weird tensions in the office that we don't know about.


RE: Flip-flops: Oh please, the vast majority of women you see commuting in flip flops (myself included) change into regular shoes at work. I know your office is casual (I worked in media and I know how sloppy journalists dress), but in conservative D.C. most of us can't get away with it. I walk a mile to work and have no desire to trash my shoes or hurt my feet.

Mary Ellen Slayter: The flip-flop thing is something I usually only see in really young workers and interns. And no, they don't necessary change into real shoes when they get to work. And again, no, I'm not talking about my office, where I pretty much never see that.


D.C.: Hi, Mary Ellen. I'm 26 and haven't figured out what I want to do with my life yet. I just got into an all-paid one-year master's program in something I'm not particularly interested in. Should I do it? I'm tempted because I want to take a break from work for a year, but at the same time don't know if a master's in something I'm not interested is worth giving up my job. Thoughts?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Is there ANY benefit to this master's, in the long term?

Personally, I'd rather be in a paid job I wasn't particularly interested in than a grad program that I didn't care about, but that's just me.


Washington, D.C.: Debt-laden, fresh grad returns ... well, I want a career in politics and assume a law degree is where I want to take it. I just wanted to take time before reinvesting in that, yet with my posts in sales I've found a niche and think an MBA (or even a joint-program) would be an excellent idea that could push me in many directions once I'm there -- from tax law to contract law. I just think that right now I need a steady income and could be marketable to media that needs writers, correspondents, public speakers or even nonprofits that pay well which need eager beavers to tackle an assignment. I'm a renaissance-type and it's currently not helping in the "moolah" division. Thanks.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Then that MBA could really help you. But keep in mind that it will mean even more debt. And don't forget that your salary will likely ramp even in the next few years dramatically even without school. The move out of the entry level happens pretty quickly. Most MBA programs want people to have several years of experience in the workforce anyway.

Also, look at the jobs for which you'll be qualified once you get the grad degree, and make sure it will more than pay for the degree.

Stop trying to head in many directions, though. Start narrowing it down a bit.


RE: Now in govt.: EVERYONE -- always -- asks where you "came from," when you start a new job. NO ONE is exempt, no matter if you are at a non profit, a for profit, the govt or somewhere else. When you're the new person, people want to know about you, and this is one way to find out. People will always ask you questions, don't be so uptight about it all.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Agreed.


Bethesda, Md.: I have been sensing a little jealously from my teammate recently and am not sure how to take it or handle it for that matter. We are both considered entry level employees but she is 10 years my senior and I think feels the need to catch up with her peers. Recently I have been given new tasks, going on travel and getting great reviews from the people I am working with. She on the other hand is still doing the basics which I have since moved on from. Sometimes she'll ask me questions which I answer to the best of my knowledge but then she goes off and asks someone else who gives her the same answer I did. I give her suggestions on how to go about things but she never takes them but in the end she looks bad not me because it wasn't like she didn't already know what needed to be done. That's only the tip of the iceberg for her problems but the chat is only an hour. I'm not the only one who notices this either many don't want to or like working with her. I want to help her because she is not making a good name for herself but in the same light I just want to throw up my hands and worry about myself. What should I do?

Mary Ellen Slayter: I wouldn't worry about her at all. She's not your responsibility.


Arlington, Va.: I have worked for a political office for a number of years, and like many who have cycled through this sector, I am very ready for a career change. Problem is, I'm not sure what I am ready to do next! I have enough money saved to live comfortably through the summer, but would like to know what sort of things people typically do when they find themselves wanting to go in a direction in terms of work. Where does one even begin?

Mary Ellen Slayter: You don't have to quit your job to start that process. If anything, it's better to be employed. That makes it far less likely that you'll just feel pressured to take something when the money runs out.

What do you enjoy doing? Can you test run some things as a volunteer? By taking one or classes?


Capitol Hill: What is it with people and grad degrees? An extra two years of school is not any sort of automatic validation in the work place. Especially, if you are in a field that doesn't require one, or -- even more so -- if you don't even know what you want to do with your life. Throwing cash at a grad degree isn't going to help make any decisions for you!

Mary Ellen Slayter: I agree with you, of course. I'm really happy about my grad degree, but I knew exactly why I was getting it and it has worked out really well.


RE: Arlington, Va.: Temping but looking ... call your friend (acquaintance?) and invite her (him?) out to lunch. Treat it like a pseudo-informational interview. Asking questions like what sort of stuff do you do? What types of positions are available? That type of thing. But make clear that you are in a temp position and that you are definitely looking for something full-time. If he/she describes positions that you would want, make sure he/she knows that. Good luck! It's really not so scary.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Yep, that's what I would do, too. This is networking 101.


Arlington, Va.: I was recently informed that both my assistant and my boss will be leaving the company this summer. My boss leaving was a long time in the making and I've been groomed to assume her responsibilities, but the assistant's departure is unexpected, and I'll have to take over training her replacement in addition to both my work and training for my boss's job.

Would it be inappropriate to ask for a raise effective when my assistant leaves? Annual reviews take place in the fall but I'm not sure I can do three people's jobs at my current pay without hating life.

Mary Ellen Slayter: You can certainly ask. It's pretty normal to get a raise with a promotion.


Lanham, Md.: I am currently in a job that I have no desire to do anymore. Not only am I unhappy with my role, but I am also experiencing a tremendous amount of stress (loss of appetite, insomnia, loss of weight) because of the job. I have contemplated telling my boss that I want to leave, but I know that I will not make the same amount of money at another company, and am afraid that I will have to start out at the bottom again. I have only been working and out of college for two years and am already making six figures. Should I stick it out or should I leave while I still have hair?

Mary Ellen Slayter: No job is worth losing your hair! If you've got the money to live on, put in your notice. You might not make six figures right away, but you'll likely have no trouble finding something that pays well enough to live on.


Washington, D.C.: No one should go to law school unless they want to practice law! It's not like getting a master's degree and writing a thesis in something. It's three years of hard work to prepare a person to be an attorney. Sheesh!

Mary Ellen Slayter: Absolutely! Well, that's all our time for the day. Have a great week!


Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company