Career Track Live

Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post columnist
Monday, October 9, 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.

Mary Ellen Slayter is author of Career Track, a biweekly column in The Washington Post's Jobs section. She focuses her chat on issues affecting young workers.

Read Mary Ellen's latest Career Track column.

The transcript follows below.


Mary Ellen Slayter: Good afternoon! Lots of good questions, so let's get started!

Also, I am working on a column about the difficulties of negotiating multiple job offers at the same time. If you're in that spot, or have some advice to share for someone who is, e-mail me after the chat at I would love to hear your perspective.


Washington, D.C.: I liked your gossip column. I noticed those who get promoted here tend to be gossips. Gossip is like networking. Missed that story? Read it here: Like to Gossip? Catch Up, but Don't Get Caught Up , (Post, Oct.1)

Mary Ellen Slayter: Indeed, gossiping IS networking, when it's done right anyway. It's one way to find out what's going on around you, including soon-to-be-announced promotions and job openings, etc. Just don't get caught up in petty, personal nonsense.


D.C.: I just finished with an interview a couple of hours ago. Is it more appropriate to write one thank you note to the hiring manager, or to write a separate note to each of the three individuals who interviewed me? Thanks!

Mary Ellen Slayter: Write to all of them! Anybody who took the time to meet with you deserves an e-mail or note of thanks.


Herndon, Va.: Dear Mary Ellen,

Thanks in advance for answering my question.

As you may know, people who bought a single family house before 2004 are now roughly $200,000-300,000 wealthier (either in equity, value of house, or cash if they sold it) then people who did not buy a house.

Can this be factored in when negotiating salary with an employer? It isn't the employers problem, but people need a decent place to live!

Mary Ellen Slayter: That isn't really the employer's concern, so no, I wouldn't bring renters vs. owners into the negotiations.

Of course you want to consider the cost of living when evaluating an offer, though.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I mean, should an employer pay someone else LESS because they started saving for retirement early? Or were able to buy a house before the boom? That's the flip side to your question, isn't it?


Ashburn, Va.: Thank you Mary Ellen for taking my question. Actually, I have two. First, do employers really dismiss resumes and/or applicants that do have a college degree when it is listed as requirement? I've been told that submission for consideration by an applicant who doesn't have a degree makes them look like a fool, as if they didn't thoroughly read the job listing? In searching for a new job, I am frustrated by job listings that require a degree, but leave no open-door for experience. I have been working in the same location/industry for nine years and have had my current position for the last six of those years. I am in search of new employment due to a residential move that will greatly increase by commute.

That being said, how does one go about locating a headhunter to provide assistance in finding a job that will meet ones requirements?

Any insight is appreciated.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I wouldn't say that they dismiss the non-degreed applicants as "fools," but they are able to use the lack of a degree as an easy way to thin the pile of applicants. There are enough people out there who have degrees AND experience that employers can be picky about formal credentials. You might not think it's fair, but that is how it is.

"Headhunters" aka recruiters can be easily found in a variety of sources. Look under employment services in the yellow pages or online. Ask your colleagues for references. You're also likely to run into them at networking events in your field.


Arlington, Va.: Hi Mary Ellen,

Two quick questions:

Do employers even consider candidates who aren't local to job listings?

I recently got in contact with a former acquaintance of mine to ask her for some advice on submitting my resume to a pretty prestigious program in the entertainment industry. She offered to refer me to the program herself, which I thought was fantastic! However, it seems as if she has gotten fairly busy, and she still hasn't submitted it, and this was roughly two months ago. Where do I go from here? Should I ask her if I could submit it and reference her as a reference? Lord knows she has her own life, but I don't know where to go from here.

Also, sorry this is a third, I'm waiting on a high profile entertainment industry professional to call me back so I can conduct an informational interview. His assistant repeatedly tells me that I'm on his 'call' list, and that he definitely wants to speak with me. Should I even bother following up, or should I just wait?

Thanks again!

Mary Ellen Slayter: 1. Yes. But it depends on the particular job and the local employment market. If there are plenty of qualified local applicants, the own-of-town folks are going to go to the bottom of the pile. But if the position is more specialized and can't be filled locally, the hiring managers will pull from a national pool.

2. Asking your friend about being a reference and submitting the application yourself is the logical next step in that situation.

3. Keep calling. But pursue interviews with other people as well.


D.C.: Hi! I had an interview today with a a company that is pursuing me, they contacted me and not the other way around. So do I still need to write thank you notes? What would I say? I have a job but thought I would see what they had to offer.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Of course you thank them. It's about showing appreciation for them taking the time to talk to you, regardless of who initiated the meeting. What would you gain by dropping the niceties here? It's not like writing these notes takes THAT much time.


Arlington, Va.: Hi, Mary Ellen. What is your view on acquiring an advanced degree(master's/Ph.D.) "just because." I'm a firm believer in pursuing those when the need arises (i.e., when a ceiling is reached where advancing requires an advanced degree), but if I can get by fine on a bachelor's and envision myself advancing to where I want to be in my field, then I see no need to put myself through more expensive schooling. My parents, of course, disagree. All about the Master's/Ph.D. opening "more doors," "never hurting," etc. What are your thoughts? Thanks!

Mary Ellen Slayter: I'm with you in waiting for a need to arise. Grad school is expensive and time consuming. It's also a drag if you don't have a clear idea of why you're there. Who cares if it opens doors if they aren't doors you're even interested in passing through?


Arlington, Va.: How to cope when you dislike your boss, his attitude, work ethic, and the fact that he favors certain employees over others? My attitude is really starting to suffer. Oh, and I get zero paid time off.

Mary Ellen Slayter: You "cope" by looking for other jobs. Pronto.


New York, N.Y.: I'm 25 years-old with three years of working experience (plus several internships, too) in my field. Now, I'm applying to the Peace Corps. I'm not at a job I love and I'm trying to decide if I want to stay in my current field or transition to a nonprofit (I volunteer a lot right now). I guess my question is, how will those in charge of hiring look at my two years of work in another country when I return to the traditional working world? Will they see it as a diversion from resume building? Or a once-in-a-lifetime learning experience (for the record, I see it as the latter)?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Cross that bridge when you come to it. You have NO IDEA what you're going to want to do when you return from the Peace Corps. It can be a radically life-altering experience. In later interviews, it will be a conversation starter at worst, and the thing that gives you the edge over other candidates at best.

Other Peace Corps vets out there want to weigh in?


Silver Spring, Md.: How soon should I contact newspaper/magazine employers in the D.C. area again after sending my cover letter, resume, and clips? I want to follow up with them without them thinking I have a problem w/ patience.


Mary Ellen Slayter: If you want to be a reporter or an editor, it's already *assumed* you have a problem with patience.

Give it a week, then call to make sure it arrived.


Arlington, Va.: Sorry to have to clarify ... how to cope when the other jobs I am sending applications to are not yielding any phone calls let alone interviews? It's difficult to see an end in sight. Quitting without a new job is not an option.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Gotcha! Step up the application process. Are you networking? Do you belong to a professional association? Have you contacted any temp agencies or recruiters?


Maryland: There is a person at work who works longer hours during the two week pay period, and then uses the overtime for Christmas vacation. Is it legal to carry over hours after the pay period?

Mary Ellen Slayter: It sounds like they are using comp time, basically. Lots of employers do that, and many employees like it, as long as they actually get to use the promised time off. What makes you think it would be illegal in this case? And why would it even concern you? Is it affecting your ability to do your job?


Washington, D.C.: I am a senior in college and currently working as an intern. I love the organization that I am interning for, and I decided I want to try and work here. When and how do I approach my boss about this prospect? I won't graduate until May, but the deadline for next year's interns is at the end of this month, so I may want to apply again if that's my only option. Any suggestions? Thanks!

Mary Ellen Slayter: Send your boss an e-mail right now asking to set up a meeting to talk about your prospects/plans after graduation. Tell him or her you'd love to work there. Ask what you should do next. Then do it.

You're an intern. People expect you to ask them for guidance on stuff like this!


Washington, D.C.: Hi! Grad school question: How do I figure out when/whether to go? I'm at the point in my (early) career where I see the ceiling above me, but I haven't reached it yet (I'm in the sciences, and working in science policy right now). I've always thought I should wait to go until I really feel like I need it, but I'm worried that with the lag time in applying, come next fall, I will wish I had applied. Any resources you could suggest for figuring this out? Thanks!

Mary Ellen Slayter: Like the intern in the previous question, start with your boss. And maybe even your boss's boss. What are your goals for the next few years? What about in 10 years? Do the people now holding the jobs you think you want have graduate degrees? When did they get them?


Charlottesville, Va.: Mary Ellen -- Thank-you notes following a federal agency interview ... yes or no?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Yes!

I can't really think of ANY exceptions to the rule about sending a thank-you note after an interview.


Washington, D.C.: I am about to accept a new position and am trying to decide how much notice I should give. My problem is that I am in between projects and am worried that that status may lead to me being summarily dismissed if I give the standard two weeks. I have thought about giving no notice and abruptly resigning, but don't think I could stomach that bold of a move. Should I split the difference, thus exposing me to at most one week without pay? Or should I bite the bullet and hope that by doing right by my current employer, they will do right by me?

P.S., I am a software developer/architect and dismissals after notice has been received seem more common in my current field than many others.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Give the two weeks, but accept that it might lead to an instant dismissal

You will at least leave knowing *you* did the right thing.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Mary Ellen: Just wanted to know what's your opinion on "borrowing" someone's address to apply for an out of state job? I've been told by friends in NYC (apparently notorious for tossing all non-NYC applications into the trash) to use their address so that I'm not looked over. I feel OK about doing it, but wanted to hear other opinions.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Do it, but call it a Local Address on your resume, and don't expect any help with transportation costs for the interview. This really only works if you are between jobs or just graduated, by the way. Otherwise, how to explain that D.C. address on your resume for your current job?


Capitol Hill: Just a comment for the intern who would like to work for his or her current organization. I, personally, am a bit surprised at the number of interns who don't ask me about this type of thing or even keep in touch for the sake of references. I would be more than happy to help a motivated intern find a job!

Mary Ellen Slayter: Yep. I'm not really sure what they are so scared of!


RE: Peace Corps question: As a hiring manager, I would look very favorably on an applicant with Peace Corps experience.

Yes, I want to hire people who have technical skills and other "hard" qualifications, but I also want people working for me who aren't afraid to take chances, and who are likely to look at a problem from all sides. I want someone with a sense of adventure. In short, I want people working for me who recognize the unconventional approach can be successful. I also think that the Peace Corps would teach people incredible problem-solving skills.

I don't think I'm unique in this. And look at it this way: You really don't want to work at a company populated by managers who would be turned off by your Peace Corps experience.

Mary Ellen Slayter: An encouraging take on the Peace Corps issue ....


Washington, D.C.: Another thing to keep in mind with the grad school question is future expenses. If you are absolutely certain you want to stay in the same field and that you will reach that ceiling where a higher degree is necessary sooner or later; think long and hard about what your plans are for the next 10-15 years. Do you want to buy a house? Have children? These are big investments that will leave you with less time and money for school. I decided to go before I hit that ceiling because I knew I would want to buy a home, and have managed to pay off my debts in three years after completing my master's, so now I can get a mortgage (I worked through school, so didn't have to take out such large loans).

Mary Ellen Slayter: Very good point! I also sequenced my plans, though I went house, then grad school, then kiddo. I knew my time frame for wanting to start a family, then worked back from there.


Anonymous: I'm starting a new job and took a pay cut to get a better work/life balance. How do I stop trying to be #1 at work and learn to leave on time, etc.?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Nothing wrong with trying to be #1. You just have to learn to do it within a reasonable time frame every day. What are you trying to balance work with? Is there something you want to come home to each day? Until there is, I suspect you're going to struggle to disconnect from work.

Then again, you might not be suited for "balance." Some people aren't. Many of them live in D.C.


Downtown D.C.: I'm not a RPCV (returned Peace Corps volunteer), but I've known a bunch over the years, and every single one has had it work to their professional advantage. Several have been able to get into international development and businesses because of their experience, some for a LOT of money. On the other end of the spectrum, a few have started their own nonprofit co-ops that make them very happy though don't make much cash. In between those extremes, there's a large and loyal RPCV network that helps people find their niche, and there's always the good old high civil service rating and government hiring preference RPCVs get (for a limited time) when they "muster out." Plus, some government agencies and non-profits, like the EPA, have a hiring history with RPCVs that seems to serve both sides well: from experience, they already have an idea of the RPCVs skills and interests, and the RPCVs can tell that the department/company must have a corporate culture they'd be comfortable with for them to have so many RPCV employees.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Another positive take!

So far, no one has written in to rail against those Peace Corps slackers, so I think the original question writer can stop worrying.


Looking for a Job While I Still Have One: I'm 28 and have loved my job for the last two years. However, six months ago, my student loan payments kicked in and I sadly realized this dream job doesn't pay the bills anymore. I've never looked for a job before while I still had one. What's the protocol? How much should bosses/co-workers know (if anything)? How do I let contacts I've made in business know I'm looking? And most importantly, how do I go on job interviews while I still have to be somewhere else from nine to five?

(P.S., Yes, I've asked for a raise and I was told in no uncertain terms that I wasn't getting a raise or a promotion any time soon.)

Mary Ellen Slayter: Your boss and co-workers shouldn't know anything.

Just tell your contacts that you're looking, and give them a sense of what kind of gig you're looking for. Ask them for leads.

Take vacation days for the interviews, if you can't schedule them around your lunch breaks, etc.


Washington, D.C.: Do you think bad office politics are enough of a reason to start looking for a new job? The owner of my company is basically a jerk, and many of the people that work here are clique-y and like to goof off. I like my position overall but get stuck in an awful lot of office politics, partly because I work in a cubicle farm. Is this a reason to want to leave? I've been here for two years.

Mary Ellen Slayter: It can be, but make sure you don't go from a bad place to an even worse one. There are jerks everywhere.


Washington, D.C.: I just recently had my one-year anniversary with my current employer. I received a very healthy raise, but did not have a formal review. How should I go about asking for the review? I would like to have the review mostly so that I know my performance. However, I do not want to cast my request for a review as a request for more money, or a larger raise.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Are formal reviews standard at your employer? If they're not, I'd just let it go.

You shouldn't have to wait for a review to find out how you're doing anyway. Do you get feedback day-to-day or week-to-week? I'm tempted to say that you should consider that healthy raise to be long-term feedback aplenty!


Mary Ellen Slayter: Looks like time is up!

Thanks for all your comments and questions. As always, feel free to e-mail me.


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