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Career Track Live
Advice for Young Professionals

Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post columnist
Monday, April 30, 2007 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.

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washingtonpost.com: This discussion will begin momentarily.

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Mary Ellen Slayter: Good afternoon!

The most recent column was about last-minute career planning for this year's college grads. Any advice for the class of 2007?

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Columbia, Md.: I was a decent student with about 3.6 GPA in my area of study (economics), but I can't get a job. The few opportunities that I had came down to the issue of experience ("You took challenging courses and was a good student, but you have no experience outside of school"), how do they expect me to have an experience if I don't get an opportunity?

Mary Ellen Slayter: This is where internships come in. You can get the experience you need at little risk to the employer. It's best to think of internships as an extension of your schooling.

Yes, it's frustrating to work for free, but it's usually only a few months. If you're good, there's a high chance it will turn into a real job.

And sadly, grades don't matter much unless you're trying to get back into school.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi, Mary Ellen. Thanks for taking my question; it's actually rather a personal one. How did you get started writing for a living? After an unhappy year as a paralegal, which has seriously bent my desire to attend law school, I know that I want to do the only thing I have ever really loved or been good at, writing. Unfortunately, since I have been on the law school path for so long, I don't have any of the traditional experience many editorial assistant positions require (school paper, published works, portfolio). My parents have chided me for wanting to pursue something so "impractical" and yet I can't help but feel as though I need to at least try. How do I become a serious and worthy candidate if I don't have the experience required? Any tips or advice on how to break into the field?

Thanks!

Mary Ellen Slayter: There are many paths to becoming a professional writer or editor. You can start at a small paper and work your way up, which is what I did. You can also take internships and freelance jobs. Either way, your goal is to build up a collection of "clips," or published stories. If you're any good, you'll find work.

And kudos to you for taking that paralegal job instead of jumping straight to law school. At least you didn't have to go $30,000 into debt to figure out the law wasn't for you.

And try to ignore your parents. They mean well, but they aren't the ones who have to go to your job 40 hours a week.

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"This is where internships come in ...": All my internships were paid, I wouldn't work for free.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Some fields pay their interns, some don't.

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N.Y., N.Y.: Hi, Mary Ellen. I've always appreciated your columns and your advice. I was wondering if you could help me with this one. I am new to the job market, as I only recently graduated college. I've been at a company for about 10 months now, but feel as if I now know the company and the industry is not for me. In addition, some of what I was told I would be doing, was far from the case, as I do a great deal of administrative work. I'm curious if it is acceptable to leave a company (or rather to tell a prospective employer that you left) because the company failed to deliver to your expectations and their stated goals for you. Will potential employers interpret that as whiney or an excuse? Thanks!

Mary Ellen Slayter: It's only whiney if you make it whiney. You can leave a job for any reason. But I wouldn't dwell on why you were leaving in conversations with prospective employers. Just say you were looking for something new.

But I should tell you this: It's completely normal for a recent college grad only 10 months into a job to be doing primarily admin work.

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Undergrad grades: I disagree that grades don't matter much unless you're applying to grad school. I hear this all the time and I think it really does a disservice to undergrads. There are a number of hedge funds that very very heavily weight undergrad grades (and in some cases, even SAT scores). The chatter who posted was an econ major and therefore might actually be interested in hedge funds. This is the area I'm familiar with, but I'm sure there are many other areas where grades are important, and I don't think people should be told they are only important to get into grad school.

Mary Ellen Slayter: This person was being told by their interviewers that the grades didn't matter as much as their lack of experience. You are correct, though, that some employers care. Good grades won't ever hurt you, but they also won't necessarily help you.

The only time anybody asked me about my undergrad grades was when I applied to grad school. And even then, they were mainly interested in my work experience. And I haven't thought about my SATs scores in over a decade ...

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Washington, D.C. : I'm finding it hard to think of a way to tell my current supervisor that I am leaving to take another job. We don't have a horrible relationship, but it's not great either. Any suggestions?

Mary Ellen Slayter: What are you scared is going to happen?

You write a short and sweet resignation letter, and bring it to his or her office and let her know.

It happens everyday. Really, it'll be fine.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm currently working full-time at a policy nonprofit and considering whether or not to go to grad school for a master's in public policy. I've gotten conflicting messages about whether it would be a degree that would pay itself back or if it's similar to master's in social work degrees which often leave people with lots of debt and not necessarily guaranteed better job, salary prospects. Also, I'm looking at AU and GW for grad programs -- any advice about how best to get comparison info on them (beyond just scouring their Web sites) would be great.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Think backwards. What job do you want 10 or 15 years from now? Do most people who hold that job have master's in public policy? If they do, you probably need the degree. If not, don't worry about it for now.

The comparison info is available the same way. Where did those people who have your coveted job get their degrees?

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Temping: When I graduated college, I had a terrible time finding a job. I ended up unemployed for a while, having a terrible job, and then going into retail. What really got me back on track was temping. I learned a lot of soft skills, mainly showing a real willingness to do anything. That got in me into a new career field, and 15 years later, I've been with the same company for nine years, and am much happier in my new field (and make a lot more money, too).

Mary Ellen Slayter: I was also a temp right out of college. It was perfect for me at the time, and I got job offers left and right from the companies I worked for.

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Fairfax, Va.: I am graduating in May, and a company I have contacts at and really want to work for does not have openings until mid-summer. I will look at a few other places, but am almost 100 percent positive I want to work for this company. Is it bad that I am putting all my eggs in one basket like this? I have just heard great things about this place from all the people I have spoken with.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Speaking of temping ... that might be perfect for you as well. Pick up temp jobs while you continue to work your contacts at your preferred spot. You'll expand your network, make some money, and pick up valuable experience.

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Courthouse, Va.: Hi, Mary Ellen. I'm a new fan of yours and have just begun to read your columns. I am a 30-something fed who, even though she has what should be close to a dream job, I find myself having to drag myself in everyday. Bad managers combined with poor use of employee's talent, leads to frustration and overall dissatisfaction with the government.

I want to find a job that I love and want to get to in the morning. So, how do I find that? I always wanted to work for the government, but now find myself becoming a bit disillusioned. The govt. doesn't need that and either do I.

I feel like I haven't found my niche yet. Would you recommend a career counselor, or something along those lines? How can I find a reputable one? I'd welcome any and all advice. Thanks

Mary Ellen Slayter: Maybe what you need is NEW government job. It's not like every department in every agency is run by the people you work for now.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I agree with you about grades. My father tried to tell me that grades were the main thing employers looked for once you graduated from college and he was absolutely wrong. I have never had an employer ask for grades and have very well over the past few years since I graduated. Yes, of course, it's good to get good grades because of the potential for wanting to go to grad school or some industries that look at GPAs. But much better advice would have been grades are important for those reasons, but more important is work experience so try to get some internships in the field you are interested in while in college. That advice would have been MUCH better.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Yep. A recent grad with mediocre grades and good internships and PT jobs in school is generally much better off than his peer with perfect grades but no internships or jobs.

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Fairfax, Va.: Regarding your internship advice: I have considered the internship route. The idea of working for free to get some experience under my belt doesn't bother me. But, I have yet to see a listing for an internship that doesn't require current enrollment in a degree program. What advice do you have for us former "A" students that can't seem to find an opportunity because of lack of experience?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Don't wait for the internships to be listed somewhere. If someone is interested enough in you to interview you, but put off by your lack of experience, *volunteer* to intern for a few months. Some of the best internships are those outside of a formal program.

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Northern Va.: I feel somewhat sorry for all of the posters who are just out of school and are not doing the high-powered job they thought they'd be doing. Part of me just wants to tell them to suck it up and we all went through it, but at the same time I think that our culture these days is to tell young people that they can do whatever they want and that they can get to the brass ring early if they just work hard enough. Then, many are not prepared when they get hired into a company and are not performing the high powered job they wanted in school. I think its one of the many ways we as a society have failed young people -- in some ways, they aren't prepared to pay their dues. I mean, many of them are, but most don't realize what form those dues will come in.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Yes, I agree. It's a very frustrating position to be in, with so much pressure. My next column is about this subject, so if anybody wants to chime in with their experiences, e-mail me at slayterme@washpost.com after the chat.

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RE: Recent grads: To the recent grad who's been in his/her position for only 10 months. You need to be patient. Although you're told what you will be doing, you don't just jump in and start doing it right away. The company needs to see that you're trustworthy and reputable. Some companies have been burned by past employees and it takes them up to a year to know what you're capable of. Then again, maybe they don't think you're capable of those items after working there 10 months. Consider talking to your boss and ask for more responsibility and if they say no, ask why. When I graduated, I received a job as an assistant and I did assistant work for two years. Seven years and two jobs later, I directed a department for a trade association. You have to pay the price to get where you want. Good luck.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Yes, I second the advice on approaching your boss.

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Vienna, Va.: How do you tell your employer that you are quitting to go to med school? Oh and this is after telling them that you planned to be with them for at least two years before thinking about school -- only because you didn't think you were getting in this year for sure.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Quickly, in person, and with an explanation and a sincere apology.

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Courthouse ... again: Sorry, Mary Ellen. But that advice wasn't very helpful. Yes, perhaps a new government job is the answer. Problem is that I've worked at another agency before, have been working as a fed for eight years, and am friends with lots of feds. I'm hearing the same thing all around. It's not just my managers or me, but the bureaucracy of government that is frustrating. Everyone does actually work a lot, but it's hard to see anything actually getting accomplished.

So, again, do you recommend anything for how to get myself on track? Career counsel? Anything else to find what field I'm best suited? Thanks.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Ah, gotcha. I thought you were still interested in working for the government. As you know, not all fed jobs are the same. If you're completely at a loss as to what to do next, by all means book a session with a career counselor. Or if you want to try a book on your own, "What Color is Your parachute" is a classic. Without know anything else about your background or dreams, I can't be more specific. Sorry.

But I will ask you this: What attracted you to work for the government to begin with?

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Clifton, Va.: Hi, Mary Ellen. Do you know how I can get good contacts for jobs on Capitol Hill? I have interviewed for three jobs there that were promising at first, but the office managers then avoided me, did not take my calls, and I had to hear from my contact that the jobs were filled. I am a recent college graduate from a top university, but it is so difficult to get a job on the Hill. I have tried everything -- my alumni network, cold calling offices, and even writing my U.S. representative and senators. All responded telling me that they were not hiring. I always wanted to work there, but the process has disgusted me ... especially the slowness and lies I get from the contact I had. She set me up for an interview, but soon became distant. She repeatedly told me I would be contacted by the office soon (for about two months), and when I called the office, no one got back with me. When I e-mailed, no one got back to me, but the manager told her to inform me that I would be contacted soon. Does this make any sense? Why won't the office staff talk to me since I am the job applicant, and not my contact? This just does not feel right. I am working now, but I am beginning to just write off this supposed job offer.

Mary Ellen Slayter: So you're getting interviews, but no offers? And a complete cold shoulder after? It's time to take a hard look at what's happening at these interviews. How are you coming across? Check your clothing choices, your manners, your responses to their questions, etc. It sounds like you might benefit from some outside advice on your interview skills.

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N.Y., N.Y.: Hi, Mary Ellen. I read your columns and follow your discussions pretty closely. I am a recent grad (almost a year out of school now) who would like to attend law school. I think everything the topic comes up you warn people about debt and realizing too late that law is not the field for you. Can you please tell me what is a good way to gauge if or if not its for you before making these errors? I wanted to attend right out of college but was concerned that it was not a true desire but merely a sense of confusion and urgency to do something that drove this. It's been almost a year and I still want my law degree. What are you thoughts?

Thanks!

Mary Ellen Slayter: Do your homework before you go. There is only one reason to go to law school: You want to be a lawyer so bad that you can't picture yourself doing anything else for a living. Try working in a legal environment for a year or two (as a paralegal or admin, perhaps). Interview actual lawyers in the fields that interest you. Make sure you understand what it is that lawyers do for a living, day in and day out.

Worry less about your law degree, and more about what happens *after* you graduate. Law school is 3 years; law school loans are 20.

Going to law school for its own sake is like having children because you enjoy being pregnant.

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Recent college grads: The truth is, all offices have at least some grunt work. It has to be done, and someone has to do it. It's not going to just disappear!

So the trick is to get really efficient at the grunt tasks so they only take up half of your day. Then you're free to do cooler stuff. Please remember that all honest work has dignity, and nobody is too good to stuff an envelope.

One other thing I'd like to say is ... I'm a office manager, so I do admin work as my career. I've been out of school for some time. And I find it hilarious to listen to recent college grads whine about how admin work is "beneath them." Dude, if I didn't work here, you wouldn't get paid, the lights would be off, and nothing would happen. So please don't act like my work is beneath your lofty aims.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Exactly!

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"I always wanted to work on the Hill":... but never volunteered for the local party of your choice (Democratic or Republican)? If you'd been interested in politics, you'd have volunteered and met the right people. This sort of job is filled by people who've already proven their loyalty and hard work and they'd be mad if someone cut in line without doing the grassroots work required.

Mary Ellen Slayter: For the would-be Hill worker ...

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Just two cents ... : Or, you can work part-time, get internships, and study so that you learn what you need to know about your field and life (and get good grades to boot).

It's really not impossible, trust me -- and you'll distance yourself from everyone else. (Just from personal experience, I did this and was offered every job I applied for, some at very prestigious companies with great pay!) A lot of hard work goes a long way.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Yes, that would be the ideal.

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Washington, D.C.: A note to recent and soon-to-be college graduates: one of the best ways to gain the trust and respect of your new employer is to arrive on time or early EVERY DAY, and to call if you are going to be late. This is a simple way to show that you are eager to be working and committed to doing your best.

As a manager in a company with many recent grads, I am amazed at how many of our new hires believe that they can set their own schedules and roll in at 10 a.m. (the official start time is 8:30).

Mary Ellen Slayter: Some advice for the new grads ...

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Tenafly, N.J.: What are your thoughts on the MIT admissions dean? How did she get away with that for so long? I know that most resumes must have some type of fib in terms of like a job responsibility, but to fudge an entire degree?!

Mary Ellen Slayter: That shocked me, too. Talking about lying big.

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RE: Clifton, Va.: I wrote about my problem getting a Hill job. I do not think it is my appearance or demeanor, or even my attitude that is a problem. I am a political junkie, I love the Hill environment, I always wear suits/bow ties to my interviews, and the interviewers have all told me how impressive my resume and skills are. I am very gracious and pleasant during interviews, and I always send follow-up thank you notes within two hours of the interviews. That's why it does not add up to me.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Bow ties?

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Washington, D.C.: To Clifton: I had a very similar experience trying to get a job on the Hill. The jobs invariably went to people who had done internships there (which I hadn't). The response I got from people doing the hiring convinced me that they probably weren't the sort of people that I wanted to be working for. I expanded my job search, found something I like doing, and consider it a lesson learned. There are lots of ways to make a difference in Washington besides working on the Hill.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Another take ...

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RE: Working on the hill: I'm surprised no one said this before, but to get a job on the Hill, you need to have already volunteered/worked for your local democratic or republican party. You can't just waltz in with an ivy league degree if you haven't done your time. If you're known by the local party (i.e., worked hard with the rank and file), they'll recommend you to the Congressman.

Mary Ellen Slayter: More about the Hill job search ...

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Northern Va.: Just weighing in on the grades issue: Grades don't really matter out of undergrad, but for any law students out there ... they WILL matter to get your internship AND your first job (and at certain firms, they look at your grades for partnership too). My friend lost out on a job as a fourth year associate because of her law school grades. It happens a LOT in my field.

Mary Ellen Slayter: You're correct. Class rankings matter immensely in law school.

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Washington, D.C.: I completely agree with your response about law school. I recently dropped out of law school with $30,000 in debt because I realized too late that I didn't want to be a lawyer and could do the work I was interested in without a JD . From someone who knows first hand: do your homework! If you decide you really can see yourself practicing some sort of law for the rest of your career, go for it!

Mary Ellen Slayter: Thanks for sharing that. See, I'm NOT crazy.

We're done for the day. Thanks for all your comments and questions!

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