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Mary Ellen Slayter and Lindsey Pollak
Washington Post columnist and guest
Monday, June 18, 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.

Today, Slayter is joined by Lindsey Pollak, author of "Getting From College to Career" (Collins, 2007), to discuss her recent column: Making Sure the Second One's a Winner, (Post, June 10).

Read Mary Ellen's latest Career Track column.

The transcript follows below.

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Mary Ellen Slayter: Good afternoon! We have a guest today, Lindsey Pollak, author of "Getting from College to Career."

Welcome, Lindsey!

Lindsey Pollak: Thanks for having me, Mary Ellen. I'm excited to chat today.

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D.C.: Hi, Mary Ellen and Lindsey. I am a recent grad who has been working as a legal assistant for the past year. Originally, I thought I would work here until applying to law schools, but my work at the firm has convinced me otherwise. I'd like to find another job, hopefully in a less rigid, sterile environment than a corporate firm. What suggestions do you have for young people leaving paralegal positions? I know there are plenty of people in my same situation. Thanks!

Lindsey Pollak: Yep, I definitely meet a lot of young people leaving paralegal positions. And it's a good thing -- it's better to learn now that you don't really want to be a lawyer than after three expensive years of law school! Your best first step is to start exploring new career options based on what you learned about yourself over the past year. Was there anything you enjoyed about your paralegal job? What were you particularly good at? Did any of the firm's clients intrigue you? Would you have preferred a smaller or larger organization?

Next, start talking to friends, family, alumni of your college, ANYONE about their jobs and see what else is out there. Read blogs and industry publications related to careers you might like and see what you find out. Attend job fairs and see what companies you are naturally drawn to. Look into anything and everything that appeals to you, then start narrowing down your options. Luckily, the skills you gained as a paralegal (researching, writing, attention to detail, etc.) can apply to many different industries and job functions.

If you are really stuck, I recommend spending some time volunteering for your favorite nonprofit, or perhaps applying to a service program such as City Year, Habitat for Humanity or Teach for America. That will give you more time to explore your interests while you're building skills, meeting new people and doing good.

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We like you ... really ...: I interviewed at a newspaper in another area of the country this past spring, and though I didn't get that job (they needed to hire someone more quickly than my availability permitted), the hiring manager wrote that she loved my work and would like to consider me for other upcoming positions. She asked me to call, which I did ... but then she asked me to call back in a few days because they're reorganizing and she was meeting with the publisher bigwigs. When I called again, she asked me to call in a few more days ... then a few more ...

Would it be appropriately persistent of me to drop her a line every few weeks during the summer indicating I'm still interested, or are they just not that into me?

Mary Ellen Slayter: If you want the job, keep calling! As long as she keeps taking your calls, that's a good sign.

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Washington, D.C.: I have a situation with a co-worker's presentation skills. Or rather lack there of. PowerPoint slides that look like manuscripts, rambling on and on to questions and during presentations and just not an ideal speaker. There's nothing worse than sitting through a bad presentation, and my other co-worker and I have done what we can to touch up slides, give pointers and suggestions and practice and plan our presentations, but it seems to never sink in. How do we deal with this?

Lindsey Pollak: Bad PowerPoints are brutal! That said, I understand that it's hard to criticize a co-worker. One suggestion would be to sign up for a presentation skills training class together -- with the idea that you are all trying to improve your skills. Perhaps the training facilitator can get through to your co-worker. Sometimes it's easier for people to hear criticism and suggestions from an outside expert.

Taping a presentation with your co-workers and critiquing each other is another suggestion. Sometimes it's easier to see one's problem areas on a videotape. Hopefully your co-worker will realize that you are helping his/her career -- good presentation skills are crucial.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Mary Ellen and Lindsey: I'm in my first job out of law school right now and have just received a job offer for what would be my second job. (I've been in my current one for three and a half years, so no worries about leaving early.) I love the people at my current job, but the work isn't exciting -- it's pretty much the same stuff over and over, and it will probably be that way forever. The new job is much different, and has the potential to be amazing. My problem is telling my current employer that I'm leaving. How do I do so in a way that won't be insulting to him? I love this place, but I want to do something new - I'm only three years out, and I want to try different types of work before I settle into one thing for my career. But that sounds like an insult to my boss, and I want to leave on a positive note. Thanks so much for any help you can provide.

Lindsey Pollak: Hi - Just from reading your question it sounds like you are a sincere and thoughtful person who would not insult your boss. And it sounds like this new job is a great opportunity. The best advice I've ever received about quitting a job to take another position is to focus your resignation on your enthusiasm about what you are moving TOWARD, not any dissatisfaction with what you're leaving. I think what you said in your question is very appropriate -- you are grateful for the time you spent at your current job, and you have decided that you'd like to try a new job that has new and different opportunities for you. You can also tell your boss that you'd like to leave in the best way possible, and ask what projects or loose ends you can wrap up so everything is in place when you leave.

One more tip - practice, practice, practice. Find a trusted friend or mentor and practice the "quitting moment" so you're not nervous when you actually talk to your boss. I always practice big conversations and it really helps a lot!

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Washington, D.C.: I have a great job that pays me very well. The hours are decent, and it has afforded me a very comfortable lifestyle. But, it is not what I want to do for living ... at all.

I do know what job/career I REALLY want. However, it required a specialized degree, and I would basically be starting my career over again, making WAY less than I make now. Am I nuts to go for it?

Lindsey Pollak: I don't think you're nuts at all! Your question reminds me of a story I once read (I'll have to paraphrase...). A woman in her 40s really wants to go back to law school, but she worries she's too old. "By the time I get my law degree, I'll be 50!" she says with frustration. Her wise friend says, "Well, you're going to be 50 anyway..." I think that life is too short to spend every day in a job you don't like. And you're ahead of the game by knowing what career WOULD make you happy.

As you mentioned, however, you will have to make some sacrifices in the short term to switch careers. "Just do it!" is one option, if you are willing to take the pay cut. If you'd rather not dive in head first, could you perhaps start with one class toward the specialized degree and slowly ease out of your current job? Could you leave your current job, but take on some freelance or consulting work while studying toward your new career (so you'll have some extra income)? No matter what you choose, I would also recommend joining an industry association or networking group related to your desired career. Start surrounding yourself with people who are doing your dream job -- this will keep up your spirits and give you a network of people to ask for advice, ideas and -- in the future -- job leads.

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ISO second job: Can you recommend some search engines where I can start my second job search for opportunities with nonprofits? thanks!

Lindsey Pollak: Absolutely. There are some great sites specifically for nonprofit positions. My favorites are Idealist.org and The Chronicle of Philanthropy's www.philanthropy.com/jobs. Nonprofit jobs also appear on the major job boards (Monster, HotJobs, CareerBuilder, Indeed, etc.). For even more options, you can type "nonprofit jobs" into a search engine and many other sites will come up. Good luck!

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Arlington, Va.: I have two daughters in high school and I must say that I feel quite inadequate to counseling them on this issue because I was truly clueless after I graduated from college. I don't want their high school years to be filled with totally "careerist" aspirations, but do you have any ideas on what kids can do even as early as high school to begin preparing for the post-college job market?

Lindsey Pollak: I think it's great for high school students to start thinking about their future career interests. Most kids only really know about the careers of their parents and other close adults. It's never too early to do some learning and exploring about careers -- just to see what's out there and what's possible. You can encourage your daughters to talk to some of your friends about their career choices, or encourage them to try summer internships working in a local business. They can also ask teachers of their favorite subjects what careers are related to those areas of study. Another idea is to read biographies of people who interest them -- reading about other people's success is a good way to start building their own aspirations.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Keep the emphasis on exploring their interests, not on particular training at this point, and you'll be fine.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi, Mary Ellen. I'm planning on moving in August and have told some people at work, but these are people I see and talk to outside of work. The "big boss" doesn't know yet, and will be gone for three weeks at the end of this week; however, my two immediate supervisors do know and one thinks I should tell the boss before someone else lets it slip. I'm still in favor of holding out until the end of July, just in case things actually don't pan out. What do you think?

Mary Ellen Slayter: If it's already circulating through the gossip channels, you need to come clean with your boss. You really want to avoid a situation in which your boss feels like you were lying to them for months and months.

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N.Y., N.Y.: Hi, Mary Ellen. I've had this question in mind for about a month now. I plan to leave my company in October or November, but I realize that if I stay until right before the holiday I can get my bonus. Is it bad to wait until you get your bonus and then quit? Why or why not?

Thank you for taking this!

Mary Ellen Slayter: If the bonus is related to work you've done in the previous year, by all means take it. And don't feel guilty.

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D.C.: I was wondering if internship experience counts the same as regular experience. I've worked about four years as an intern at the school I went to in their IT department. I just graduated and was wondering if I would be wasting my time applying for jobs that ask for three or four years of experience. Thanks.

Lindsey Pollak: Hi - my answer is that it depends. If you have a very specific technical skill that you've been using in your internship position, that may qualify you for a job asking for three or four years of experience. However, companies also ask for experience to know that you've worked in a professional environment, so they may not considered you qualified in that regard. All of this said, if you can prove in your resume and cover letter that you have achieved results over the past four years and you are qualified for the work they need, then I don't see any reason not to apply for those positions. (And the companies may have other positions available for which you are more appropriate, so it's good to be on their radar screens.) However, I'd recommend that you also apply for positions requiring less experience, since you are a recent grad. Good luck!

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College Park, Md.: What advice do you have for a political science major, graduating next year, whose ultimate goal is to work for the Foreign Service?

Lindsey Pollak: My advice would be for you to connect with as many people as possible who work or have worked in the Foreign Service. They will be able to give you the very best advice about how to get on the path toward the career you want. Visit your college's career services office and ask if they can connect you to any alumni who are in the Foreign Service, then reach out with an email asking for advice (most people are happy to help a student from their alma mater). You can also try online networks, such as LinkedIn.com, and search for people with Foreign Service experience. Then reach out with a polite email asking for some advice or suggestions. Another idea is to search online for bios of people currently serving in the Foreign Service and see what jobs or degrees they had previously. Those might also be good choices for you as you build toward your ultimate goal. Good luck!

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Washington, D.C.: I am about to resign from my job. I would like to suggest to my boss that she promote a colleague of mine to my position. I have been training this person for this, and her talents are really wasted in the lower level position she currently has. We're pretty formal in the place I now work; otherwise, I would just suggest it outright. But is there some formal way that I should do this?

Lindsey Pollak: If your workplace is very formal, then it sounds appropriate for you to go to a member of your HR department and ask if there is a formal procedure for recommending a colleague for a promotion. In addition, you can offer your colleague advice on how to ask for the promotion herself (perhaps providing tips from your own experience at the company), or you could write a recommendation of your colleague and submit it to your boss.

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Washington, D.C.: I am a young attorney for the federal government. I loathe my current position because of a very moody and difficult supervisor (the situation is so horrible that half of my office is currently looking for new employment). I am desperate to leave this position, I am extremely stressed because of the work environment created by this supervisor. I have applied for 11 other federal positions. While I wait to (hopefully) hear about one of those positions, can you recommend any other possible job search options? I really want to leave this position as soon as possible and I've only worked for the federal government (two years since law school).

Lindsey Pollak: I'm sorry to hear about your difficult situation. My advice is to tap into your connections and cast a wider net in your job search. Talk to friends, family, former colleagues, college alumni, law school alumni (off the record!) and ask about positions or organizations they might recommend you look into for a new position. Consider smaller law firms or businesses that work with the federal government. Consider nonprofit organizations (see earlier question recommending job sites Idealist.org and Philanthropy.com). Consider universities, small businesses, professional associations, start-ups, etc. You can also try posting your profile on LinkedIn.com where you can connect with other attorneys who might offer some advice or job leads. That's a good way to tap the "hidden job market" and network for positions.

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Mary Ellen Slayter: Lindsey, tell us a bit about why you wrote the book.

Lindsey Pollak: Thanks for the question, Mary Ellen. My goal was to write the book I wish I'd had when I graduated from college 11 years ago. I wanted to answer all of the questions I remember having and help make life easier for today's grads. I've always felt that too many career books give vague advice and I wanted to create a book that had very specific, action-oriented tips that readers could apply to their own specific situations.

I was also inspired by my senior year of college when I was a freshman counselor (resident advisor), living with and advising a group of students. To this day it was my favorite job I've ever had! Writing "Getting from College to Career" gave me the opportunity to continue that work.

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Englewood, N.J.: I think my problem is close to the first one you took, from the paralegal. I, too, am trying to go to law school, but before I leave my current firm, I need a recommendation from my manager. Are there any risks involved in asking for a recommendation and then leaving the firm a few weeks after? Please let me know your thoughts. Thank you!

Mary Ellen Slayter: Why not take care of both things at once? Paralegals leaving for law school is extremely common. I imagine you'll have no trouble securing your boss's support -- and that recommendation.

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Washington, D.C.: I have been living in Maryland for almost two years working and going to graduate school part-time. I moved here from another state and although I've been here for sometime I really want to return because I miss all my family, friends and being around familiar things and places. I am not the fondest of my job. It is an OK job at a reputable company, but I do like my graduate program which is not a popular program because it is only three other schools in the country. My question is, is career wise should I just try my best to stick it out until I finish graduate school since the degree will help me out? I have two years left to finish.

Lindsey Pollak: Hmm...Does this have to be an either/or situation? Could you move back home and continue your graduate study long-distance or only in the summers? Or take more classes so you can finish your degree sooner? If the grad program is that rare and important to your future career, then it may be worth sticking it out. If so, perhaps you can plan regular vacations back home and visits from your friends and family, or find a group of friends in Maryland to make you feel more comfortable? Best of luck.

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Washington, D.C.: My new job (of a couple months) has turned out to be a giant step backwards in terms of responsibility and substance. I'm doing 100 percent low-level administrative work (which is not at all what was discussed during an extensive interview process). When I asked when I might be given more substantive assignments, I was told that the position had changed to suit the needs of the company (and that I should still feel lucky to have the job). I can't say that I'm getting -nothing- out of the job, but I'm not learning much or accomplishing anything significant either, and there aren't any promotion/advancement opportunities on the horizon. I'm concerned that (a) if I leave too soon I'll be viewed as unstable or a job-hopper (although I was with my last employer for five years); and (b) if I stay much longer I'll still hurt my chances of better employment in the future, because I won't have grown professionally during this time. How does one recover gracefully from what has turned out to be the wrong job decision, and how do I balance my (a) and (b)concerns above to avoid hurting my future career prospects?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Wow. I would look for a new job ASAP. These are not the sort of people you want to do business with long term.

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Washington, D.C.: I need your help. I am trying to leave my first job to get my second job. I have been looking for 14 months, and have not had a serious nibble. It is all getting very frustrating. The problem is (I've been told by two places where I've applied) I am "overqualified" for the jobs I am applying for because of my education. I have a master's degree, but only about two and a half years of work experience, none of it directly in the subject area I want to move to for my next job. So places don't want to hire me because they think I'll get bored in a position where I may have to do some support work, or in an entry-level position. I do some support work at my job now, and really, am fine with it; I mean, it has to get done, and I would be even more ok with it if I was doing it in an environment that will help me in my career, and a place where I am working on the issues that I am interested in. However, other places see me as under qualified, because of my lack of subject specific experience. How can I frame my cover letter to let places know that I am aware the job may be entry level, but I am interested in the opportunity to learn from it and get my foot in the door, and hopefully move up the ranks in their organization? 14 months looking for a job, while in a job I am pretty miserable in, is definitely starting to take a toll mentally! Thanks for your help!

Lindsey Pollak: Have you tried networking through professional associations, college alumni groups, personal friends, small business organizations and professional networking Web sites? Often when you are able to "sell" yourself in person before someone sees your resume, you can do a better job of showing what a great employee you'll be. Then issues of exact level of experience are less important. The career services office at the university where you earned your master's degree might also be able to provide some career counseling or job leads that are specific to your degree.

To directly answer your question, when it comes to cover letters, you could include a phrase such as "desire to contribute in any way that will help the organization." You could also talk about your passion for the industry and how well you will fit into a particular company's culture. Enthusiasm and work ethic are very appealing to employers. Hang in there and good luck!

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Foreign Service: For the previous poster: Georgetown University has a great master's program in foreign service. I have a few friends who graduated from the program and two are diplomats, one is a terrorism consultant (making lots of dough) and another is a professor. I would also recommend studying another language (you can't work in the foreign service without speaking at least one or two other languages; Arabic is a huge plus). Also, prepare yourself well for the foreign service exam. Most people fail it miserably -- especially the orals.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Yes. I have always been impressed with the people associated with this program, from the staff and faculty to the grads.

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N.Y., N.Y.: What do recruiters/HR professionals think of the job market right now? Is it easy for a recent college grad to find work?

Lindsey Pollak: Recent reports are positive, with companies reporting 15-20% increases in hiring of new grads this year. However, many large corporations have already finished recruiting for the season, so your best bet if you're still job hunting is to look to smaller organizations, start-ups, nonprofits, government jobs, etc. Check out CollegeRecruiter.com for a good blog written by recruiters/career counselors if you'd like more on this topic. (full disclosure: I'm also a blogger for CollegeRecruiter.com)

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Washington, D.C.: I'm under 25 and already sick of working at the office. However, I don't want the touch and go income of a freelancer. Is there any job that might allow me to travel more? I've got experience in writing, marketing and communications. I'm also fond of public relations.

Lindsey Pollak: Go for it! I lived in Australia for almost three years and loved every minute. Finding a job with travel may take some searching, but there are lots of jobs out there. Just a few that come to mind: tourism jobs (leading tours, marketing tours, writing tour books, etc.), teaching English in another country, volunteer and service projects abroad, writing for international publications (there is a story in my book about a recent grad who travels to a new country every month for her publishing job). Check out Web sites specifically geared to travel and adventure jobs and check with your alma mater's career services office for additional opportunities. Good luck and bon voyage!

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Washington, D.C.: I work part-time for a great institution. However, I am looking for a full-time job. Just recently, my supervisor mentioned that she wants me to start working more hours and eventually wants to hire me full-time (October). The problem is, I have my sights on another opportunity that encompasses everything I am looking for in a job. Is it ethical to "play along" and pretend like I'm not shopping elsewhere for the time being?

Mary Ellen Slayter: You have no way to know if that other job will pan out, so by all means, continue to work for a full-time job where you are now.

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N.Y., N.Y.: Hi, Mary Ellen and Lindsey. I have been working for about a year and I have plans to return to law school next September (2008). My question is this: why is it that so many experts in the career advice industry have such a low opinion of law school and becoming a lawyer? I've spoken to and emailed almost all of the ones who run prominent blogs and/or have good columns, and the opinion seems static across the board. Why is this?

Lindsey Pollak: Great question. I think law school is an excellent career choice if you really want to be a lawyer. I can't speak for other career advisors, but I think the problem is that many people go to law school as a default when they don't know what they really want to do (I almost did this myself). They say something like, "Well, I'll go to law school and then apply that knowledge to something else." Then they graduate from law school (usually with a lot of debt), take jobs as lawyers because that's the easiest path after law school, and they feel stuck in a career they never really chose.

If you are excited to be a lawyer, then law school is a great choice for you. I think we need more lawyers who really want to do the job!

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Mary Ellen Slayter: Lindsey, do you think there is a big difference between the way Gen Xers and Gen Yers approach their work lives?

Lindsey Pollak: Definitely. I'm a Gen Xer and I feel like a completely different generation from my Gen Y counterparts. In my experience, Gen Y workers are more willing to jump around from company to company, they are less willing to "pay their dues" in entry-level jobs, and they are aware of work/life balance issues at an earlier stage of life (i.e., they don't want to work 24/7!). They are also extremely tech savvy and socially aware, which I admire.

I'm really optimistic about all of the generations combined in the workplace. We all have our specific talents and characteristics and can learn and benefit from each other.

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Mary Ellen Slayter: Thanks to Lindsey for joining us! See y'all in a couple of weeks.

Lindsey Pollak: Thank you!

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