Career Track Live

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Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post columnist
Monday, September 24, 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.


Mary Ellen Slayter: Good afternoon! Welcome to Career Tracks Live, which if you read the Sunday column, represents a bit of a change in my column. Instead of focusing just on young workers, we're now an all-ages show.


Fairfax, Va. : I've been a successful retail store manager for 10 years and am having trouble trying to transition into the corporate sector. One of the things I lack is a college degree.

In the corporate world, would I be considered for a position if they note a college degree is required? My resume is complete and I feel I've got the experience in sales, customer service and people management to be successful but I'm having trouble trying to find out where to start.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Get the degree. There was once a time that you could substitute experience for education, but that time has passed. You may feel that your work experience is "enough," but you're competing for jobs with people who have both experience AND a degree.

When faced with a big stack of applications for a job, hiring managers look for quick ways to thin the pile. The absence of a degree is an obvious one. It might not be fair, but it happens.


Baltimore Md.: I've got a little different perspective on your answer about the federal job with the short reporting date. Staffing authorizations for most federal agencies are on a fiscal year basis with the fiscal year ending Sept. 30. Some agencies may well be hiring now to bring people on before the end of the FY and may not, odd though it may seem, be able to hire in October. The agency HR contact should have been able to indicate what the flexibility was for the reporting date, but it's possible there wasn't any due to the budget rules.

Mary Ellen Slayter: A couple of you have pointed this out to me. Yes, you are correct: sometimes it's a matter of budget rules. That's an awkward spot to be in, whether you're the worker or the hiring manager.


Annandale, Va.: I know there are off-limit questions for interviewers but what questions should an interviewee avoid?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Don't ask about money, benefits or vacation too early. It will make you seem lazy.

The main thing is to keep your questions pertinent to the job, just as would be expected of the interviewer.


McLean, Va.: When you are actively looking for a job and you get lucky enough to have one offered to you, is it wrong to try and negotiate the salary that they have offered you? Thanks.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Wrong? Never! Their offer is just a starting point. Now, feel free to counter, making sure your demand is in line with your skills, experience and market demands.

Some people like to overask, expecting to be negotiated down, but I'm not a fan of that approach. I think you should just state what it would take for you to take the job. And stick to it.


Washington, D.C.: I run into people on a daily basis who have their life timed down to the day they retire. Is this a healthy way to live?

Mary Ellen Slayter: For some people, I think. But obviously not you, if you're asking such a question!

Some people are just naturally planners, I think. I'm a bit like that myself, though I only know when I plan to retire plus or minus five years.


Fairfax, VA: I wanted to add to your answer to the gentleman from Annapolis who asked about his wife re-entering the workforce after spending nine years as a Stay-at-Home-mom. He said she developed many skills in time-management, nutrition, discipline, education, etc. and thought that should be interesting to a potential recruiter. Getting a job is about identifying talents/expertise that makes that candidate different or invaluable to the company. I would recommend that she follow through with your advice on the networking and training side of things but also outline specific talents she has that make her different from other candidates.

For example, did the candidate manage a budget in a volunteer position? Did she lead a large project, develop a business plan, determine a marketing plan, and coordinate a complex fund-raising effort while serving as a member of the PTA board? Etc. I wish her the best of luck!

Mary Ellen Slayter: A response for a chatter a couple of weeks ago ...


Culpepper, VA: Hi Mary Ellen, thanks for taking my question.

I have an interview for a new job within my current company and I have been asked to do a 20-minute presentation including a Q&A. This is the first time I have encountered this in an interview. Do you have any tips on going through an internal interview process? And how should I deal with the presentation they want me to give?

Mary Ellen Slayter: What's it about?


Washington, D.C.: When you're asked what your pay expectations are during a job interview, would giving an amount slightly above what you think is reasonable hurt your interview? Will they still consider you if it's outside their budget?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Deflect that question as long as you can. When they start asking about money, turn it around and ask if this means they are offering you a job.

That said, when you decide to talk money, tell them the real number, which should, in fact, be the amount of money you need to take the job. And don't worry about whether too high of a number puts you out of the running, assuming your pay expectations are in line with the market.

If they can't meet your needs, it's not the right job. Much like in dating, sometimes the best outcome is to *not* be chosen.


Washington, D.C.: I seem to have gotten stuck between experience levels in my job search: with a Master's Degree and plenty of part-time experience during school, I am constantly told I'm overqualified for entry-level jobs, but with less than five years of experience, I'm not quite qualified for mid-level jobs. How do I get out of this middle ground?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Can you not get a full-time job at any of these places you worked part time at during school? They would seem the obvious choices ...


Washington, D.C.: What is the best way to follow up (if at all) after a terrible job interview? At a recent interview, within five minutes of meeting me, the interviewer told me that I had no potential, no redeeming professional qualities, and that I might as well give up on having a career of any value because I would never make anything of myself. (I have a college degree, ten years of work experience, and a number of other professional credentials.) He then showed me to the door, at which time I thanked him for his feedback while attempting to maintain my composure. My policy has been that I should always send a thank-you/follow up note after an interview, whether or not I still wanted the job, in the name of building my professional network and not burning my bridges, but I could not think of a single nice thing to say. Should I have followed up in some manner? After meeting him, I definitely did not want the job, as I would never want to work for someone who could be so rude.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Wow. That's ... amazing. Even if those things were all true (I trust you that they are not), you still don't *say* that. It's grossly unprofessional. Did you have any other contacts at the employer. I would tell someone. In writing. Thank-you note, indeed.


Washington, D.C.: I'm a young lawyer, two years out of law school. I took the first job I was offered and now I am ready to move onto a different practice area. I did not have experience in the practice area for the job that I am currently in, the office trained me. I would like to practice procurement/contract law for a Government agency. This is a field that I studied in law school. But even though I am getting interviews, employers question my lack of experience in procurement law. How do I change practice areas? Is it worthwhile to take a GSA graduate school course in Government acquisitions, or something similar?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Have you asked those near-employers what they would like to see? They really are your best resource. Send an e-mail to one that seemed particularly promising, reiterating your interest in the field and asked for their advice on how you should bridge that gap. Then, go do what they say. Sometimes it really is that simple.


Fairfax, Va.: I'm in my first job out of college. I'm a defense contractor supporting someone as an assistant, so my 'boss' on a day-to-day basis is a client, rather than my real boss at the company. I'm wondering, what's the best way to handle this in terms of performance reviews, career management, etc.? I'm sure my company has an idea of how I'm doing, but I don't interact with them day-to-day, so how can they know how well I'm doing at my job? Any advice on this? Thanks!

Mary Ellen Slayter: Stay in touch. At least once a week, you should be checking in with your real boss. Tell him or her what you're working on. Ask how things are at the home office, assuming there is one.


Washington, D.C.: Mary Ellen,

First of all, I am so glad you have expanded your column and expertise to all career and age levels! We could all use assistance here and there.

I'm a mid-level federal employee that would like to climb higher but I believe I really need to crank up my politic savvy and am not sure how to do that. Any advice?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Thanks! I'm glad I get to write to a broader audience as well. So much of the really interesting stuff at work doesn't happen until you get a little older.

And office politics are one of those issues! People say those words like they are spitting out soap, but really, "office politics" is just about observing people and figuring out what they want and how that fits with what you want. It's something we all do somewhat naturally, as human beings.


Baltimore, Md.: I am a college student with a good part-time job at the information center at a local airport. We sometimes work alone, with volunteers, and sometimes there are two staffers assigned to cover the various desks. In addition to providing information to the public, we have to stock, open and close the various centers.

One of my co-workers has a lot going on in her life. She is in college, holding down another night-time job, and looking after an elderly grandparent. She disappears for hours on end, is dead tired when she does work, and does not do a good job of stocking, Some volunteers are refusing to volunteer on her shifts because they feel they are helping her slack off. Our supervisor is rarely on site so has little first hand knowledge of this situation.

When she is not at her station, people can still help themselves to the handouts but obviously can't receive any personalized assistance they might require. I am sympathetic to my co-worker but her failure to properly stock the information desks makes my job a lot harder; and, as I said, she is driving away volunteers. But I must admit I resent her being paid for doing such a poor job that I and other staffers have to pick up the slack. This is an ideal part-time job for me, good pay and hours that fit my schedule. People tell me this is what the real world is like, so I might as well get used to it. Plus I hate being a snitch. Any thoughts? Thanks a lot.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Have you talked to HER about it? Does she see this as a problem? What does she propose doing about it?

If you don't like the tone of her answers, talking to your boss about the matter doesn't make you a "snitch." But I would definitely approach this with an attitude of helping her, not trying to punish her. It sounds like someone needs to intervene.


Great Falls, Va.: Hi Mary Ellen!

Not sure what information you may have on internships, but I have a college-aged relative hoping to come to D.C. next summer for an internship in international affairs/business. She has an interview at a major intelligence agency, but would like to find some other options as well. Is there anywhere (Web sites, job fairs, etc.) that someone hoping to find a summer internship in D.C. can go to for a one-stop shop of opportunities that are available? Thanks!

Mary Ellen Slayter: What field is she interested in? Knowing that would help narrow the field immensely. Professional associations are one source of contacts and ideas. She should also talk to her college's career office.


Rockville, Md.: I had a job I loved more than five years. It had and I was the star of the show. But they ran into some money problems on the contract I was working on, and the president warned us of possible downsizing. So I found another job and left. We were all sad about it. I'm still on great terms with my former coworkers and the management.

But two months later, it looks like they have more opportunities, and I have been at my new job for three weeks, and even though the money and commute are great, the job itself is a crushing bore. Also, they expect me to do certain things that I am not sure I can do. They just got a huge contract, but I am not sure what role I will play in it. I am afraid of what will become of me here, which is hard since before everything was great.

How big of a flake would I be if I begged the old company to take me back? How bad would it look here? I am worried that if I leave after only a few weeks at this job, that I'll be blacklisted from this industry (it's pretty small). I'm starting to feel desperate. I don't know if it will ever feel right here. Please let me know what you think.

Mary Ellen Slayter: What are you going to do the next time they have money problems? That would be my biggest concern.


Mary Ellen Slayter: Thanks for all your comments and questions! As always, you can e-mail me at


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