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Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 22, 2007; 2:00 PM

The Washington area is a magnet for smart and ambitious workers. Post columnist Mary Ellen Slayter writes a regular column for these professionals who are either establishing their careers or are looking to advance. She also offers advice online.

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 working professionals.

Read Mary Ellen's latest Career Track column.

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

The transcript follows below.

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Mary Ellen Slayter: Good afternoon! Lots of e-mails over the weekend about the most recent column, a Q and A with author Carole Sargent. Her book makes the case for working adults to pursue their bachelor's degrees at traditional schools, instead of settling for less-rigorous alternatives that are often pushed on them. She walked the walk herself, graduating from UVa when she was 30, and going on to earn a Ph.D.

Many people seemed to think her take was "elitist," which I thought was fascinating, given that she's trying to encourage people often on the margins to pursue educations at elite schools.

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Alexandria, Va.: My question is a variation of your theme in today's column. I am a federal attorney who can retire in three years at age 56. I am considering returning to college to obtain a degree in physical therapy, which will require about three years. How do universities look upon applications from adults at this age who are moving to a different career field? Do you have any suggestions about making a career change at this point? Physically and mentally, I feel in great shape and want to continue working for another 10-15 years.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Oh, you'll be fine! I think you'll find yourself warmly welcomed at the admissions office and on campus.

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Bethesda, Md.: Your advice to a person who had bad credit past and worried about obtaining employment was to take a job in a different field and tried to clean up the credit. I am in the same situation and I would like to know who these employer are that would only do criminal background check and not the credit. At this point I am convinced that people with criminal background had a better chance at life than people with the bad credit like me.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Credit checks are increasingly standard at any job where you're going to be handling money. That includes front-line retail jobs as well as managerial positions.

Smaller employers are less likely to make such a check routine.

And you're just flat wrong about people with criminal backgrounds having it easier. They get pushed out of the same jobs you're losing, and more.

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N.Y., N.Y.: Do you know of any temp agencies that have a focus on the legal industry? Thank you.

Mary Ellen Slayter: There are tons of them. Check the yellow pages. Too many for me to list, actually.

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Rockville, Md.: Hi, Mary Ellen. Love your chats. I'm currently on three months probation period, but I had recently got an e-mail from my former company that they're interested in bringing me back for a higher position that I interviewed for before taking this current job. I know going back to my former company will cause akwardness and some hard feelings at my current company since they're short on people. My question is should i still give my current employer two weeks notice eventhough I'm only here two months? I know bridges will be burned here no matter what, but will give two weeks notice make the situation better or worse? Thank you.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Yes, give two weeks notice if you leave. But be prepared for them to ask you to leave immediately.

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Virginia: I feel like I have the opposite problem from most people:

I work in nonprofit sector, but feel later in life I may work in corporate world (instead of other way around.) Should I be at all concerned about being pigeonholed? (I work in the PR/communications side, which seems very applicable.) And how do I handle salary -- getting paid what I'm worth, after they see my salary history? Thanks.

Mary Ellen Slayter: If you stay in PR, you shouldn't have any trouble making the transition.

And why would they need to see your salary history? That's between you and the IRS.

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Washington, D.C.: So I'm pregnant with our second child, and I'm pondering about return-to-work options. While I want to stay in my career track for future investment purposes, I cringe at the thought of having to go back full-time after my second child is born. I've read that part-time is an option in the federal government (my employer), but I can't find any part-time search options in USAJOBS. Do you have any tips?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Have you talked to your current supervisor? Perhaps your current job can be turned into a part-time one?

There are ways to make this happen. But very few of them happen through official channels, it seems, whether you work for the government or in the private sector.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm approaching 30 and am really looking forward to starting a family in the coming year. However, I find myself at odds with my job situation. I recently took a federal job that's rewarding and challenging, but it comes with a long commute (an hour each way) and not a ton of flexibilty. we can't telecommute and we don't have flex time here -- two things I unfortunately did not bother to ask about when interviewing. I left behind a less challenging job (ok it was boring me to tears) with flexibility and a very easy commute and I can't tell you how many times I've played the coulda-woulda-shoulda game. I would really like to be pregnant sometime next year and I can't see myself working at this job once I have children. I know I'm jumping the gun a bit, since I'm not even pregnant yet, but this is weighing heavily on my mind, and I'm feeling very unsettled career-wise. I can realistically see myself staying here through some point in 2009 (if all goes as planned -- although I know it doesn't always), but then what? and that question is eating away at me now, even though I have nothing to even question just yet. Do you have any advice in order to assuage these concerns?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Why can't you move?

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Sticky Situation: I work for a government office and found out that one of my coworkers accepted a $900 gift from someone she had a meeting with. We are not able to accept gifts worth more than $50. This is not the first time she has played around with our rules and I'm sick of it. However, I can't really see myself tattling on her. I don't know how to do it without making myself look bad. I am sure she kept the item - I saw it myself on Friday. To complicate matters, my dept. is going through a reshuffling and some people might lose their jobs (I'm safe). It makes me so angry to think she might get to stay when someone who is honest will be pushed out. Is it worth telling someone higher-up? Is it feasible to do it anonymously?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Um, I would report that. That's not tattling. If you don't, she'll keep doing it, and when she finally gets caught, your whole department is going to look bad. Does your agency have any ethics hotline? These sorts of things are often anonymous.

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Washington, D.C.: I've been working for a month now at a new job that I love. Unfortunately, my husband got laid off (he makes considerably more money than I do). He's been interviewing and it looks like he might get an offer in another city. With two small children and the difference in our salaries, I will probably have to quit and move. I'm nervous about giving notice though because I really like my job and don't want to burn bridges.

Mary Ellen Slayter: This falls under the "Life Happens" category, and no one will fault you for it. When you tell your boss you're leaving, ask if they have any contacts in the city where you're moving. Emphasize how much you've enjoyed working with them and that you hate to have to leave.

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Arlington, Va.: Hi, Mary Ellen. I'm graduating grad school this December. Would you recommend that I wait until after the new year to begin seriously looking for jobs or actively search now? When I was working full-time I always noticed that a bunch of jobs began to be advertised in Jan and Feb. as opposed to November and December. I just don't want to settle for one job before new years when after Jan. 1 another job will likely open up more to my liking.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Start looking now. There's no rule that says you have to "take" whatever jobs you're offered in the next two months, but you will have a better sense of what's out there.

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D.C.: A close friend decided to have a baby as a single mother at 30. She had enough savings to stay home six months. Now she's back at work as a security-cleared IT analyst contractor, and is bitterly unhappy. I'm trying to talk her out of being a stay-at-home mother with no income (!), or a home child-care provider. How would you recommend she search for part-time work in her field (three days a week? two days a week?) or jobs which would allow her to work from home two or three days a week?

No question she's marketable -- she's already received an offer from someone else at 25k more than her 100k salary -- but since it is full-time, on-site, she's not interested.

Mary Ellen Slayter: She just has to make that a condition of her employment. Really, with her skill set, it shouldn't be hard to find. She has way more leverage than most working moms with young children and should be able to negotiate something pretty sweet.

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RE: "Why can't you move?": Are you kidding? Have you SEEN -- or worse, experienced -- the current real estate market?

Besides, it can be easier to find a new job than move.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Sure, I just bought a house. And my main job here is in the real estate section.

But, depending on your priorities, sometimes a new home makes more sense than a new job. It's a possibility worth examining.

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"Why would they need to see your salary history?": It seems to me that many employers ask for you to send your salary history along with the standard cover letter, resume. Some even say you won't be considered without it!

Mary Ellen Slayter: I'd call them on that bluff and not send it. Your desired salary is far more relevant.

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Maryland: I thought all Gov't agencies had a mandate about flex-time and telecommuting?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Yeah, but in practice? I've heard mixed things.

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D.C.: Recently graduated from college in May and I am having a difficult time landing a full-time job. As of now, I'm a temporary worker (through those staffing agencies) and while it pays well, my goal is to get a permanent job. I've had several interviews with the DC government and their process is ... well, slow. My goal is to get something before the holidays kick in, but ... I'm stuck. Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

Mary Ellen Slayter: Just keep at it. If you want a government job, expect those wheels to turn slowly. And make sure your temp agency knows that you're really looking for a permanent job.

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RE: Salary history: You asked why they would ask to see salary history... but

employers are asking to see it early in the process for

nearly all jobs nowadays (you should do a column on

that.)

Mary Ellen Slayter: And we should all collectively decline to provide it.

I mean, come on, if I am applying for a job right now, does it really matter how much I made waiting tables at a diner 10 years ago?

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Alexandria, Va.: Mary Ellen: I will be graduating with my master's this fall and would like to begin pursuing more advanced opportunities. The problem is that I have only been with my job for a few months. Although the work is in my career field, it is not what I want to be doing. I originally took the job because of all the managerial potential, but my manager knocks all my ideas in the dirt and it's obvious we don't click. Do you think leaving after only six months could harm my job search or do you think my explanation of seeking work more applicable to my degree level make sense?

Mary Ellen Slayter: You've only been there 6 months! Are your expectations realistic?

But you can start looking around now, and see what turns up. It may take you 6 months to find something.

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Bethesda, Md.: Lately, I see a lot of job openings, especially in the nonprofit sector, asking for salary histories. I have never liked this requirement, since I don't feel I have been paid what I am worth, etc. How do you deal with this? Not answer? I agree it's between me and the IRS.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I just wouldn't answer. If they pressed me on it, I would give them a range for what I expected to be paid.

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Down South: Hi, Mary Ellen. Quick question. My hubby and I moved from the Va./D.C. area about two years ago hoping for a better quality of life. To say the least, it hasn't worked out for him and he hates his current job and wants to move back. How do we both explain this change on our resumes and cover letters when looking gor jobs back in Va./D.C.?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Just say you're looking to return to the area. Plenty of people do. Two years isn't two months. You'll be fine.

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Far From Home: I'd like to return to the state I grew up and went to college in. I'll need a job before I can move. Any tips for making that happen? Thanks.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Well, start with a visit! Do you still have contacts back there? Do you know who the major employers are? Where are you trying to work? Start calling/e-mailing people.

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Ethics issue: Not to mention that if you KNEW about it and didn't report it you yourself potentially could be guilty of an ethics violation and lose your job or even subject yourself to prosecution. Depends on the agency/situation, but possible.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Yes, thanks.

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D.C.: Would you say it is better to take a position with a big name organization or a small name organization, if your duties are significantly different (big name = no responsibility, small, no-name = much more responsibility)? For financial reasons, I am leaning towards the small name, which will pay considerably (for me, $5000 is considerable!) more. If it makes any difference, this would be my second job post college.

Thanks!

Mary Ellen Slayter: Oh, I would go for small, more responsibility and more money, hands down!

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RE: Salary history: I work in the recruiting industry and, while I agree that the request for salary history is technically none of a potential employer's business, refusing to provide it can often knock a person right out of contention before their qualifications are even considered. Many employers state flatly that they will not look at resumes that do not contain this information. I just think it's not realistic to say don't apply to those companies. But I do agree that you should be able to provide a range that you are considering and be able to explain why that might differ from what you've been earning in recent years.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I just don't see how this information helps them at all. It strikes me as an odd hoop to make people jump through.

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Salary history question: As recently as six months ago, I was also job hunting, and salary history was listed as a required element of almost ALL the job listings I saw. Do you think this is a reaction to too many companies getting far in the interview process only to discover that candidates had an inflated sense of self (monetary) worth?

Mary Ellen Slayter: I'm not sure. Nor am I sure why a salary history would even solve the issue you mention. Perhaps the reason I am leaving my old job is because I am grossly underpaid?

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Porbably too late but...: The job I use to love has turned into a mind-numbing neverending tug-o-war with crazy people. My boss's job is the same way and he's of the "what doesn't kill us makes us stronger" mindset. Me not so much. I don't want to leave this company because I like it and it has been good to me, but I don't see my job changing soon. Sigh.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Any chance the crazy people could leave? You'd be amazed at how often problems like this solve themselves ...

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D.C.: What gives with USAJobs.com? The job descriptions on that site are incomprehensible to a person (like me) that hasn't worked for a government agency before. Seriously, they don't make an sense.

Is it OK to ask for clarification on what a job actually is before applying to it?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Agreed.

Can you e-mail me after the chat. I'd like to talk to you about this further.

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Mary Ellen Slayter: Thanks for all your comments and questions! See y'all in two weeks.

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


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