Career Track Live

Mary Ellen Slayter
Washington Post Staff Writer and guest
Monday, November 5, 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.

Today, she is joined by Carole Fungaroli Sargent, author of "Traditional Degrees for Nontraditional Students:How to Earn a Top Diploma From America's Great Colleges at Any Age."Sargent has been a professor at Georgetown University since 1997 and now guides authors to nonfiction book publication through Georgetown's Office of Scholarly and Literary Publications.

Read Mary Ellen's latest Career Track column.

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

The transcript follows below.


Mary Ellen Slayter: Welcome! My guest today is Carole Sargent, author of "Traditional Degrees for Nontraditional Students."

She's also a great resource for any questions you have about academic careers as well as book publishing. So let's get started!

Carole Sargent: Hi to all chatters, and this will be fun. There was some controversy over the article Mary Ellen wrote, with the mail running about 50% "I love you" and 50% "What did you mean by that, are you elitist?" so it will be fun to jump into the fray and respond to your questions. I'm also up for answering book publishing questions, but definitely, if there are people here interested in What I Really Believe About Higher Ed (distilled), by all means hit send.


Washington, D.C.: I don't know if this is a career question or not but here it goes. A couple of years ago I wrote a master's thesis that has real potential to become a great book proposal (it's on a hot topic).

A month ago I even met a book agent who deals in these kinds of books.

The only problem is I can't seem to figure out how to put together a really good book proposal. My thesis advisor had some notes for me two years ago but I've lost momentum on the project (and feel dumber than when I was in grad school). I feel like I need a mentor or at least an advisor to help me focus my thoughts.

How do unpublished authors get their proposals together and is there anywhere I can turn for help?

Carole Sargent: Hey, glad you asked that, because my office now works with authors who want to publish books! My focus is on Georgetown's faculty (I used to teach in the English Department and now I focus exclusively on books), but I'd be happy to discuss this with you:

FYI, tough to turn a thesis or dissertation directly into a book because the needs of the audiences are different, but you can surely use the research as a fruitful basis to start a nonfiction book.

_______________________ Giving It the Older College Try, (Post, Oct. 21)

Mary Ellen Slayter: The original interview with Carole ...


Virginia: Mary Ellen -- I like your column yesterday on federal jobs. But if you want to work at DOD, CIA, NSA, DIA, FBI, you need to more pretty conservative Republican. For Education, HUD, Labor, liberal Democrats will fit fine. This also apply to all universities where there is only one free speech - the liberal view. So not everything is for everyone.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Oh gosh, I don't think that's true at all. I think there is a difference between places that are culturally conservative and politically conservative. And I know more than a few navy-suit-wearing liberals working for the FBI.

_______________________ Parsing the Fine Print on Federal Ads, (Post, Nov. 4)

Mary Ellen Slayter: And this was yesterday's column, about how to make sense of federal "job announcements."


Washington, D.C.: Dear Mary Ellen,

I am about to have my third round of interviews for a new job and, if all goes well, I hope to be starting in a few weeks. At what point would it be appropriate for me to bring up my needing time off over the upcoming holidays for a pre-planned (pre-paid, too!) family vacation? Unfortunately, the vacation was planned well before I knew that I would be looking for a new job. I do not want to make a bad impression on my new potential employer, but it would also be very difficult for me to cancel or postpone my family obligations. What's the best way to approach this? Thanks!

Mary Ellen Slayter: That you had planned a holiday break isn't going to surprise your prospective employer. Just let them know when they make an offer. You'll either have to take the leave unpaid or borrow it against your leave for next year.


D.C.: I have been at my job for six months, and it has turned out not to be what I thought and I am quite unhappy here. It was billed as a management job but I have been doing secretarial work, and to make matters worse, my boss is a difficult person. It has made me so unhappy that my doctor diagnosed me with depression as a recent physical.

I would like to look for a new job but am worried nobody will be interested in someone who left a job after 6 months. I was at my two previous employers for 3 years and 2 years each.

I would really like your advice.

Carole Sargent: I hear you on this one, definitely. In my law firm work before I went back to college and grad school, I had to deal with lawyers who looked at my mostly clerical resume and tried to wrestle me back to the typing pool. They were always asking me to get coffee, make copies, TYPE (barf). I feigned incompetence at these tasks (you should have tasted the swill coffee I poured), and it worked, but it was really insulting.

I suggest you read my first book, "The Slam and Scream," which was basically a white-collar office memoir about how people do try to pigeonhole women as either Highly Trained Professionals or Administrative Assistants/Receptionists, with little in between. They do it to men, too, but in a different way.

By the way, your depression is a perfectly normal response to that particular problem.

Definitely do not worry about leaving after six months. Nobody actually cares all that much, and your happiness and mental health are more important than what others think anyway. We live in a transient city, with people coming and going for various reasons. If someone asks why you left, just give that all-purpose answer "advancement," and don't invite a follow-up question.


Baltimore, Md.: My adult son has had a hard time in the job hunting process. We have lots of suggestions, but, as the adult child, I think it's hard to accept advice. There's only so much a parent can do without looking like a "helicopter parent," or without alienating the son.

I think the ideal thing would be to work with an employment coach, if there is such a thing. I know there are headhunters, employment agencies, but I'm thinking of a little more, someone who would work with the client on presentation/interview issues and written materials. Or does that not exist? We'd be happy to pay the fee, but there's too much emotion involved as parents for us to be the mentors in this case.

Do you have any suggestions?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Mostly, you might need to eave him alone. You couldn't *make* him eat his veggies or use the potty and you can't "make" him get a job.

That said, do you think he's depressed? I.e., is this a motivation problem or a skills problem? That would guide the type of professional help I think he might need. There are lots of career coaches out there who could help with the latter. But he has to want to work with them.


Washington, D.C.: I think that I have "assistant-ized" myself and I am freaking out. I took a job right out of college so that I could pay the bills (2+ years ago), that was not what it was supposed to be, and have been looking and applying elsewhere ever since. There is no mobility in this position, and thought I am very well liked and do my job well, I cannot just be hired internally (this is a contract at a fed agency).I've had many interviews, but no offers. I network, I'm in graduate school, I'm well-spoken -- and I'm always asked, "Why are you even working here?" This is really depressing and frustrating. Any advice? I can't afford to make any less money and intern. Should I just quit and bartend or something? I feel the longer I have 'admin assistant' on my resume, the worse things are going to get for my job search.

Carole Sargent: My answer to this one is similar to what I said to DC: you're SO not imagining things... there is a serious problem with how people perceive admin work, and it isn't fair, but it also won't change anytime soon. Read my book "The Slam and Scream" (my last name was Fungaroli then... I now have my mother's maiden name as my legal last name), and consider going back to college for multiple higher degrees. The master's degree has become the new bachelor's, and I also recommend lots o' power credentials for women.

Also, you can change "administrative assistant" on your resume to something else that more honestly reflects what you do. I performed research at most of the law firms where I worked when I put myself through college, so I put "legal researcher," and then mentioned in the description that there were also administrative duties.

If politicians can spin items of sensitive international importance and get away with it, then you have my blessing to spin your resume as long as you don't fib or seriously mislead.


Anonymous: Mary Ellen -- Preceding this question, I want to say that I am very happy in my job and have no itention of leaving any time soon. I graduated from college and have been at my current job since then, a little over two years.

That being said, I'm interested in putting my resume out there, maybe on or somewhere else, just to "see" what's out there as well as determine what I'm worth outside of my current job. The sole purpose would be just to explore, not to find another job. I firmly believe that getting your name out there is one of the best things you can do.

However, I heard that my company (and others as well) search these websites often for their current employees. Have you heard of this? I don't want to give my company the impression that I want to leave, because I don't.

Any thoughts or suggestions would be appreciated. Thanks.

Mary Ellen Slayter: The trick here is to keep your resume up ALL the time. If it's always there, no one will make note of it.

It's the same principle that applies to dressing up at work. If you wear your suit frequently, your colleagues won't automically think "job interview or court date" when they see you in it.


Southern Maryland: I have a bunch of questions because I am moving. Maybe there is an article you can refer me too? I don't want to clog up the chat with something you have answered before. In April I am moving to Florida. I work at a bank that does not have branches in Florida. While I would like to stay in banking I have a strong background in reception/assistant work, sales, etc.. So questions: Do you think I would benefit from a "head hunter" (I had a girlfriend who used one)? Who pays to use one, the company or me? How long should I wait to start applying? Since I will have to go from here to Florida for interviews I want to try and get them within the same two or three days so I don't have to go back and forth. Since I will be moving from a D.C. cost of living, and a D.C. payroll, how do I adjust this when negotiating salary? Should I ask for the same or more? Where I am moving is close to a city but not like here. Thank you.

Mary Ellen Slayter: A head hunter could be helpful, but they're not necessary. They're paid a commission by the employer when they find someone (read: you) to fill a job.

There are salary calculators online that can give you a ballpark estimate of the cost of living in your new home, as well as typical salaries for your position. Online job ads are one place to start; check the local newspaper's classifieds section.


Outside the door: I just can't seem to get my foot in the door. Because I moved frequently for my (now ex) husband's job, I don't have a lot of tenure and my experience is sort of random. This means that I never get called for interviews based on my resume. On the other hand, once I get in the interview room and explain myself, everything goes swimmingly.

So, the basic question: how do I get in the room?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Then get your face in BEFORE your resume. This is generally a more effective strategy for everyone, not just people who've bounced around a lot. Your resume should come in attached to a referal, ideally someone who can speak well of your work.


RE: Job hopping: Don't sweat it. I was at my first D.C. job just under two years (I got out before Election Day last year) and the job I took was not a good fit and I left there over the summer. The new place understood the "not a good fit" situation. It happens.

Also for the person taking the vacation, once I had my offer I told the new boss that my flights were booked for Thanksgiving and I had already made plans for Christmas week. We worked it out.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Yep, I think that's how it generally goes. Heck, you have more leverage then than you probably will at any other point at that employer.


D.C.: Occasionally at interviews I am asked to fill out an application form (some large companies make you do this even if it duplicates the information on your resume). I have a health problem that makes writing difficult (similar to arthritis). I can write, but it doesn't always look nice. I am worried that messy handwriting makes me look unprofessional. Should I mention that it's due to a health problem? I sometimes ask if I can take the form home to fill out (if I can write little bits at a time, rather than a lot at once, it's easier) but that's not always an option without an explanation.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Does *anyone's* handwriting look nice anymore?

Even with professional jobs, these applications do serve a purpose. Unlike your resume, you sign off on them, attesting to their truth. You're generally also promising that you're not a felon.

But otherwise, I wouldn't worry about it too much. Take your time, write as clearly as you can, and take heart in the knowledge that chances are no one will even look at it again unless they want to fire you for something else!


Mary Ellen Slayter: Carole, we both got some interesting feedback on that column about adults returning to school. Do you have anything else you want to add to your comments about community colleges?

Carole Sargent: Yes, I do have something to add. Most of the feedback from the article was great (and thanks to all of you who put it up in your cubicles as a poster... I feel like Farrah Fawcett in the 1970s) (but, um, not exactly). But some community college professionals were stung by my spectacularly doofy choice of words when I said that community college students would want to transfer to a "regular campus" to finish their degrees. D'oh!

I didn't mean what it sounded like... seriously. I love community colleges, I have taken classes at them (including recently at NVCC), I have been a guest on Montgomery College's excellent TV program "Campus Conversations" (hi Fritzi!), and I wrote an article for Community College Week extolling what community colleges do best, which is provide affordable and accessible higher education. CCs meet the needs of millions who would otherwise be shut out of the system, and they typically do a spectacular job. I wrote about many in my book, including American River College, Piedmont Virginia Community College, and more.

What I should have said is that if you are succeeding at a community college and you have great grades, then you probably have what it takes to transfer to a four-year campus to earn a traditional bachelor's degree. I wish the associate's degree meant more on a resume in and of itself, but adults who have the skills are definitely better served by going the distance and getting a bachelor's. Community college can be a good place to start, and to prove that you are now ready to handle college. I once had a student at Georgetown who transferred there after two straight-A semesters at a community college in California. People do it all the time.

My big-picture point is that elite educations are far, far more accessible than most people think, and community colleges can be an important piece in that transition. You have to have the grades, the drive, the focus, the commitment, and yes, the talent, but adults are wonderful at this. I've always maintained that maturity and discipline count more than anything in the mix. Interestingly, former administrative assistants make the very best college students because they have the paperwork side of it down to a science. Adults are best suited to higher education, and they belong front and center in America's most competitive classrooms.


Washington, D.C.: Thanks for your Sunday column. I work for the federal government (in a time-limited fellowship sort of position), and I find the USAJobs website to be completely impenetrable. I had to call my HR manager just to find out whether I was a "status candidate" or not!

Mary Ellen Slayter: Oh yeah, "status candidate."

Whatever that means!


Yesterday's column: I thought yesterday's column on federal job listings was a lovely idea, but I don't understand how you could run it without quoting a single perplexing ad! Did you and your editor discuss this? I thought it would have made the piece much stronger if you'd actually given an example of part of a perplexing job ad instead of assuming the reader had seen one.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I thought about it, but decided against it, figuring the curious could swing by USAJobs and pull up ads at random. I mean, why compound the eyesores! The ads are also just plain too long.


What's so bad about admin work?: Seriously. Your awesome marketing plan doesn't keep the doors open, but my sending in the rent check does.

Admins are the glue that hold this town together. And I get cranky when kids right out of college think they're too good to do work I've been so proud of for the last 10 years. Sometimes you gotta just do the job.

And, don't get me wrong, it's unfair that women get assistantized and men get promoted. But all honest work has dignity.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I agree with you. But I have a serious problem with the notion that two XX chromosomes automatically make one qualified for admin work. And you should, too, since your job is so much more than that.


Downtown D.C.: I really appreciated yesterday's article on federal job announcements. The postings really are in a different language.

But I would submit that this is a problem throughout the federal service, not just in job announcements. Although I am a federal employee, my jobs have always been political (both legislative and executive branches). I have worked with some very talented and dedicated staff, but -- wow -- do I need a translator at times. What can seem to be a minor question or task, to a non-career staffer anyway, instead involves lingo, procedures, and forms that bewilder (and often seem a waste of time and trees). It can bring to mind some of the classic scenes in M-A-S-H wherein Radar would bluff the Colonel into approving three-day passes to Tokyo.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I do think it's a broad cultural thing, which is why people shouldn't just focus on translating the ads. That process is an important test of how well you will fit with the culture overall. It's not "worse" than the private sector, just different.


Washington, D.C.: I have a good friend who never finished college. She is extremely bright and her hard work has paid off. She has been promoted and given a title that normally requires at least a bachelor's degree. But, her promotion may not travel with her if she switches firms. On the one hand I am thrilled that her firm recognizes her worth. But I also know that she is at the top of the glass ceiling right now. Any advice on how to suggest that she consider finishing her degree?

Carole Sargent: Rare is the boss who can recognize talent without also recognizing the academic achievement side of the resume. Some bosses can, and clearly she has benefited from this, but most people make distinctions by paying attention to education. So you're right, she should strongly consider finishing now.

If she's concerned about money, she can try getting a job on a university campus that offers free tuition as a work benefit. Even if it doesn't pay as well as some other jobs, the tuition money (it usually kicks in after one year of employement) makes up for it. Also, it eliminates the killer home-work-school commutes by combining work and school in one place. Georgetown offers tuition benefits, as do most universities. I wrote about a woman in "Traditional Degrees for Nontraditional Students" who got a job at Rutger's and earned her degrees (plural) there.


Newport News, Va.: This seems like such a simple issue, but I need an objective opinion. I'm 24, and I've been working full-time for a small company for the past three years. (Under 50 employees, several locations - about three to six people here, depending on the day.) I am the most junior person at this location in terms of tenure and age, although I'm about midway up the responsibility ladder.

My problem? I have back pain. I work at a computer all day, almost every day. The setup is cramped, and my office is small enough that I can't rearrange my workstation (I've tried). I've been to the doctor and a physical therapist, who have shown me exercises and given me advice. Doctor wanted to write a note to work to ask them to buy me a new chair with back support (this one doesn't have any to speak of). The doc thinks this is perfectly reasonable, but this is a small office and $200+ for a new chair is significant (although the company can probably afford it).

I have already had to shift my schedule a little to go to physical therapy appointments, and next week I will be taking time off and working from home after gallbladder surgery. I don't like to make waves, and the office is small enough that there's no HR liason to approach. There's just my boss, the company VP. Is it reasonable to ask them to buy me a new chair? If so, how should I broach the topic? If not, what can you suggest?


Mary Ellen Slayter: You need to ask.

Maybe everyone will get new chairs.


RE: Political parties and fed jobs: Very funny comment from Virginia regarding needing to be Republican to be in CIA, DIA, etc. and Democrat in HUD, etc. Obviously this person doesn't work for the govt. Nearly everyone I've met at DIA etc is liberal; I've met more conservatives at non-intel agencies. But it's a real mix, just like the population at large. So if anyone out there is interested in govt, don't let silly, uninformed comments like this deter you from applying.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Agreed.


St. Louis: I recently told my manager that I would like to take on more responsibility at work to coincide more directly with why I was hired, and boy, did this come to bite me in my review. My comments were taken as though I am a know-it-all who thinks I can do everything better and that I need to be more of a team player because my "anger" at not being in charge is affecting the team. All of these comments when on my review and now I feel like everyone thinks I am a bad employee, but I feel singled out for some reason. Now that my manager is "mad" at me, my other coworkers avoid me like the plague to not get on the manager's bad side too. I am a reasonable person but these comments are not only untrue, but I am shocked that my manager waited months until my review to come down on me for something that was received well (I thought) when I originally said them. My friends and family think that my manager is insecure and that I need to move on and find greener pastures. Is this a winnable situation?

Mary Ellen Slayter: If this has come to the point where it is, as they say, "on your permanent record," I agree with your family and friends. Start looking elsewhere. It sounds like they might be setting up a paper trail to sack you anyway.


Arlington, Va.: Well, I'm one of those liberals who work in DoD. There are only a very small number of supervisors who would not hire a liberal like me. But getting ahead can be a little more difficult. The other aspect I notice is one is not suppose to question higher position staff without getting the raft of "I'm in charge."

Mary Ellen Slayter: I think that's a fair assestment of the DoD/military culture, but that doesn't have much to do with how people vote. Not in my experience, at least.


Omaha, Neb.: I have been at my first post-college job for almost a year, but now the novelty has worn off and I am looking for something more challenging. However, I enjoy the company and the people and would like to stick around. Is it time to think about moving up within the company? And how do you recommend approaching this subject with my supervisor?

Mary Ellen Slayter: With great fear and trepidation!

OK, you say this just like you told us. Go to your boss and set up a short meeting, perhaps over coffee. Tell her how much you enjoy working there and ask for her advice about what your next steps should be.


Washington, D.C.: Loved the column and the advice. I used to mentor at-risk youth (I was one 15 years ago) and getting them to visualize where they could be after a few years of sacrifice was my biggest challenge. Delayed gratification was a tough sell. And their parents often had the same concerns that many older students do -- namely that college was so expensive that it was unattainable. So much of this challenge -- is helping people who don't know the system (and who don't have someone in their family who does) to learn about all of the opportunities that exist.

Carole Sargent: You are right... it IS a hard sell. What most people who fret about the money don't realize is that (a) the most expensive campuses have the most scholarship money; (b) lots of private money is earmarked for people who are struggling with the whole work-life balance thing... the MOST private money is designated for single parents; and (c) on-campus jobs with tuition benefits can solve a lot of problems in one swell foop.

Congratulations for doing the mentoring, and I hope you consider doing it again. Mentoring is an incredibly powerful model, and your personal journey will mean more to at-risk kids than a dozen teachers who were never in serious trouble a day in their lives saying "Be like us."

On weekends I teach English in Georgetown's tutoring program for kids from the DC public schools who want to prepare for college. We spend a lot of time simply conversing with them about the value of college in terms of quality of life, career choices, experience (travel, connections), who your peers will be, and more. The progress is there (they are awesome kids), but it takes a long time to build up multiple generations who think college is valuable and a good investment. I'm particularly happy when their parents come and participate!!


Reston, Va.: I lost my job because the company decided to move the group to another state. Past two years, I have working mostly on a contract basis and its getting very difficult to get a permanent job. I also will be finishing my masters in Accounting next spring. Most of the hiring managers see my resume and think that I will leave my job and go off. How do I tackle the situation?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Well, will you leave your job as soon as you graduate? That's a legitimate concern for an employer, one you're going to have to address in your cover letter.

The alternative is to look for jobs that your new degree will qualify you for.


RE: Admin work: No one's saying the work doesn't have dignity. It most certainly does, and it's a necessary part of the office. But for someone like me it's not what I want to do with my life, not because I think I'm too good for it but because I just want to do something else. It's like deciding I want Coke instead of Pepsi. My field, like many, requires me to pay my dues through admin work.

Mary Ellen Slayter: And the way this plays out in many workplaces, it's like saying Coke is for Boys; Pepsi is for Girls. Doesn't matter what you prefer.


Mary Ellen Slayter: Speaking of money, how *do* people pay for school when they return as grownups, with kids, mortgages and certain expectations about their standard of living?

Carole Sargent: I devoted a whole chapter to money. My favorite method is one I've already offered in this column: get an on-campus, full-time job. But there are other methods such as earning top grades on a part-time basis and then transferring to full time after winning an award; changing your lifestyle (college towns have whole economies built around broke students, and my book has stories about people who moved there kids and all and had a wonderful time); taking full advantage of work benefits (many people do not); and more. That money chapter makes me the most teary-eyed, because it is SCARY to take on debt for education! There are also weird student loans now that aren't as friendly. Become a student loan expert (read books, talk to student loan office employees) BEFORE you get one.

Carole Sargent: Another note re standard of living. In a true college town everyone's broke. It's chic. You'll fit right in, and there are childcare options galore. Everyone goes to the same thrift shops. Cheap is in style.


Washington, D.C.: I work in a technical federal agency. I am a female scientist, and most of my co-workers are engineers and all are male, including my entire management chain. As I am rising in rank in the office I am continually running into problems of not being heard. My senior manager requested I start a multi-year, expensive, project and then later a middle manager was hired and he can't seem to hear me. No matter how many times I sent emails or met with him to explain the importance of my project, he doesn't seem to listen. I have communicated with weekly updates and project plans to keep him in the loop in addition to 3 20 minute meeting over the past 2 months. I am careful to include budget requirements, etc. The office budget prioritization recently came out and my project is not even listed. The senior manager is sure that I blew it and the middle manager is scrambling to get re-aligned and find new ways to blame me. How does a woman in an all-male organization get heard without becoming shrill? I have been working under these conditions for 16 years and I'll never understand it. One of my male co-workers jokingly suggested I take testosterone to deepen my voice. I am at my wits end trying to be heard -- what's a gal to do?

Carole Sargent: My colleage Deborah Tannen has built part of her linguistics career out of interesting questions like this. You are correct, it is tough, and science is an especially fraught world when it comes to male-female communication. Write to me offline if you want and we can commisserate (sp?). There are powerful techniques you can master, and I suggest making a serious study of it.


Rockville, Md.: Regarding St. Louis' question. It seems like St. Louis' manager is a real jerk abusing the system to get rid of St. Louis. Does St. Louis have any recourse to turn the tables against his manager?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Unless the boss is discriminating based on St. Louis being a member of a protected class, probably not. It's not illegal to be a jerk.


Mary Ellen Slayter: Thanks for all your comments and questions.

And thanks to Carole for taking the time to join us!

Carole Sargent: This was so much fun, I didn't want to stop typing. Great questions... I'm sure I'll think of the best answers to them tonight when I'm trying to fall asleep.

Carole Sargent: And thank you Mary Ellen for bringing me back for a follow-up chat. It felt great to clarify the community college question.


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