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Mary Ellen Slayter and Katy Piotrowski
Washington Post Staff Writer and author
Monday, March 17, 2008; 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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Chantilly, Va: Does a gap in the resume negatively affect one's chances for consideration for an opening even though otherwise there may be a good fit? (The gap is because of waiting for work authorization after moving to U.S.)

Mary Ellen Slayter: A gap shouldn't be an issue, since you obviously have a good reason for it!

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Mary Ellen Slayter: Good afternoon! Our guest today is Katy Piotrowski, author of "Career Coward's Guide to Changing Careers: Sensible Strategies for Overcoming Job Search Fears."

Welcome, Katy!

Katy Piotrowski: Hi, Mary Ellen!

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Springfield, Va.: What are your thoughts on submitting a resume to a company regardless of whether they have a job opening posted? I'm moving in August and have a career that is very specific. Luckily, there is a company that does exactly what I specialize in in the new area I'm moving to. How should I approach this?

Also, in your opinion, at what point should I begin my job search if I'm not planning to move for another five months. Would applying for positions now be too soon?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Of course you can! Few jobs are filled based on advertised postions.

I would start making contacts at the new company now. Five months isn't long at all.

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Washington, D.C.: If an employer interviews you for a job with specific title and duties, hires you and then hires someone else with that same title and duties, are you demoted? Is this even legal?

I was interviewed for Job A, replacing a senior person. I was offered the position and accepted it. Now they've brought in someone else to take Job A and they're not clarifying where I stand in the company. Should I be looking for another job?

Katy Piotrowski: Well...it may not be a demotion, but rather a "shuffle". Now that you're on board (and the new person is, too), your employer is figuring out how each of your unique talent sets can best be used within the organization.

I'd suggest viewing this as an opportunity - have an open discussion with your manager about how he/she sees you most effectively contributing to the company. Also be prepared to offer suggestions about how you want to grow professionally, so that they have ideas for how they can best support you.

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Anonymous: I just started a new job after being at my last one for over three years. I started the new job in January, and I am absolutely MISERABLE. For every reason possible, the people, the work etc.

How bad is it going to look to employers if I start sending out resumes for something else?

I just don't think I can be an asset to an organization when I am filled with rage every time I walk through the door.

I need help. How do I get out of this?

Katy Piotrowski: Hi, Anonymous...if you're clear this job isn't working out, get out sooner than later. You technically don't need to list any positions on your resume that were less than 6 months. And if it comes up in interviews, you can say something like, "Yes, that was a great experience for me, but not for the long term. It was missing (name some job responsibility you really like) and I'm eager to move back into a position that will allow me to use my expertise in this area--such as the opening you have here...." But never, EVER badmouth the former employer. Just chalk it up to an experiment that didn't work out.

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Washington, D.C.: I am interested in finding a job that I would florish in. I would prefer to something similiar to counseling or serving in an advisory capacity. Problem is that I have worked as an administrative assistant for the last few years and I'm not sure how I would make the transition or where I could begin.

Katy Piotrowski: Hi Washington, D.C. A good place to begin is to go "career possibilities shopping"--open up the Yellow Pages section of the phone book and flip through the thousands of different industries. Ask yourself, "What if I were a counselor/advisor in this industry...or this one?" (Counseling and advising skills plug into practically EVERY industry--even plumbing!). When you have a few ideas that seem appealing, consider conducting a few informational interviews, where you ask specialists in that line of work how they got into the field, training that's helpful, etc.

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New York, N.Y.: Hi, Mary Ellen. I am a mid-level nonprofit professional and recently decided to switch jobs due to more growth opportunities, better pay, etc. Now that the deal is done (resigned from current job & signed offer letter), I am filled with self-doubt as to whether I made the right choice. I can't tell how much of this is motivated by fear of the unknown but I am driving myself crazy with thoughts that I should have decided to stay, I will fail in new job, sleepness nights, etc. Any advice on how to move forward and embrace this change? Thanks.

Katy Piotrowski: Hi, New York, NY: Keep in mind that it takes time to adjust to the new situation--usually one month for every year of time that you were in a different environment. The new situation may just be different...not necessarily worse, and to give yourself a chance to let the dust settle. Also, to help process your feelings of worry (rather than having sleepless nights) consider journaling for 20 minutes each day. Finally, keep in mind that often, you can return to your former employment situation (or find another new one!) if this one doesn't work out.

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Alexandria, Va.: Hi, Mary Ellen. I am having problems with my manager and after speaking with her about the ways that she treats me differently and unprofessionally things have gotten worse. I know I did the right thing and I know was professional. Since speaking with her did not help matters, I went to her boss to discuss my problem. My manager had already filled her in about my "attitude problem" and because my manager got to her first, I am somehow not to be believed. I am really confused and have no idea how this situation even got this bad. Is this an example of not a good fit or should I fight harder to demonstrate the poor treatment I receive from my manager such as going to HR? FWIW, my manager gives me poor quarterly reviews based on her "feeling" like I wasn't friendly enough or that I could have performed better even though she has no examples for me on how I can perform better.

Katy Piotrowski: Hi Alexandria, sounds like there's a mismatch between your style and your manager's. Be very careful about going above your manager's head to her manager - that will almost always come back to bite you! Instead, try to work through HR and maybe involve a mediator. Chances are you'll end up learning and growing from this situation, even if you don't stay long term. Bottom line: maintain professionalism, even if others aren't...

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Anonymous: Thanks for taking my question. I was offered and accepted a job at another company. When I gave notice, my boss asked if there was anything my current company could do to keep me. I, half-jokingly, said they'd have to pay me an obscene amount of money. Well, my boss went to the CEO and they want to meet with me this afternoon to talk about paying me an obscene amount of money. I'm trying to go in to it with an open mind. If I decide to stay, how bad will I look to the new company? Pretty bad, right?

Katy Piotrowski: Hi Anonymous - A few thoughts: 1) more money may keep you happy for a little while, but usually that wears off after a few months. Be clear with yourself that it's truly more money that you want - you could also negotiate new responsibilities, etc. 2) if you decide to walk away from the job you just accepted, it's better to do it earlier than later, so that they can tap into the other candidates they were considering. It's fairly common for a present employer to make a counter offer if you're good--and you are! But make sure it's the right long term decision for you.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Yes, I agree that you should think hard about whether more money will make you happier there. Is money the reason you were leaving?

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Waldorf, Md.: What would be the proper reponse to explain to future employers, why you were let go from your previous job without giving a negative reponse. I was let go to make way for the deputy director's sister to take my position. I headed the imaging department (scanning, reclasifying and indexing application) of the company that I work for and my section had an accuracy rate of 100 percent.

Katy Piotrowski: You could respond with something like, "I had a highly successful experience with my previous employer--in fact, we achieved 100% accuracy in the department. When there was a reorganization in company, there was no longer a place for me there."

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Washington, D.C.: I am looking to leave my job as a special education teacher in the school system. What kinds of careers have teachers gotten into after teaching? My concern with leaving the school system is the fact that if I try another career I may not make the same money. What can I do?

Katy Piotrowski: Your teaching skills are HIGHLY transferrable. For ideas, log onto a job search site (such as www.monster.com) and input keywords such as "training, teaching, instructing" to get an idea of thousands of position types that can use your skills--there are many!

To hone down your choices, think about which products or services are most meaningful/interesting to you (the Yellow Pages is a great tool for this exercise), and then research which roles within those industries would allow you to use the skills you most enjoy.

While teaching pays well, there are many other career choices that can pay as well or better.

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RE: ... driving myself crazy with thoughts that I should have decided to stay ... etc: I have done this to myself with every single job change, and the jobs have always worked out just fine. After an initial adjustment period, later I couldn't believe I got myself so worked up. I think most people go through this when they make any major change, whether in a career or in other areas of life.

Mary Ellen Slayter: I think you're right. This sort of reaction is very normal, whether we're talking about job changes or breakups.

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D.C.: Hi, Mary Ellen. I've been in my current job for about seven months now, and while the job duties are much better than my last job, my boss is a nightmare. I can't even delve into it here because it chokes me up every time I think about it.

I wanted to stay for a full year, because my last job lasted only 10 months or so. Is it too early to try to get out? I just feel like it will look really badly to prospective employers.

Thanks.

Katy Piotrowski: Hi D.C. - Personality clashes with bosses are one of the most common reasons positions don't work out for the long term. If you're absolutely clear that there's no way to salvage your relationship, move on sooner than later. There are ways that you can present both short term experiences successfully on a resume, without looking too "hoppy".

Mary Ellen Slayter: You have my blessing to start looking now. It may take a year before you find something.

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D.C.: Do you have any advice for someone considering going back to an old employer? I left on good terms, I just was seeking a different opportunity/new type of challenge. A few years have passed and I've kept in touch with colleagues. Someone let me know there will be openings in my old department later this year due to retirements.

Is it bad form to go back to an old company?

Katy Piotrowski: Not at all! If it worked for you before, and they loved having you, why not? Take your former boss out to lunch and ask her for an update on happenings and opportunities. Tell her you'd love to find a way to become a part of the team again.

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Richmond, Va.: Career switching sounds great, but practically, I wouldn't hire me, with no direct expereince. I read interesting ads, think about how I could spin my expereince to show I'm a quick learner, but the truth is, I don't have the expereince they have and wouldn't blame them for choosing someone who does. How can a (shy) person ever get past the gatekeepers?

Katy Piotrowski: Hi Richmond - Sounds as if you're your most challenging "gatekeeper"! It would probably help for you to build your confidence/track record in the career areas that interest you by finding small ways to add to your experience base, so that you can then say, "Yes, Ms. Employer, I DO have experience with that. Let me give you an example..."

I call these Career Experiments. When you see an ad that looks appealing, and you think, "Yes, I could probably do that..." actually find a way to do it, so that it's more "real" for you--complete a practice project, volunteer for an activity, take a class, etc.

This technique helps you build your resume while improving your chances of convincing potential employers of your ability to succeed in a new line of work.

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Washington, D.C.: I wanted to challenge the conventional notion that when you're looking for another job, you shouldn't let people know. I mean, I understand if you're looking, it may mean you're unhappy so that they give you less high profile projects but on the other hand, it might help get promoted to let people know if you're taking the bar in another state, for instance. Worked for me.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Of course, they might also just sack you on the spot.

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Washington, D.C.: Mary Ellen: What is the law, if there is one, concerning former employers giving less then neutral references when a possible employer contacts them? I have been looking for a new position and believe that a former employer has done just that. I have not given permission to contact that individual and our circumstances concerning my departure were less than good. I feel that other than confronting one or both of the people, I have little if any recourse. In the meantime, searching for a new job has been difficult.

Mary Ellen Slayter: There's no law that requires employers to only offer neutral information, though some employers do make that their policy.

Your reputation follows you, which is why you should guard it well. In fact, as an employer I would most definitely want to hear the truth from your former bosses, regardless of whether you gave me "permission" to contact them.

There are services that allow you to test what former employers are saying. Of course, you could do this yourself if you have a friend who's a particularly good liar.

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Fairfax, Va.: Good afternoon. I am wondering, what to you do when you're very good at your job and keep moving up, but really are bored and "done" with the industry you're in. I have no idea what I would do otherwise because I have been in the industry a while and do a great job (based on feedback and reviews), but I am just not into anymore and would love to discover my passion.

Katy Piotrowski: Fairfax -- Sounds like it's time to experiment with some new possibilities, even if they're just sideline/hobby/part time interests. You could also research what's new/evolving in your line of work, by reviewing conference proceedings, attending trade shows, etc. You may hit on an idea that adds a new, interesting slant to your current work. It may take a little while to unearth new ideas, but the exploration process should be a fun activity on its own.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi, Mary Ellen and Katy. This chat is perfect timing as I'm unhappy and unmotivated at my nonprofit cubicle-farm job right now. I'm 25 and would like to interact with the public in some way. I enjoyed working at visitor information centers in college, but I'm not sure how to break away from fundraising and into something new. I have a BA, but no other education/training. How does one become a travel planner, flight attendant, tourism guru, etc from where I am now? I haven't put down roots in D.C., and would be fine moving to a smaller city too.

Many thanks for your advice and encouragement in these chats!

Katy Piotrowski: Hi! One of my all-time, favorite career tools are informational interviews. I'd suggest contacting a travel planning/flight attendant/tourism association, and ask for the opportunity to interview a few of their more experienced specialists about their work. Ask them how they broke in, got trained, and they would recommend that you do to get started. You'll quickly identify several avenues for moving forward!

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Silver Spring, Md.: I began a new job at the beginning of the year and it hasn't been working out too well. My wife and I decided, not long ago, that we will be relocating to another state either mid or late next year after we have saved enough money. I'm not sure I want to leave my current job to find another one only to leave within a year to relocate. Is there anything else I could consider besides grin and bear it?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Is temping an option in your field?

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Washington, D.C.: How do you get people to listen to your ideas at work? I work at a nonprofit and I have noticed repeatedly that my boss will talk over me and dismiss any idea I have unless one of my co-workers backs me up or restates my idea. If they do back me up, he gives them credit for it and continues to ignore me. I know part of the problem is him and repeated conversations about this have led to nowhere, as he denies that he does this. I am currently job hunting to get out of this position, but are there any suggestions for how to deal with this, as I am sure this will come up again in the future.

Katy Piotrowski: Sounds as if you've already talked to him about it...good for you! And I'm glad to hear that you're looking for other opportunities. In the meantime, perhaps you could work out a private signal for your boss for when the problem is happening -- such as picking up a particular-colored pen. It could be that he's truly oblivious to what's occurring.

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Baltimore, Md.: I currently work as an attorney, but would like to switch careers. After trying various different types of legal jobs, I finally decided being a lawyer is not the right fit for my personality. I have paid off my loans and am financially secure, but I have two small children to consider. I want to teach and have been volunteering as a tutor in an after school program at a local school. I am unsure of the next step and unwilling to leave my current job without knowing where to go.

Katy Piotrowski: Hi Baltimore - Seems as if a change from law makes sense for you, but you're right, you don't want to make a huge leap into the unknown. View your career change as a process that may take a year or two, and devote the first three to six months to simply researching your options -- investigate interesting teaching ideas, interview specialists in educational fields, and so on. Once you have a better idea of what you want to pursue, and what it will take for you to transition, making the move will seem more doable.

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Washington, D.C.: After becoming pregnant, I have found that my firm is not very family-friendly. Even though my job does not need to be done during any particular hours, my boss has told me that he will not let me change my hours by 1/2 hour so that I can pick up my child from daycare on time. A few other things have happened (like him blaming mistakes of others on ME and claiming it's because I have "pregnancy brain"), but the my main issue is with the inflexible hours. I am upset because my reviews have always been stellar, I take my work very seriously, and I hardly even mention my pregnancy at work, ever, since I don't want work to think I'm preoccupied.

After my maternity leave is over, I do not want to come back to this environment for too long. When I look for a new job, when should I ask potential employers about flexibility in hours? I do not want to turn someone off right away and make them think I'm not going to put in a full day. But, I won't be able to take the job unless I can leave by a certain time each day. Thanks for any advice.

Katy Piotrowski: Hi, Mom! There are plenty of family-friendly employers out there ... you just need to find the right one. The best time to talk about flexible hours is AFTER you've received a job offer, and BEFORE you accept it -- that's your greatest point of leverage. For instance, after receiving an offer, you could say, "I want this to be a successful long term arrangement for both of us. This is what I need in terms of my schedule. How does that fit with your needs?"

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Chantilly, Va.: What's the best way to answer a question regarding a gap in one's resume, "what were you doing during this time?" considering that one was not in a position to work during this period?

Katy Piotrowski: Chantilly - You'll want to have a prepared, practiced answer that is both truthful and marketable. Something like, "I had the opportunity to provide support for a family member during that time. It was an experience that was important to me, and I'm so glad that I was able to do it."

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RE: Contacting Company: Clarification please. So you can just send your resume to HR even if they have posted an opening? I thought that would come across as a no-no, since you wouldn't be able to tailor a cover letter to anything specific (i.e. it would just be a blanket letter/job).

Mary Ellen Slayter: Yes, you can absolutely send your resume without an opening. Having an ad in hand makes it easy to tailor the cover letter, but it's not necessary.

If your skill set is pretty specific, it should be pretty clear who you are and what you can do for them. There's nothing "blanket" about that.

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Arlington: Please explain: "There are services that allow you to test what former employers are saying. Of course, you could do this yourself if you have a friend who's a particularly good liar." Thank you.

Mary Ellen Slayter: The way these professional services work is you pay them $100 to call up your old employers, say they are a prospective employer, and ask about your tenure there. They report back to you what your "reference" said.

Or your particularly smooth friend could do the same, for a beer.

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RE: Less Than Favorable Reference: Many reputable companies won't offer information other than dates of employment, position, and possibly salary. In our litigious society saying anything detrimental about the jobseeker can open a company to a lawsuit, especially if it's untrue and/or causes the jobseeker to not get the job. Just my two cents!

Mary Ellen Slayter: Right, but that's a choice they make, not something they are obligated to do by law.

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Washington, D.C.: I am totally unqualified for my job. I'm in finance but have no qualifications for it, I do more of the marketing/design type stuff. How hard is it going to be for me to change careers? This one isn't it.

Katy Piotrowski: Sounds like you're already pretty good at working into new specialities -- even with no former experience! The amount of effort to execute a change depends on what you're aiming for, but you seem like someone with a great track record for succeeding with the career change goals you set for yourself. Go for it!

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For the Baltimore Lawyer: I work at a company with a handful of lawyers not lawyer-ing. However, what made them great hires for the company was their ability to clearly articulate their thoughts and see the entire picture. They work on contract management, business development, etc for us. Just a thought at how to market your skills!

Mary Ellen Slayter: There ya go!

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New York, NY again...: It's me again, of the new job and sleepness nights. I just want to say thanks for taking my question. I guess it is akin to a "break up" in a lot of ways; and I need to give myself time to adjust. Thanks!

Mary Ellen Slayter: Glad we could help

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Charlotte, N.C.: What job search advice would you give to someone who has a B.S in Biology, M.S. in Management and is currently pursuing an Ed.D. I have education, but the only jobs that I am called to interview for are clerical.

Katy Piotrowski: Charlotte, sounds as if a) you're not really sure what you're aiming for in your career, and b) your resume isn't emphasizing your higher-level qualifications. I'd suggest researching and choosing a career focus that is motivating to you and a good fit for your education and background, and then have a professional resume writer help you create a document in line with your goals.

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Philly: I have been a professional librarian for nearly 20 years, working as a supervisor of other staff. I'm tired of this, and have been trying to 'downsize' my responsibilities by applying for jobs where I no longer manage people.

And here is the problem -- the few interviews I've gotten over the past year have been right up my alley, but the interviewers have all expressed concerns that "I'm overqualified" or "they can't pay me what I'm used to being paid."

I fully understand that I'll be taking a huge cut in pay -- and that's okay. How do I get past the 'overqualified' part? Help.

Katy Piotrowski: Philly, a good first step is to make sure that what you present on your resume and in interviews aligns with your "downsized" career goals. For instance, you can downplay your supervisory experience on your resume. And in interviews, you can emphasize your specialist, rather than your supervisory skills. When the "overqualified" comment comes up, ask them to elaborate on the areas where they have the greatest concern, and then be ready to respond with a solid answer.

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RE: Pregnant job seeker: Working Mother magazine has an annual list of the best places to work, most family freindly companies; flex time is one of the categories.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Yes, though in this case, the worker doesn't even want to "flex." She wants a permanent, standard schedule.

Daycare schedules are incredibly rigid, unless you can afford a nanny.

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Baltimore, Md.: I'm a technical writer/editor in the IT industry. My co-workers and bosses seem to think I'm really good at what I do. They constantly compliment my work. Good, right? Except I get gushing compliments for even the most mundane work -- taking notes in a meeting, for example.

At first I was flattered, but after two years of this, I'm starting to wonder if they're just buttering me up. I've noticed that those coworkers who gush the most are the first to come to me with questions about their writing and to ask for help with their work. This includes people from other groups within the company that I do not work with. I could be disciplined if I help them without permission from my bosses, but they don't seem to understand that.

I've also noticed that I tend to get the more mundane work because I'm "so good at it."

Ugh. I don't mind being complimented if I've legitimately worked hard on something and done a good job, but the compliments about my ability to take notes come across as insincere. It's nice that my co-workers like me and my work, but when do I say, "enough"? And how do I say it without coming across as rude or ungrateful? Should I just suck it up and roll my eyes internally?

Katy Piotrowski: Hmmm...sounds like a few choice time management responses would be helpful, as in "Please check with my boss to see if it's okay for me to take this on. We have a busy schedule now, and she's determining my priorities." Or, one that my writing coach taught me, "I'm sorry. I'm on a deadline now and I'm not able to take on any extra work."

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Reston, Va,: Are there any good sources for part-time professional jobs that can be done from home? I'm a freelance writer and editor and finding it hard to find a consistent gig. For family reasons, taking a part-time office position won't work. Most of the telecommuting jobs I'm encountering sound like scams.

Katy Piotrowski: Reston, I'd suggest contacting companies directly where you'd like to work, even if no position is advertised. Say, "I'm interesting in lining up an ongoing part time position. Could I come in to talk about possibilities?"

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Mary Ellen Slayter: Thanks, Katy, for taking the time to join us!

Katy Piotrowski: Thanks for having me. It was fun!

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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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