Career Track Live

Mary Ellen Slayter and Alexandra Levit
Washington Post Staff Writer and author
Monday, April 21, 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.


Mary Ellen Slayter: Welcome! Our guest today is Alexandra Levit. Her newest book is "How'd You Score That Gig?" about landing cool jobs, but she's also a good resource for other career-related questions you may have today.


Washington, D.C.: I have been working for the same company since I graduated college three years ago. After the first year here I was given a promotion by a VP within the company. The VP left allowing me to take over as the project manager on the project we were working on. During this a former coworker was promoted to a managerial role for our department. My old project was completed and a success however the manager seems to be taking all of the roles and projects that are my job description instead of doing the managerial roles. How do I discuss this with the new manager because it has gotten to the point where I dread coming to work?

Alexandra Levit: Take the new manager out to lunch and congratulate her on her new role. Say that you're excited to work with her, and ask how the two of you can divide and conquer. Make it seem like a welcome collaboration rather than jealousy over the fact that she's taking over your job.


Fairfax, Va.: I'm 25 years old and I don't have a college degree. I've been working in retail and food service for 8 years now and I can never find a decent 9-5 job so I can take night courses. Everywhere I search, all of the jobs I find require degrees. Where do I look for jobs that are entry level that don't require a degree? Are there any websites that have job listings for people without higher educations? Should I apply for the jobs that I'm interested in that DO require degrees? Can it hurt?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Well, even many admin jobs these days expect people to have undergraduate degrees. Why? They can. It's an easy way to sort through applicants.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Apologies for the slow start. I just spilled a cup of coffee on my desk. That is really not good for a keyboard ...


Baltimore, Md.: I have been in a new job for about three months and think it is a bad fit. The pace of the office is slow, I consistenly feel bored and unengaged, and my repeated requests for additional, substanitive work have been ignored. My former employer has made me a generous offer to return. I have never left a job after such a short time and feel weird about it, although I know many people do it. How do you avoid burning bridges? Should I offer to stay until they hire a replacement? Any general advice about this?

Alexandra Levit: If you have the "generous offer to return" in hand already, I would have a heart to heart with your new boss. Apologize profusely, and take responsibility for the fact that the fit is not as good as you were expecting. Offer to find and train a replacement, and then be on your merry way.


Bored at work: How to I tell my boss that the work I am doing is very boring and no longer challenging? I am comfortable in my current position but I need more challenging tasks as I have mastered my current exisitng responsibilities which is good but also getting too routine.

How do I let my manager know that I like my job but I need new/different tasks to balance the routine tasks without sounding negative?


Alexandra Levit: Don't use the word "bored." Tell her that you're excited about learning some new skills, and make some suggestions as to new projects you could take on. Just try to sound enthusiastic rather than coming across as a complainer.


Washington, D.C.: Is there a secret to having a job application turn into an interview that I don't know about? I'm about to graduate from college with a BA and am looking for an entry-level position. My job/internship experience is very competitive for someone my age. I attended lots of cover letter workshops and use their advice. Yet, I've sent out 25 or 30 applications and only had one response!

What can I do to improve my chances of being noticed?

Alexandra Levit: Don't rely on applications, they go into what I call "the black hole" of HR. To get actual interviews, locate people already doing the jobs you want and ask them if they'd mind telling you a bit about what they do for the company(s). After you've established a relationship, they can likely point you in the direction of real opportunities.


Mary Ellen Slayter: Alexandra, what made you decide to write the new book?

Alexandra Levit: The idea originated as a result of several conversations I overheard at friends' dinner parties. It seemed that someone at every event always had a job that totally intrigued the rest of the group. People were completely captivated by this individual, and were always curious to know how s/he scored the gig, and what exactly it entailed.


Fairfax, Va.: I posted my resume online and immediatley received a call from a hiring manager. I expressed my desire in the open postion and she stated I appreared to be a good candidate and would follow up to schedule an interview. One week later, I've left a voice mail stating my continued interest but have not recieved a call for the interview. Should I let it go or call again?

Alexandra Levit: I believe in what I call the "3 contact rule." You contact the person whose attention you're trying to get three times within a six week period (either e-mail or phone, though I recommend you start with e-mail). If they don't get back to you after that time, invest your time elsewhere.


Herndon, Va.: Mary Ellen and Alexandra: I have a well paying job, but am trying to get out of some nasty credit card debt. I'm in the process of trying to find a part-time job that won't impact on my current job. Any suggestions for how to bring this up to my boss without getting into a conversation about finances? I'm not pushing bankruptcy or anything. I just want to work my way out of debt as fast as I can.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Why would your boss necessarily need to know about your weekend gig?

Alexandra Levit: I agree. As long as your new gig doesn't impact your current responsibilities, it shouldn't be any concern of your boss's.


RE: 25 years old and I don't have a college degree: What about checking with some of the local temp and placement agencies? They might be able to find something for you that is the right fit.

Mary Ellen Slayter: One idea


To 25 and no degree: Have you tried online courses? Many community and four year schools offer them.

Mary Ellen Slayter: And another ...

Though, I don't like when older students limit themselves to online courses. "Traditional Degrees for Nontraditional Students" by Carole Sargent Fungaroli is a good resource for adults thinking about heading back to school.


Richmond, Va.: I'm going in for my second interview later this week for a position that I really like, any last minute piece of advice?

Alexandra Levit: Make sure that you demonstrate results you've achieved for other organizations in every conversation you have. Seal the deal by immediately showcasing the value you can bring to this new organization.


Washington, D.C.: I recently had a phone interview with Georgia-Pacific for a position located in all places ... Muskogee, Oklahoma. I know the cost of living is much cheaper, but they asked me if I would take a lateral salary. I said no, but I am wondering if that was the wrong move. I want to show an increase in my salary history, but again, I understand that the cost of living is almost half of D.C.'s. Do you have a suggestion? Should I follow-up differently? Is it too late?

Alexandra Levit: It depends on how much you want the job. Given the cost of living difference, a lateral salary may be justified in this case. It can't hurt to call them back and say you've changed your mind, but you have to be prepared to definitely take less money than you were originally expecting.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Yeah, lateral seems more than reasonable here. Functionally, you are getting a big, fat raise.


RE: Fairfax: I'm not sure how helpful this is, but have you considered applying for positions in mailrooms, or that sort of thing? The two large corporations I've worked for always had fairly large mailrooms needing people, but those people were on the same schedule as the bulk of the company (that is, the janitorial staff and IT support had to work night shifts, etc., but the mailroom people were on the same 8:30-5:30 as the rest of us). Or what about something like school bus driver, or gardener, or dog walker, etc.?

Regardless, good luck finding something and going ahead with the classes!

Mary Ellen Slayter: Another thought for the young worker without a degree.


Washington, D.C.: Hi, Mary Ellen and Alexandra. My younger co-workers and I are having a hard time at our jobs lately. We work in a predominantly engineering field, but we are not engineers. We are behind the scenes staff, not secretaries, but other types of program support. Lately, we have not had any work to do. When we ask for more work, we are handed phone lists to type or are asked to book conference rooms. We know there is work here to do, but we cannot get our bosses to hand it to us or give us anything that uses our skills and knowledge. These are good jobs we have, and for about three months out of the year, we are busy. The rest of the year, we are surfing the net or begging for work. Personally, I have almost ten years of experience doing what I do and really enjoy the one part of my job that I do, but, for the rest of the year I'm going batty. I'm not reluctant to look for a new job, but would like to make this one better before jumping ship. How can we suggest to our bosses that we are intelligent, creative people who can do more than the little work they give us?

Alexandra Levit: Don't rely on the managers or other colleagues to tell you what to do...brainstorm areas where you can use your unique skill set to add value, and then either propose new projects to your boss or just start working on them. After you've successfully taken initiative, the people in your organization will start to trust and have faith in you.


Anonymous: I'm trying desperately to move from an art field into a security field. I have a pretty versatile degree but am having extreme difficulty in making the jump. Do you have any advice? Thanks so much!

Alexandra Levit: How about researching some third-party organizations in the security field? Attend their events and get to know individuals already employed in the industry. Developing relationships in your field of choice is a good first step toward breaking into a field where you may not have built-in contacts.


Rockville, Md.: I'm updating my resume and am unsure about the best way to do it. I've been at my job for four years and have been promoted twice. Should I break my job into these three titles and display each separately? However, I work as a consultant and have had three clients. Is it best to break out the three clients in the resume? Thanks!

Alexandra Levit: Definitely break out the titles, it shows growth and progression. I don't recommend breaking out the clients, though. Mention the projects you did for them and they results you got as they pertain to your responsibilities in each role.


Arlington, Va.: What's considered a "reasonable" length of time for an employer to give some sort of answer after an in-person interview?

I've been on 15 in person interviews in the past year, and in 11 of those cases, I either never heard back at all, or I only heard back after I waited three to four weeks and then had to leave multiple messages for the HR office (or hiring manager, depending on the employer). In two cases I never heard back after I was called back after second interviews.

Obviously I know they weren't hiring me, but isn't there some minimal level of courtesy that ought to be expected from a potential employer in terms of notifying applicants about their status? I feel like, if they thought enough of my credentials to call me in, and if I had to rearrange my schedule, use up vacation or leave time at work, maybe buy a new shirt or tie, the least they could manage is a 30 second phone call in a timely fashion telling me where I stand.

Am I being unreasonable here?

Mary Ellen Slayter: No, you're not. Hiring managers are busy, but I absolutely agree that they should make time to promptly let anyone they've met in person know where they stand. Not doing so reflects horribly on the employer as a whole.


Washington, D.C.: I was told at my last review I should seek a new job elsewhere (mostly for lack of work/market downturn related reasons) and they're giving me time to do so. I'm an attorney from a top law school with many years of experience at top firms, but I'm hitting a brick wall trying to get a job. I moved to this job a year ago and had tons of interviews and some offers when I came to this place, but the situation is totally different this time around. All the rejection letters are starting to get to me: it very demoralizing when I was recently turned down for a position for which they were really looking for a paralegal. I don't know what to think after I got an interview for a job that seemed to be made for me in terms of experience sought, but was told afterwards that they were looking at people "with more experience." My current employers are losing patience and I'm facing the possibility of having to put an end date on my resume. Do you think potential employers can smell my desperation, and as a result are not going for me?

Any experience advising out of work lawyers? How much of a career killer is it become a contract attorney? Most law firms seem to treat them like they have the plague...

Alexandra Levit: What about looking for in-house counsel positions? Nearly every large company has a staff of lawyers, and depending on the reasons things weren't working out at your current firm, you may find that such a position is a better fit.


Dallas, Tex.: I will be a summer associate at a large law firm this summer and am looking for advice for dressing professionally. I have a disability and wear a leg brace that extends all the way up to my hips.

I love to wear dresses and skirts and am not at all self-conscious about my leg brace. I also know how to dress professionally, but was wondering if it's okay for me to wear a skirt suit to work if it means my leg brace will be showing. I also can't wear heels because of my disability and was wondering if this would be perceived as unprofessional.

Any advice? Or should I just stick to boring pant suits?

Mary Ellen Slayter: Heels aren't a requirement for professional dress even for people who physically can wear them, so definitely don't worry about that.

I wouldn't bat an eyelash at the visible leg brace, but I suppose some people might get worked up about it. Conservatively, I'd stick with the pants suits (which don't have to be "boring," by the way) until you get a feel for the culture of the place.

Alexandra Levit: I personally never wear heels, and I probably should since I'm only 5 feet tall! As long as you look like you fit in with the rest of the people there, you should be fine, whether your brace shows or not.


Montclair, N.J.: How do you get employers to take notice when you live in a different state and you wnt to relocate?

Alexandra Levit: Be willing to spend your own money for in person interviews, and if you have a family, show potential employers why the move is a good fit for everyone so they don't have to worry that you're going to turn down the job at the last minute because your wife doesn't want to go.


Washington, D.C.: Most of the personnel in my department are overly concerned with proving that they are more knowledgable, have better ideas, and are more of an expert than the next person. You can't say anything without someone trying to show you up, or put down your idea. And, if you ever try to be helpful and offer guidance on something you have a lot of experience with, they jump all over you, get defensive and spend more time explaining why they didn't know something, or why they didn't do it "correctly," etc. They take any suggestion as criticism and blame, even with very mundane and non-controversial things. It's gotten to where I just don't share my ideas anymore, and don't offer information I know will help them out. My boss is not like this at all, so she's not the one fostering this culture. The entire staff was here when she arrived, and I know that there was some kind of major department shakedown before she and I got here. The previous supervisor was fired, and my boss let someone go when she got here. So maybe there's a lot of resentment or fear left over from all that.

How do you deal with people like this? I've only been here about six months, and I'm not ready to give up and leave. Would rather explore coping strategies first.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Wow, that sounds like an office full of seriously insecure people.

Given the recent shakeup, I wonder if the best cure might just be more time.


Former DCer: What is your advice for dealing with age differences among colleagues? I am more than 10 years younger than the other members of a small team where I have been working as a contract employeee. I feel a big disconnect with my colleagues, especially since I applied for a permanent position with the team that has a slightly -higher- title. I have really solid experience and background in the industry and I am well qualified for the position, but I sense resentment and passive-agressive attitudes from some individuals. I don't know if I want to be part of this team long-term if this type of behavior continues. It is a good job opportunity which is becoming more rare as the economy declines. How can I deal with this behavior?

Alexandra Levit: Try to be deferential and respectful of their years of experience. Even if you have more knowledge in certain instances, show that you're willing to learn from them. A little humility goes a long way in dealing with people who are insecure because someone much younger has arrived on the scene and is competent at doing the same work.


Alexandria: Greetings, I've been a technical writer for 13 years, and I'm getting tired and bored. I work with intel analysts and have decided I'd like to move in that direction, part for interest, and part for the potential income generation. My clearance is about to be bumped up again, and I'm attending an online degree program for a BS in Criminal Justice (I already have a BA in English). Does it sound like I'm on a good track to shift careers? I didn't know what else to do. Thanks.

Alexandra Levit: Since you're already working with the intel analysts, why not ask them exactly what you need to do to break in? Going for a degree might be one way, but I bet there are other things neither of us have thought of. By the way, if you do end up making the switch, please e-mail me. I'm working on a new book called Change Your Job, Change Your Life, and I'm looking for people who have made drastic career changes!


Mary Ellen Slayter: Alexandra, what's the most surprising thing you learned while researching and writing the book?

Alexandra Levit: Great question! It was surprising to me while the individuals profiled in my book love their "dream" jobs, even they don't believe there's a such thing as the perfect work situation. Every job has its ups and downs, and aspects we love and aspects we don't love.


Confused in D.C.: Mary Ellen:

Thank you for taking my question.

I am very conflicted with my current situation and wanted your opinion, is it more important to be at a job where you are considered an a team player OR at a company where you are "one of the employees," however, the company is large and there seems to be a lot of vertical opportunity.

I recently landed what I thought would be dream job, in a new field with a great team.

A couple months into the position and I am questioning my decision. The short list, minimal training, when I have work it is not engaging/challenging and I am looking for things to do. I am also used to being one of the top performers, in charge of an account and I do not have that sense of accomplishment that I once had.

Am I not giving this enough time? Is it normal to still have conflict after so many months on the job? I find myself questioning my decision a lot lately.

Alexandra Levit: In my opinion, you need to give it six months. No one is going to trust a new employee with the world right off the bat. A probationary period is to be expected, even if informal. Continue to show your enthusiasm and look for areas where you can add value, and if they are still not taking advantage of your talents after six months, then revisit the issue.


Burke, Va.: I recently got a promotion, but was not offered what is stated as the minimum salary for the position. When I asked my supervisor for an explanation, he got angry and said that if I wouldn't accept that, he'd have to keep interviewing. He also told me he hasn't gotten an increase he's happy with in several years, so I shouldn't expect to be happy with mine. I am in shock right now, because all I did was ask a question and now it's all blown up. I hardly think I'm being unreasonable in expecting to be paid the minimum. But I didn't even say I wouldn't take the job unless I got that. I just asked for an explanation. Now I don't know what to do.

Alexandra Levit: If you really want to stay, you'll have to leave it alone. But if you're really unhappy with the situation (I wouldn't blame you) and you feel you have nothing to lose, perhaps ask HR about salary grades (pre-established levels of pay) in the organization and ask what they recommend giving that you appear to be making less. You might get what you want this way, but you'd have to be prepared that your boss might find out and get even more irritated.


Alexandria, Va.: I am about to graduate from grad school and have had a number of graduate assistantships and internships which I believe should count as two years of experience. I don't believe I should have to take an entry-level, low-paying position so how can I convince hiring managers that I have the experience they are looking for?

Alexandra Levit: It's all a matter of positioning. Write your resume and present yourself as if you do in fact have two (or more) years of experience - putting your skills and contributions front and center. Education should be secondary, at the bottom. If you put it at the top, employers may assume that you just graduated and have no relevant experience yet.


It can't hurt to call them back and say you've changed your mind, : Saying you changed your mind does not portray a strong image. Call and ask for Cost of Living info for Oklahoma so you can make an informed decision about the lateral salary offer. That leaves you room to retract your NO without looking wishywashy.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Good point.


Leg brace.: Don't hide it. I work for a law firm, and we'd never expect an associate to hide a disability. If you were in a wheelchair, we wouldn't ask you to pretend you weren't.

The most important thing is to wear good fitting, clean and pressed professional outfits. Don't overdo the jewelry or the makeup. And don't worry about heels. Keep your shoes clean and polished - nobody's going to care if you wear heels. Women are wearing them less and less these days.

Mary Ellen Slayter: Excellent advice. Thank you.


Wrong Choice, D.C.: (online only please) Mary Ellen, I've read your column and chats for years, but this is the first time I've needed to write to you.

How do you leave a job and not burn bridges when your company/boss/co-workers make derogatory comments about the ethics and moral character of every person who leaves their office? Recently, an employee with 8+ years of time gave six months notice that he is moving to go to grad school and live nearer to his fiancee. There have been snide remarks about his dedication/loyalty and work ethics ever since.

I recently left a good paying, challenging job to work for my college (I've volunteered there for 10+ years). I wasn't looking- the school approached me with an offer. I accepted the job- mainly because it was closer to my family and my father is extremely sick.

I've since found that the grass is not greener and that many opportunities discussed in the interview are not available. Additionally, the job/co-workers and I do not seem like a good fit. I know it takes awhile to adjust to a new work situation, and I've only been here four months, I can already tell that this is not going to happen.

I have an opportunity to return to my old field of work. I will, of course, give two weeks notice, if not a month. There are a whole host of issues leading to my departure- money, work load, co-workers, general unhappiness- that my bosses are unaware of. Since I plan on leaving and the corporate culture is so catty, I don't feel like I want to further complicate my situation by bringing these up.

I am prepared that the school will freeze me out as far as further relationships, volunteer opportunities and recommendations if I leave, but am afraid about my last few weeks of employment and the comments I am sure to face.

Do you have any ideas on how to smooth this transition- what to say in my letter of resignation or in a meeting about my leaving in such a short period of time? What do I say when approached or faced with these comments?

Thank you!

Alexandra Levit: I would wait at least six months, preferably a year, before you decide that you've given the job a fair shot and that it's really time to go. Then, be the bigger person about it. Give an appropriate amount of notice, and transition all your work thoroughly. Try to ignore the snide comments, and tell everyone (especially the mean people), how much you've enjoyed working with them. If asked why you are leaving, come up with the most diplomatic explanation possible, even if it's not 100% true. Because it's your college, you might have interaction with these people in the future and you want to exit as nicely as you possibly can.


Anonymous: Hey Mary Ellen and Alexandra! Thanks for taking my question. My husband and I are looking into moving back to the D.C. area after one year away. He graduated from grad school and ended up taking a job that's not working for either of us, so he's beginning to look for positions back up there. I would like to get back in my old field (one of those cool ones!) if we moved, and there happen to be three positions available, including my old job, that I would be interested in applying for. I'm afraid of waiting till he gets a job to apply because then they could be gone, but I also know from experience that I cannot support our family on my income alone, which he could were he to get a job before me. So should I take a chance and wait for him to get one, or go ahead and apply and possibly look stupid because we live 1000 miles away? I can't afford to fly up for interviews, but given my experience with the company, I'm hoping I could do phone or something.

Alexandra Levit: If it's very likely that your husband will actually get a job in DC, then go ahead and start interviewing. Just be honest about your situation when dealing with potential employers, especially your old one.


Mary Ellen Slayter: Thanks for all your comments and questions! And extra thanks to our guest, Alexandra!

Alexandra Levit: Thank you so much for having me, Mary Ellen! For more information on the new book, How'd You Score That Gig?, please feel free to visit or join our Facebook group.


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