Career Coach takes your questions

Jun 12, 2013

With an unemployment rate of 7.5 percent, a little career advice never hurt anyone.

Career coach Joyce Russell discussed jobs, negotiations and salary issues. Ask questions and get advice now!

Want more? Read Joyce Russell's Career Coach columns.

Welcome to the June online chat. Happy to take your questions. Feel free to also offer your own insights and advice to our readers.



I have a great job I generally love, in my field; it pays decently and I have good job security, which are all things to be grateful for in today's challenging economy. The problem is that I can literally count the number of days I have been able to take off in the past two years on the fingers of one hand. This is not because I haven't scheduled vacations - I have scheduled time off at least seven times that I have been asked to cancel, often at the last minute, due to "work priorities." I like my boss (he is a great professional mentor and we work very well together), but he is a workaholic who thinks everyone should be available to work 7 days a week. I am not spending enough time with my family and am starting to suffer the symptoms of burnout. I feel that I should be able to take some portion of the vacation time I earn, especially when I submit my vacation requests months in advance (the approvals mean nothing when they can be revoked at any time). Any advice on how to handle this? Or am I just going to have to make a choice between working all the time with no breaks and finding a different job?

This is actually more common than you think (sad to say). I think you should plan your next vacation and make it very clear to your boss that you are going to take this vacation. Then, do it. If you keep allowing the boss to cancel your vacations then he will know that the vacations are really not that important to you. I think everyone gets "work priorities" every now and then that require some flexibility in scheduling. But, if this has been going on for 2 years, then it is a pattern that you really need to break. I just recently wrote a column for the Washington Post in the Career Coach section about the Value of Hobbies. Maybe you need to share it with your boss.

Best of luck - stay firm for that next vacation!

With sequestration, there has been a lot of talk in the news about the various agencies and the impact on the federal employees, but little about the contractors. I have not heard anything that will impact our contract for the remainder of the 2013 fiscal year, but I also have not heard anything about our chances to have the contract renewed for the 2014 fiscal year. I assume that I am better off staying put with my current employer than jumping ship to another company that is also a contractor. In my past jobs, the new employees were the first to go. Is this the right approach, or should I seek and accept the right opportunity if it comes along?

I would suggest staying where you are and asking lots of questions in the hopes that they can tell you about renewal of the contract for the next year. Moving from contractor to contractor would only make sense if you knew that one contractor had definite work for the following year. This may be hard to know at this point, so I would encourage you to stay where you are. Unless, you get more data on this. Best of luck.

For some highly personal reasons, medically related, I feel like I need a break from my extremely high pressure and competitive job. I'd like to take 4-6 months away so I can really focus on my personal issues, but I'd like to be able to come back later. I am afraid if I quit I'll never be able to get back where I am now (it really is that competitive). However, I'm also afraid if I don't take the time I need now, I will regret it for the rest of my life. I'm also not doing a great job since I am extremely distracted. I think I've done a good job so far covering my bases, but I am running out of steam. My plan is to talk to my manager and lay it as I need a break but want to come back with the idea that I will walk away if they won't accommodate me at all. I I can take unpaid leave, so that's not an issue. Is there anything else that I should be doing/saying to give me the best chance of getting what I want?

This is a tough situation. You did not say what type of work you do, but it is rare to be able to take a break for a few months and then easily get back to your job. Most businesses can not operate that way. They would need to get someone to replace you. What other possibilities exist? Could you cut your work hours to allow for more time off? Could you take a longer vacation - maybe 2-3 weeks? I know this is not what you are hoping for, but could it be done? What about finding someone who could fill in for you (at your job) temporarily? The idea is to solve the problem for your boss to make it easier for him or her to say yes.

If you can't find a way to solve the issue (getting your work done) for your boss, you may just have to leave and take a chance that they will hold your job. This is a big chance, though, since if they can do without you for months, then would they need to hire you back? Possibly, but it is a chance.

On the other hand, from what you are saying, it sounds like you really need to take this break for medical reasons. Are those reasons they can accommodate (under the Americans with Disabilities Act) so that they can give you this time off?

What are your other options for jobs if they don't take you back? Given your field, can you easily be hired elsewhere? If so, you may want to go ahead and take the time off, and then see if you can get back to your firm. If not, then look at your back-up plan. Best of luck.

Hello. I'm a lawyer, leaving a law firm (happily) to begin to work for someone who is second-in-command in a large state gov't dept. The governor's office is two floors above and there will be interaction with him and the legislature. I'm concerned about shifting into a different culture, getting comfortable in a government office, making myself valuable/visible without ruffling lifetime employees' feathers, and also dressing the part. Any advice you may have will be appreciated. Thanks.

Good questions. I would dress professionally, yet also look to see what the culture is like at the new place - in terms or work styles, dress code, work hours, etc. Always dress a little more professionally when in doubt - it helps with credibility. I would also do a lot of listening and asking questions (initially) to learn from those who have been there and are successful. Don't form any specific allegiances, instead try to be friendly to everyone. Sometimes people join firms and immediately become friends with one group vs. another. Not a good idea. Stay friendly with everyone. Another key tip is to maintain confidentialities. If you overhear things or people tell you things, do not be the one to share any office gossip. 

Just by the fact that you are asking the questions indicates that you want to be successful and do the right things. Best of luck!

I am a recent graduate of Smith and I will be starting my full-time accounting job this fall. Do you have any tips as to how to make the transition between university and full-time career run smoothly?

First, congratulations on finishing your degree from the Smith School of Business! Accounting is a great field to be in. There always seems to be a market for them. Have you taken and passed the CPA exam yet, or are you planning to do this? Just something to think about.

More than likely you will be working at a professional firm so understanding the culture will be important - who your boss is, what the dress code is like, what the work hours are, etc. I would encourage you to reach out to any alums who work at your new firm and meet with them in advance to learn the "ropes" of the new firm. They should be able to give you good advice about how to stand out and be successful in the new firm. But, generally, your initial success is really based on performance, professionalism, strong work ethic and code of conduct, and how you work with any teammates and project team members. You could also reach out to your future boss for any advice. Stay tuned - this is a good topic for a future Career Coach column I will write. 

Best of luck.

Hi Joyce. I am now looking for a position after spending most of my adult career at one company that is now downsizing. So looking for a job is a bit overwhelming. What do you think the is most productive method(s) for a job search for someone in my position?

The most recent Career Coach column I wrote for the Post (June 10) was on this very topic.  That column was also for people without a college degree. But some of the tips might be helpful.

But, in your specific case, I would definitely make sure you spend some time updating your resume. Get someone to review it to make sure you have highlighted all of your major responsibilities for people, budgets, etc. Make sure your training, degrees, certifications and honors are all noted. Also, make sure it starts with a summary of your qualifications since you probably have a number of years of experiences  you can highlight in the first paragraph. This is important to distinguish yourself from others. So, the resume is the most important first step to update. 

Meet with someone about your interviewing skills. If you have not been in the marketplace for a while, you may not have had to interview in a while. So, get someone to practice with you - behavioral questions, case-based questions, etc. 

Also, make sure your social media self is current. Get on LinkedIn or some other site to make sure it has all of your current information. Get others to endorse you for various skills. Spend some time networking with others using this platform.

So, the most important things to do first - resume, social media site for yourself, and practice interviewing. Those are the most critical first steps if you have been out of the market for a while.

Best of luck!

I received my MBA a few years ago, started a family and decided to stay with my current employer. What advice do you have if I want to start my transition this late after receiving my degree?

Not a problem - your MBA is always worth something in the market. You need to update your resume, making sure any current jobs or honors, certificates, training are noted. Also, think about what firms you might want to look at, and what type of jobs. This will enable you to better target them. Get on Web sites such as or to learn about salaries for MBAs in your field. In other words, you need to update your resume, social media profile, start networking, and do some research on MBA-related jobs and salaries. You might also go back to your school where you got your MBA to seek career assistance. Often, they are helpful with alums. Plus, you should reach out to some of your MBA cohort to see where people are working and connect with them. Don't overly worry about having been out of the market with your MBA. Now it's time to put it to good use!

I am very lucky to have had a great, supportive boss. Over the years we built a great rapport and did a lot of great things for the company. However news just came in that this person is leaving for personal reasons. I am not sure what to do - the organization is in flux for other, non-related reasons. Part of me tells me to stick it out until things settle down; I am well-compensated and I think senior management values me. However I am in an industry that is not necessarily my passion. A new boss, or a period of time without a boss, seems draining to me. What should I do?

Have you talked to your boss? You could chat to get his or her insights, especially since it sounds like you had a good relationship with them.

I also think you should stay until you see what is happening with the firm. It is a lot easier to look for new jobs while you are employed than if you are unemployed. It doesn't make sense to leave the firm and look for jobs at this time. In addition, you could talk to your boss's boss to see what he/she says regarding a future replacement, etc. Perhaps they already have someone in mind and maybe it is someone you would want to work with. 

Stay where you are for now, and collect more information - from your boss and his/her boss. Then, you'll have a better idea of what to do.


In the wake that Edward Snowden left behind, I have seen several articles that talk about the number of contractors the federal government hires. There seems to be an opinion that using contractors puts the government at higher risk for other such leaks. As far as I know, the government puts the same amount of investigation into the background of contractors as their own employees. If they got rid of the contractors, they would need to hire just as many people to do the work so the overall number of people with access to confidential information would be unchanged. I really don't see what difference it makes if the person was a federal employee or a contractor.

Thanks for your insights.

Last year, my boss' dangerous strategy was responsible for some medical issues I had. And when I was cleared by the organization's doctor, I got hurt again, this time seriously. I'm very highly paid, but my career could be cut short if I continue to get hurt. At what point should I stop trusting the company doctor to give me good medical advice?

This is a little complicated. Did the firm's doctor give you bad medical advice? I'm not exactly sure what your question is here. Is it the job that is dangerous or the medical advice?

I have friends who have been with their current employer for 25+ years. When I first graduated from school, I thought that I could stay with my first employer for the rest of my career, but that wasn't to be as they laid me off and sold the company. I have since been with another company that went out of business. Even though I have 15 years of experience, when I started my last job, I was on the bottom when it came to benefits. I work alongside people 10 years my junior who get twice as many weeks of vacation because they have been with the company longer than I have. Why don't companies take experience into account instead of just looking at how long you have been with the company? I asked for the extra time off and was turned down.

This seems to be a common trend for many firms - to treat people as "new" when they hire them into their firms, despite the fact that they may have lots of prior experiences. It may partially be due to the fact that they want to reward organizational loyalty, so that is why those longer-tenured employees get more benefits. One thing that you can do is to ask (like you have), and keep asking (be polite but persistent), and then in future jobs - try to negotiate these benefits when going into a new firm. Sometimes it can be done.

Ah yes, review season is upon us again. Last year, I had an excellent review. This year, I find myself unable to come up with "goals" to discuss with my manager. The truth is that I'm quite content to keep on keeping on. Not interested in taking on more responsibility or stretching out of my comfort zone or any of the usual stuff. My only goal is to continue doing my job reliably and well and to maintain a healthy work-life balance. To be honest, I don't love my job, so if my manager isn't satisfied with my non-goals, I won't be stressed out, but I don't want to disrespect the process either.

Sounds like part of this also depends on whether your boss will want you to set goals. Do you have to turn your written goals in? If so, you will have to take the time to put them together. Even if your boss is not bugging you about this, if your merit review depends on goals, then you should make sure to write them down and meet with your boss. 

Hi, When I was young, was accepted by the best but, for a variety of reasons, never finished the PhD and have had a career doing things which do not interest me. As retirement looms, I wonder whether I could have made any really important contributions and I still want to find out. Can you suggest any tactics to get funded for a PhD in physics at an advanced age? Thank you.

Well, there are people who go back to school later in life so it is not unusual. You would need to research schools with PhD programs in physics. Not sure if you are restricted by geography, but if so, that is another thing to think about - schools in the area you need to live in. Once you have identified the schools, you would need to review all the requirements (test scores, GPA, transcripts, letters of recommendation, etc.) and get those materials together. It might make sense to try to meet with some admissions folks in those programs to learn more about the programs and scholarships and assistantships first (before putting lots of work into this).  Schools can give  you ideas about funding for admissions into their programs so I would check with them first. Good luck!

I would like to relocate to Dallas-Ft. Worth and wonder if it's a good idea to work with a head hunter. I job searched several months ago, but took a break. It's challenging finding something when you live out of state. Do you think working with a recruitment firm is a good idea? Thanks for your input.

Yes, it is a good idea if you are trying to move to another state. It is also a good idea to go visit that state (take some time to go) setting up interviews before you get there with some key firms you are interested in  joining. Sometimes, the best thing to do is just go to the state and spend some time looking while you are there. It is often hard to look while you live in another state - unless you use a search firm or social media or online applications. Good luck.

What's the best way to use LinkedIn as part of a job search? I have about 70 contacts, most of whom aren't in my field and I'm not sure how best to use them. Thanks.

You might want to look at some of the training that Linked In provides on how to best use their site. They offer lots of information about job seeking and using their site. I would refer to their guidance for how to best maximize Linked In.

Hi, I had a solid career until 2 years ago when I left my job to take care of my father, who recently passed. How do I address this on LinkedIn? I don't want to look unprofessional, as career is the most important thing for me (I don't have a family and don't plan to). Should I leave it blank, or should I put caregiving there, even though it has absolutely nothing to do with my management career?

I wouldn't include it at this point, and would make sure to have your most current jobs listed. If asked, you can then discuss it with them then.

Thanks readers for all your questions and shared insights. I look forward to hearing from you again at our next online chat on July 17th, from 12noon - 1pm. Have a great June!



In This Chat
Joyce E.A. Russell
Joyce E.A. Russell is the director of the Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. She is a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist.
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