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Ask Anything: 10 questions with career advisor Alan Levinson

Posted November 4, 2008
Updated November 11, 2008

Career Advisor Alan Levinson: Thanks for your questions! I really appreciate the opportunity to help such a wide range of folks who have sent questions. As a career advisor, I thrive on helping new college graduates and career changers of every age enter an exciting new career. My hope is that you will learn something new to make a difference in your life. I do have some CAUTIONS, however, like:

  • I am not a comedian, but I try to see the humor in all situations and help others do the same. I hope my answers will make you think and make you smile while you consider new ideas.
  • I know there is LOTS of good advice available “out there." With a little research and guidance you can become your own expert, and I have included many links for further exploration. Get various opinions and apply what you find to YOUR situation.
  • Finally, as many who know me will say: Alan can talk forever. I will do my best not to drone on and on and on and on and on. OOPS, sorry.


What is the most effective resume today? I have not updated mine since 1986. I'm in the medical field, if that helps with the answer. – Debbie, Knightdale

With more than 20 years of medical experience (and for ALL job seekers) you have some options how to present your information. The two most common résumé formats are chronological and functional. Depending on your next career step (if you continue in your medical career, consider chronological OR if making a change, functional is most common) See additional résumé information here for pros and cons of each style and additional résumé writing resources. Many new college graduates use a "combination" style that emphasizes NEW skills and still provides a chronological work history.


What's the best way to contact a potential employer after you have sent in a resume and/or application, without seeming like a pest? – Jamie Dickens, Rocky Mount

Camp out in the bushes near their office and greet them when they arrive ... No, just KIDDING! I encourage job seekers to be active in their search, but this does require tact and planning.

ALL your applications should be submitted to a specific individual whenever possible. Get the hiring manager’s name by calling the company or checking the company Web page (for example “About Us” or “Company Profile” are common links on the home page that will reveal this valuable information.)

Follow up promptly after the submittal (next day or two). Do NOT ask a closed question like “Did you receive my application?” INSTEAD ask something like, “I’d like to verify that my application/résumé was received, and if you have a minute now, just direct your attention to my strongest points related to the position ...”

If you get shut down, simply ask what time frame they expect in reviewing applications and be pleasant with your hope to hear back shortly, or ask if there is another time the two of you can talk. Follow up can be via phone or e-mail or both. Again, be upbeat and try to offer one valuable piece of information that will catch their attention.

By the way, this won’t work every time. Don’t be discouraged, you have to keep pushing. Just be as pleasant and upbeat as possible. Each new phone call represents an opportunity.


I have a friend who was fired for inadvertently disclosing proprietary company information. When looking for a new job, how do you explain these circumstances to a potential employer? – RT, Cary

Well, RT, (if that is your real name) thanks for this question! This is a tough spot for sure! Some of the traps include:

  • Exposing bad judgment or immaturity or lack of trust to the potential employer. None of these are on the top 75 list of desirable “new-hire” traits.
  • Forcing your friend to LIE to cover the truth. (This ranks about 99 on the list ...)

It is NEVER advised to be dishonest on your résumé or during your interviews, or anytime. In discussing this embarrassing fact, I suggest creating a script with the major points of what happened outlined succinctly and factually and as positively as possible.

“Positively,” meaning that while acknowledging a mistake, emphasize how not only did the situation create a painful personal lesson for the individual, but that they understand how the business was injured as well. Take responsibility and include a statement of what has been done since then to build up awareness of confidentiality issues and a desire not to risk causing another similar situation.

Finally, one must work to give the employer a reason to trust the candidate. Rehearse the answer with your friend and once he is comfortable with the information, he will be ready to tackle his job search without fear of hearing that question.


I quit working more than seven years ago in the computer tech sector to stay at home with our kids. How do I get back into the job market having been out so long? – Kevin Pearce, Durham

Ahh kids! Now you have experience discussing feeding and pooping schedules with the other dads, right? Me, too, and there’s no better job if you’re lucky to be in that bucket.

There are SO MANY men and women in this situation that you are not alone in your question. I believe the honest picture is the best picture to paint. Your challenge will simply to show that you STILL have relevant technical and business skills to apply in your career. You may want to grab a few books from the library on the newest version of the “latest program/technology” that you work with, and perhaps study for and take a certification test, or search online for refresher skills.

Wake County’s Job Link Career Center is an excellent resources for job seekers in our community. The Job Link Career Center is a full service resource that every job seeker should utilize, including online videos and articles.

Your résumé may fall in the “functional” category as described to Debbie above. Then, your work experience section supports the skills that you highlight, NOT the fact that you have become a “diaper-dealing, boo boo kissing, fast food fixing father.” (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!)


At the end of the job interview, when the interviewer asks if you have any questions for them, is this a good time in inquire about the company's drug testing policies? – Milky, Cary

Oh, that's easy. DON'T DO THAT! This is serious, and while we could debate the merits and problems with the current laws on controlled substances, it is always advised to NOT do drugs!

Marijuana stays in your system for 30 days, and we know that many companies require drug testing as a precondition of employment. WHY take a chance in this economy? Refrain from drug use during a job search and know that random testing can and will cost you a job you already HAVE.

Your question might be alternately asked: “What are some questions I should prepare to ask during my interviews?” To that, I would say, “Excellent question, Milky."

Stay away from questions about benefits and salary. You’ll have time to cover that if THEY ask YOU, OR if and when you are actually offered the position. Questions about the full job description, what the 30, 60, 90 day expectations are, even questions about how well the employer likes working there or how they started in the company are great. They show your interest in the job, and uncover other valuable information about the environment and growth potential.

I’m also not a fan of asking about dress code or hours. I figure those are details that are not deal killers (hours could be, but are more likely negotiable) and can be learned after an OFFER is made. Here are two articles with more advice on questions you can ask:

ONE final thought: After you get your answer, show that you have been listening and that you have understood the employer’s response by commenting on what you have been told or taking the opportunity to show that the answer reinforces your interest in the position.


Our son will be graduating in December with a bachelor of science in biology. What is his best tactic to find a job? Thanks. – Worried Mom, Sanford

Excellent question, Mom! (Hey, aren’t mom’s the best?) Advice to Junior: Don’t forget your college career center. I know folks at several area colleges and they are all well informed and well connected to the employment community. For online resources, an excellent starting point for additional information is: www.collegegrad.com/jobsearch/Map/

TAKE NOTE, Mom, and others who have asked career questions here: Sometimes the underlying question needs to be addressed, even AFTER a degree is earned. That question is: “What do I want to be when I grow up?”

Here are some leads if this is YOU (regardless of age, Ron below).

First stop, O*Net Online, where you can learn requirements and details of any given career. Click on “find occupations” and type in any job and discover if you really LIKE what you see. Or, in this case, type in Biologist explore. There’s a lot of data and it is WORK to go through, but it is worth it. Explore the ENTIRE site!

Second, take that information to the Occupational Outlook Handbook to see educational requirements for the job and employment/salary prospects within that field.


I am a 57-year-old unemployed environmental health and safety manager. I lost my job a year ago this past August. Do you have any suggestions how I can get a job … doing anything? I'm either over-qualified or under-qualified. I have to work. Help! – Ron Lunn, Benson

SURE do, Ron! There are lots of things you can do. It’s all about the network!

VOLUNTEER! Get out there and give back to the community, whether with the inter-faith food shuttle or at the animal shelter, get involved and marvel at the good feelings you’ll generate AND interesting people you will meet!

I have found an excellent site for upper management professionals (and the advice page is every bit as valuable to our Generation Y new professionals as well): www.theladders.com/career-advice. This is billed as a career page for those earning $100,000 annually, but it does not restrict you from using the information if you are not quite there yet.

See the answer for MOM above, regarding her Bundle of Biology. This may be helpful to you, too. I have subscribed to the Wall Street Journal “Career Journal." I get a weekly advice newsletter. Explore and sign up here.


I recently completed my master’s degree in business administration and healthcare management. I am now having trouble finding a job and am wondering if this is due to the current state of the economy or due to the fact that it was an online degree. Are online degrees not taken seriously? I am considering a doctorate program which would also be done online and do not want to go in to more debt if the degree will not be worth it. Any suggestions? – Pat Dr., Durham

Some may say that online degrees are not taken seriously, but you cannot accept that conclusion if you believe your education was valuable and beneficial. Your challenge is to translate your skills and knowledge into convincing arguments and a persuasive résumé.

You may benefit from reading up on what the education industry has to offer about this new mode of instruction, including this article espousing pros and cons of online education.

Empower yourself with the features and benefits that your program offered you. You have to be your own best advocate, but utilize your school’s resources (they probably have “arguments” that help graduates overcome real and perceived obstacles in the workplace.) YES, the employment economy is tough now. BUT, that simply means we all have to fight a little harder to create opportunities.

Heather Savage, one of my career advisor colleagues who works with online students, tells students: “...An online degree shows employers that you have a lot of self-motivation, good time management, and discipline. [And] since all the classes are taken online, there is no doubt about your computer skills. Students still have group projects and presentations online showing teamwork, but of course there are more challenges working with the team. Finally, online classes are often more writing intensive.”

AND, check out The Chronicle of Higher Education and search “distance education” and “online learning” for some great articles dealing with this topic. Lastly, go do your job search based on advice listed above. You’ve got to network and market yourself!


I spent a few years in college right after high school and changed my major several times. I eventually became tired of school and just graduated with whatever degree I was closest to. Now after several thousand dollars owed in student loans I am still no closer to a career as I was before. I have dreams of having a great career making pretty good money but I have no idea in what industry. What do you suggest for people who seem to have no real calling to a particular career? – Celeste Frank, Cary

Thanks for your question, Celeste. May I be Frank with you? (groan) Here are a few shoot from the hip answers:

  • SALES. Not kidding. For me, the tough world of sales taught me many great lessons and built upon my liberal arts (psychology and counseling) education. There is time management and organization, interpersonal relations, motivation and assertiveness, problem solving and negotiating. One can do this for ANY industry and you will certainly have an opportunity to earn a strong income.
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE/Call Center. Sounds glamorous, doesn’t it? Well, this is certainly a tough job, but I am sure that someone who is looking to begin a career could rise through the ranks quickly and assume leadership and even managerial positions after proving oneself.
  • Informational Interviewing. (That’s not a career, however.) Pick several “industries” of interest to you and schedule meetings with professionals in a variety of jobs within those industries. First hand information can be very valuable in helping you decide on a top career target (or two). See this article/tutorial from Quintessential Careers.


I am a professional state government worker and recently completed my degree from North Carolina State University. I am worried that because I have a "non-traditional" path of working and completing school at the same time, that my resume does not accurately reflect my abilities to do the work required in the higher level, professional positions I seek. Do I need to update my resume to make it appear more professional? I submit most of my resumes online through procedures that are set up (i.e. through government Web site, private company recruiting sites), but I never hear back from anyone. What am I doing wrong? – Dylan Ward, Holly Springs

Hello Dylan! You’re my favorite kind of student! I meet many folks with your “non-traditional” approach to education, and I applaud you for taking up the challenge.

REMEMBER: Going to school and working your way through shows tremendous courage, persistence and stamina – just what employers all over the triangle are telling me they WANT to hire. And, as mentioned above, utilize the N.C. State University Career Center on campus. I know a few folks there, and I can highly recommend their services.

Your résumé may indeed be in need of an update. Showcase your newly earned degree, and consider a "functional résumé" so that your project work from school and other “non-work related” strengths can JUMP off the page for the hiring manager to see. When applying for positions, be sure to FOLLOW-UP each application with a phone call as mentioned to the previous stalker, UM, I mean, Jamie in question 2 above.

Parting thoughts:

  • There is no shortage of troubling employment and economic news. In spite of this, we should try to keep a sense of humor and know that it is darkest before the dawn.
  • More career-related research information can be found at: www.rileyguide.com

ask anything - dmi

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  • QT3.14 Nov 20, 2008

    This is probably one of the best "Ask Anything" columns I've read. Thanks!!!

  • lolly Nov 4, 2008

    Great story. very informative. Thank you for your time Alan.

  • .Milky Nov 4, 2008

    "Your question might be alternately asked: “What are some questions I should prepare to ask during my interviews?” To that, I would say, “Excellent question, Milky.""

    Thank you! That is exactly what I was trying to ask.