Readers’ Forum: A matter of college degrees

In the August 31, 2010 Ask The Headhunter Newslettera reader asks:

I am making a career change to improve my life, and I plan to pursue a master’s degree. Any suggestions on how to proceed after I earn it? The U.S. News & World Report school rankings are out again, which reminds me that it seems to matter where your degree comes from. Do you have any tips on selecting the best grad programs for the best career payoff?

Here’s the short version of my reply. (You’ve got to subscribe to the weekly newsletter to get the whole story!)

Magazine school rankings make great birdcage liners. For every edition of a magazine that ranks schools there are several articles that criticize the methodology. Perhaps more important, serious questions have been raised about the cost of higher education. Take a look at a recent USA Today report: Where’s all that college tuition money going?

It’s not just unclear which schools are “best,” but it’s not clear whether your tuition money is well-spent. I don’t think it’s even clear that you need additional education because, if you think about it carefully, you may not be the best judge.

When you buy education, you are certainly the customer, but you’re not the only customer… So what about that “other” customer who’s ultimately paying for your education—with a salary, after he hires you? The question the employer tries to answer is, Does the advanced degree mean better performance on the job?

(In the newsletter, I also discuss what to ask your target employer before you invest in that new degree.)

College degrees. Advanced degrees. MBA’s. Executive MBA’s. What about them?

Let’s take the matter of more learning off the table for a minute. More learning is good. But the question here is about value.

  1. DiplomaDo more degrees pay off? Are we all brainwashed to believe that more college degrees mean better careers and higher salaries? Sometimes I think it’s all about marketing. Schools tout their position in the rankings published by U.S. News & World Report and other magazines.  They promote the “value” of their degrees, but none will guarantee you a higher-level job or higher salary once you spend tens of thousands of dollars on the degree.
    (How silly, Nick! Schools can’t do that! Well, then why do they advertise and promote the correlation between degrees and earnings?)
  2. Do you get what you pay for? A scathing new book by political science professor Andrew Hacker (Queens College, New York) and Claudia Dreifus (Columbia University) tears into exorbitant college tuitions and accuses schools of spending students’ money in all the wrong places — and least of all on delivering education. Higher education: How colleges are wasting our money and failing our kids contends that the price of your degree is wildly inflated because schools don’t apply the tuition dollars you pay them to educate you.

A special case of degrees is the MBA and the EMBA (Executive MBA). We discussed this in Should you get an MBA? I also covered the topic in a special edition of the Ask The Headhunter Newsletter: How executive MBA’s do it, where I suggested that a job candidate’s initiative might trump any degree. (I wrote the latter article after I gave the keynote presentation to the career center directors of 30 of the top MBA schools in the world. Many of them read this blog — and I’d love their comments especially!)

What’s your experience? If you’re a manager or a coach, what’s your advice? Do higher degrees pay off? Would you invest in another degree?


Toilet paper resumes: More feels better?

[Some bloggers cleverly carry a theme from one post to the next. I’m not into that. Honest: I wasn’t looking to flow the theme from Pissing on the applicant into today’s post. Toilet paper just kinda backed up into the system when JaneA posted a comment on Readers’ Forum: HR’s #1 job: Poisoning the well?]

Businesses that are hiring are so intent on gathering as many resumes as possible that they forget “more is not better.”

Over at the Wall Street Journal (that paragon of Job Board Journalism), Mike Michalowicz touts his method for diving into the resume dumpster. When Michalowicz posts a job, he tells applicants to include — word for word — a certain sentence from his ads in their job applications. Then he lets an e-mail filter find the applications that include the magic sentence, and he deletes the rest.

“I only consider applications that contain the sentence, which cuts the number of résumés I have to look at by upwards of 80%.”

Nice trick. He wouldn’t need it if he’d stop solicting thousands of applications by posting job ads.

Employers like Michalowicz have themselves to blame for the “overwhelming response from unqualified applicants.” If you ask to have a dumpster full of resumes delivered to your e-mail bin, you’ll get them. Job boards like, CareerBuilder, TheLadders and even the WSJ’s very own job board are ready to charge you for garbage delivery. You get what you pay for.

Then I noticed that Michalowicz is “the author of The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur. He is an advocate of a business philosophy by the same name.”

I believe it. Toilet paper resumes seem to fit right in. More feels better.

I pose this question to Michalowicz and to every employer (which I believe is the majority of employers) that consider recruiting and hiring a pain in the ass:

If you can ask job applicants anything you like — including asking them to include this sentence in their submissions: “It is with my utmost respect I hereto surrender my curriculum vitae for your consideration.” — why don’t you just ask them to tell you how they’d do the job profitably?

You’d have a lot more fun reading those submissions once your e-mail filters cleaned up the mess you made when you flicked open the sewer valve. Or, you could avoid the resume sewer altogether. And you’d get a free bonus: You won’t have to wipe.


Pissing on the applicant

In a private response to HR’s #1 job: Poisoning the well?, a reader sent me this question:

Is there any point in attempting to negotiate with thug companies that agree on a rate, say they’re going to extend an offer, then the offer comes in at 66% of what you thought was a done deal?

Forget about companies that poison their own well. That’s bad enough. This employer is pissing on the applicant.

My response:

If you are really ready to walk away anyway, push the paper back at them and say, “I’m ready to sign for the amount we agreed on. Not a penny less.”

You’ll learn quickly whether they’re really thugs. Then consider the rule my mentor taught me years ago: Never work with jerks.

I deleted a couple of more choice sentences in my reply to this reader, because I believe that no matter how ticked off you get at an employer or a headhunter, don’t ever go off. Bite your tongue. Swallow your bile. Until you get a chance to tell the story to someone else who might consider working for the jerk.

I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.


Readers’ Forum: HR’s #1 job: Poisoning the well?

In the August 24, 2010 Ask The Headhunter Newslettera reader says:

After being tested and interviewed by the senior vice president of a local company for a senior executive assistant position, they dropped off the planet and made no contact with me. I sent an e-mail to the VP enquiring why there had been no contact and the HR manager responded to me:  

“Your e-mail below was forwarded to my attention as [VP] is away.

“Please be advised that we had not yet concluded our recruitment effort for this position. I appreciate that waiting can be frustrating and you may have preferred more frequent contact during this process. It is our practice, however, upon completion of the interview process, to contact all applicants either once they are no longer being considered for the position or to make an offer. You had not been contacted yet because you were among those being seriously considered for this position.

“We have made an offer to a candidate today; therefore, this opportunity has now closed. Thank you for your interest in employment with [the employer]. We wish you well in your employment search.

“Thank you,
[HR Manager]”

Here’s the short version of my reply. (You’ve got to subscribe to the weekly newsletter to get the whole story!)

If by employers you mean hiring managers, I think sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. But what really matters is that hiring managers relinquish to HR their front-line interface to the professional community they recruit from (that’s you). In other words, hiring managers let HR make them look bad. They let HR make their company look bad.

This dismissive attitude — and this kind of behavior — is just one of the Stupid Hiring Mistakes employers make. Employers take note: How much time would it take an HR manager (or the hiring manager) to return a call from someone who took the time to apply for a job, attend an interview and take a test? Very little. It would have been a good investment for either manager.

It’s a safe guess that, like disgruntled customers who have been treated poorly by your company, this disgruntled job applicant will invest a bit more time — to poison your well by sharing their experience with others in the business. Including your customers.

Good luck with your next applicant, and with your next sales prospect. And good luck to the sucker that accepts your job offer, because bad behavior is pervasive, and Death by Lethal Reputation is slow and agonizing.

And to the reader who submitted this story: If the candidate who received the offer rejects it, and the company calls back to offer you the job, What’s your poison?

The person whose story is featured in today’s Q&A asks a very important question: Do employers know what HR is doing?

In general, I think not. I think the problem is pervasive. Does the board of directors know what HR is doing? Does the Public Relations department? Companies spend enormous sums to create good PR. Meanwhile, on a daily basis HR provokes the professional community from which a company recruits. Today’s Q&A is just one example. Maybe HR should report to PR for a while, until HR learns the impact of its behavior.

You’ve no doubt seen employers thoughtlessly poison their own wells during the recruiting and hiring process. Please share your stories. I think employers just don’t get it. And they need to hear it.



Readers’ Forum: How should I choose a new career?

In the August 17, 2010 Ask The Headhunter Newslettera reader asks:

Changes in the economy and in my industry have left me jobless, and my career has become a dead end. It’s time to move on. How should I choose a new career? My problem is how to select one where I can transfer my skills. Any suggestions?

Here’s the short version of my reply. (You’ve got to subscribe to the weekly newsletter to get the whole story!)

Do not look for jobs that seem to require the skills you used at your last job. That will limit you. Pick a business you want to work in and figure out what it needs. Create a list of functions and tasks to help you sort it out. Build a flowchart. This takes research and effort. No employer will do it for you. You need to figure it out, and you may have to talk to a lot of people to do this. That’s good, because the massive effort will help you to identify work that motivates you, and to weed out jobs you’re pursuing for no good reason at all.

Then, while focusing on the work, look at your most basic skills. Restructure them. Reorganize them. Draw up a simple plan showing how you will apply them in new ways (new to you) to do some aspect of the work. If you believe you can pull it off, there’s the career to pursue. (To avoid stepping into something unexpected, don’t forget Due Diligence: Don’t take a job without it.)

Understanding the work helps you rearrange skills you already have to do something new—and that makes you a potent job candidate. Be realistic, but be aggressive. Drive your new-found interest until it dies, or until you get where you want to go.

(I discuss the parameters of career change in five detailed sections in the Answer Kit: How Can I Change Careers?)

There’s a lot of controversy about how to change careers. Some counselors advise taking aptitude and psychological tests. While those may be helpful, I think the farther from yourself you set the locus of control, the less likely you are to generate the honest self-motivation necessary to succeed. In other words, while it’s good to get help and advice, you need to figure it out yourself.

Have you changed careers? Know someone who has done it successfully? How?

What’s great about the Ask The Headhunter community is that every question is best answered by the real experiences of real people. So please pile on!


Readers’ Forum: Why did I lose my job again?

In today’s August 10, 2010 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, I riff on a question that seems so general that it’s not worth talking about… Why do people wind up losing their jobs every few years?

A reader asks:

I’m  a dedicated, loyal employee, and I would do anything for my employer. Why,  then, do I lose my job every few years and have a hard time landing a new one?

Here’s the short version of my reply. (You’ve got to subscribe to the weekly newsletter to get the whole story!)

Your problem raises a bigger question that’s relevant to everyone: Why do people take a job, only to find themselves job hunting again so soon?

Some people take a job because it’s offered, not because it’s right. Others take jobs because employers flatter them, not because they’re particularly interested in the company or the job. Lost in the joy of being judged worthy, they forget to judge the job and the company, and to think about whether a job is really the kind of long-term investment they want to make. Relieved to be “off the street” (or impressed at being recruited), they will rationalize a poor choice and accept work that does not satisfy them. Gradually, their morale drops and their performance suffers. The effect is cumulative, and eventually the mismatch becomes glaring. They get fired, laid off, or they quit, and the cycle starts again.

The real question is, Will you choose your next job, or will it choose you?

We all know that people lose their jobs due to the economy. What I’m interested in is the other reasons. The economy will improve, somehow, sometime. But I think today’s question will continue to plague people. So let’s talk about other reasons people lose their jobs and have a hard time finding new ones. It’s not always the economy.


Stupid interview animals: No soap, RADIO!

MediaBistro led me to the latest career advice in’s Ask Annie column: Employer’s Wacky Interview Questions. I don’t know what’s wackier: the questions, or that Annie Fisher really believes that the mission of career advisors is to come up with clever answers for them.

Get this question from an Ask Annie reader:

Yesterday an interviewer asked me, “If you were an animal, what animal would you be?” I was so surprised that it took me a few minutes to come up with an answer. I said I was like a dog, “loyal to a fault” — which made sense, since I stayed with my last employer for 17 years, despite having had other offers — but I couldn’t really tell from his reaction if that was a good response or not.

A good response? About what animal you would be?

Fisher answers with an anecdote to encourage confused job candidates to play guessing games:

J.P. Hansen, president of Omaha-based Hansen Executive Search, was once asked the Barbara Walters-esque what-animal-would-you-be question in a job interview. His answer: A jaguar. Why? Hansen explained that “the jaguar is very versatile, able to patiently wait for its prey for hours on end, then pounce with lightning speed and grace. Plus, it’s a cool car!” The hiring manager who was quizzing him smiled, reached into her purse, and pulled out her car keys — with a Jaguar emblem on the key chain. Hansen got the job.

What luck! Another winning answer to one of the Top 10 Stupid Interview Questions!

Next, Hansen explains the “strategy” behind these idiotic queries:

“The job market is so tight right now, with so many candidates available whose backgrounds and qualifications are so similar to one another, that some hiring managers try to find an ‘aha!’ moment where they can trip you up, or get you to reveal something you didn’t plan to say,” he says.

Aha! The interviewer doesn’t know what the F she’s doing, so she tries to trip the job applicant with… Do you walk to school or carry your lunch (heh-heh…)?

Since there is no way to predict what you might be asked, how do you prepare? Hansen… says job seekers need to go into interviews with enough confidence to handle any wacky question that might come up. The only way to get that confidence: Prepare, prepare, prepare.

Prepare what? A Noah’s Ark of rejoinders that might reflect the pets (or cars) that some wacky interviewer owns? Fisher wraps up the article with a plug for Hansen’s book about interview animals. The caution to job hunters is clear: You’d better stock up on interviewer-approved answers to dumb-ass questions, or you’re not going to get hired. And here’s a book full of ’em…!

Is it any wonder employers think there’s a talent shortage during the biggest glut of unemployed talent in American history?

  • There just aren’t enough job applicants who know what animal they want to be!
  • Today’s job hunters just haven’t got a heh-heh clever explanation for their greatest weakness, and,
  • They can’t tell you where the hell they see themselves in five years (as though the company in question is likely to be in business in five years…)

Like most of life’s mysteries, Why should I hire you? has a Zen sort of “best answer.” That is, another question: The most important question in an interview:

“Would you like me to show you how I can help increase your profits if you hire me to do this job?”

If the interviewer doesn’t get that, you walk. Imagine taking a job with a dope who hires you because your answer is a match to the keys in her purse. Lotsa luck. My good buddy Nancy Austin explains it simply: Beyond the Trick Question. (Her article includes a hiring manager with a lu-lu of a Stupid Interview Question of his own.) Nancy’s article is all you need to know to interview like an adult.

But Fisher and Hansen need to consult the nearest ten-year-old who knows the joke about the trick question. (HR execs, please pay close attention.) Most kids are exposed to this famous childhood gotcha, and are thereby innoculated against embarrassing themselves later in life. This joke is told in a group, where one kid is set up as the sucker by the others, who all know the story:

The Joke: Two elephants are sitting in a bathtub, scrubbing away. One elephant pauses and cries out to the other, “Pass the soap!” And the other elephant shouts back, “No soap! RADIO!”

All the kids burst out laughing at the hilarious rejoinder and they slap one another on the back with glee. The sucker in the group cracks up, too and exclaims how funny it is — only to be mocked by the rest because there is no joke.

The story and the rejoinder are nonsense, of course; designed to determine whether the kid is so desperate to “belong” that he’ll suspend his common sense, his honesty and his integrity. Just like the foolish job applicant who goes along with the even more foolish hiring manager — both suckered by some “career expert” who is clueless about how to have an intelligent discussion about the work at hand.

Even ten-year-olds get it. An entire industry — the career industry — continues to embarrass itself by trying to con job hunters and hiring managers into pretending they’re silly elephants sitting in a tub.

This is no joke. It’s time to grow up and interview like adults.


Readers’ Forum: Capitalizing on good contacts

In the August 3, 2010 Ask The Headhunter Newslettera reader asks:

I had a Talk to Nick call with you recently. I am following your advice to the letter, and I am building a network of contacts. I now have about 30 – 40 great contacts in my field in the city I’m targeting. I certainly am not surprised that I haven’t stumbled on the right opportunity yet, but I was wondering if there is any additional way I can leverage the people I’ve already met.

Now that I keep trying to meet more people, I feel like I am collecting lots of contacts rather than utilizing the contacts I have already made. I am visiting my target city next week. I will try to set up meetings with hiring managers that I have already had phone conversations with, in order to deepen the relationships. My question is: Is there any specific gambit I can use in these face-to-face meetings to get more directly to my point of getting a job in their company?

I do what you say and don’t talk about jobs and only talk shop. But how do I make the shift to talking about a job without sounding like a salesman? I just fear that I will ruin all the trust I put into the relationship by asking for a referral.

Any insight you could give me in order to make these face-to-face meetings effective would be helpful. Thanks again for setting my job search and my life on the right track. I have not gotten a job yet, but I am persistent and confident. You have single-handedly guided me from being someone who doesn’t know how to network to a master in three months. People I talk to on the phone tell me how they wish they could network as effectively as I do.

Here’s the short version of my reply. (You’ve got to subscribe to the weekly newsletter to get the whole story!)

Once you’ve established good relationships with all those new contacts, it’s time to harvest some useful advice from them. “I’m going to be in your city on business in a couple of weeks, and I wanted to ask your advice. While I’m there, I’d like to meet some people who know Company A and Company B… Are there people you would suggest I meet while I’m out there, on a casual basis, to explore job opportunities?”

Meeting new people and talking shop is a great way to expand your network in a friendly, honest way. (Who wants to be a brazen careerist???) So, where is that line? When can you shift a friendly conversation about work, to ask the other person to help you with a new job?

Have you helped someone who asked you in just the right way? What did they say that kept it comfortable?

This is what makes the world go ’round, folks! Please share your experiences and the subtle methods you use to advance your career without losing your friends!