Career Q&A with Nurys

“When negotiating salary, what are you allowed to ask for in terms of compensation and/or benefits? If the employer is not up-front about what is offered, how do you broach the subject of benefits packages or options?” – Julia L., Evergreen Park, IL

First, before your first interview, check the employer’s Careers page on their website for benefits information. Feel free to ask about available benefits anytime, but if you ask during the initial screening, don’t worry if their answer is vague (“Oh, you know, we offer the standard stuff—health insurance, paid vacation, holidays, and sick leave...”).

If you’re invited for another interview, you can dig deeper. Once they let you know that you’ve made it to the final round of considerations, you’re entitled to a straightforward answer about what their organization offers, and what they’re giving you (there might be some benefits you’re not eligible for until you’ve been with them for a certain amount of time). If they try to dodge the question and change the subject or refuse to answer, ask if you can speak with the person who can share a detail summary of the benefits.

Negotiating benefits usually comes after the base salary’s been nailed down, since benefits can make up for the shortfall between what was offered and what you were hoping for. If the employer offers a lower salary than expected due to their budget and you still want to work for them, ask if you can have an earlier performance and salary review, or whether you’re eligible for performance-based bonuses or a signing bonus.

You can ask for anything you’d like, but it’s best to prioritize your top 10 most wanted benefits and start negotiating at #1 first. If you’re already on a health insurance plan that is comparable to or better than the one offered by the employer, consider declining it in exchange for something that’s really important to you. Make sure you get your due, but don’t get caught up trying to gain benefits you don’t really care about just to “win.”

While focusing on the important things like insurance and retirement plans, don’t forget about the smaller stuff that employers are often willing to accommodate: compensatory time (important if you’re exempt from earning overtime pay), professional development and training, tuition subsidy or reimbursement, a new computer/laptop or software upgrades, a new smartphone or subsidizing your current plan, free gym membership and/or fitness incentives, and transportation/parking.


Once you’ve verbally accepted the offer, consider it set in stone. Changing your mind about what you want while you’re waiting for them to send you the offer letter—or holding your signature for ransom—will not only make you look bad, but might make the employer rescind their offer entirely.

What is the best way to land a job in your career field with only education/credentials and no previous job experience? – Anonymous, Chicago, IL

Use your network

Reach out to your instructors and the career advisors where you’re getting your education early on and make sure they know what your goals upon graduating and long-term are. Even if it’s an online program, ask to arrange a phone or Skype conversation. They’ll at least be able to guide your coursework and review your resume. If it’s not too late, they can point you to internship and volunteer opportunities so you can build up your job experience. You can ask them to be a reference as well. Don’t forget to reach out to classmates! Ask where and how they’re job-searching for ideas you can use.

Make sure your family, friends, and everyone on your social media know you just got a new credential and what kind of work you're looking for. You never know what people or resources they can connect you with. People love to help out and may volunteer, before you even ask, to pass along your resume or make an introduction. Requesting informational interviews with people doing what you want to do will help you get on the right track and can lead to a valuable mentoring relationships. Just remember to never be pushy and always send thank you notes!

Bring attention to and focus on the criteria you DO meet

Don’t start your cover letter with “I don’t have these things you’re looking for, but…” If there are too many reasons why a hiring manager would dismiss you out of hand, or you’re not sure you can handle the job as described, find something else to apply for. Read job descriptions carefully and be clear on what’s required and what’s preferred. Make sure you meet most of the required criteria so you don’t waste your time or their time. Emphasize why you’re a great fit for the role and anything that makes you stand out. If you have a personal connection to the nonprofit’s mission or have volunteered with them before, let them know about it in your cover letter!

If you studied something directly related to the career you want to pursue, highlight relevant skills and knowledge you gained from your coursework, especially your familiarity with any new practices, regulations that affect the industry, and software. Even if your education isn’t directly related, show how what you learned is still relevant or gives you unique perspective and experience that can be tied into the job description of positions you’re applying for.

Also, don’t discredit your soft skills! Assuming you have previous work experience, just not in the area you’re trying to break into, highlight your ability to work in and lead a team, or stay organized to meet multiple project deadlines. Advanced, professional writing and verbal communication skills are in high demand, so be sure to mention if you have extensive public speaking experience or drafted important client communications at a previous job.

What advice can you give to candidates—who may not have years of experience but still have worked hard to gain relevant skills—to market their value to potential employees? –J. Orloki, Alexandria, VA

Job searching is tricky. It’s tough work and very often feels endless. It can be especially discouraging to new grads or professionals seeking a career change, two groups that have unique experiences behind them that may or may not directly relate to the profession they’d like to enter. So what’s a person to do to increase their exposure even with limited experience? A few tips:

  1. For new grads, take stock of the skills you’ve gained from your time in clubs, classes, part time jobs or volunteer work. Professionals looking to change career paths can also do this for skills acquired from their current position and even outside hobbies, so long as they’re transferrable. If you find you’re missing a necessary skill, consider taking a class, obtaining a certificate or even pursuing a graduate degree.
  2. Expand your network by meeting as many new people as you can, no matter if it’s through more formal avenues such as networking events or volunteer work—or more casually—by tapping into your personal connections. Friends and acquaintances can be powerful resources to finding opportunities; approximately 70% of jobs aren’t published because so much of hiring occurs through people bringing on those they already have a relationship with.
  3. Find a connection between what interests you about a particular organization to your life and personal experiences. Ideally, you would be passionate about the organization’s mission and values and excited at the opportunity to contribute to them. Consider what about your personal “brand” and life experience resonates with the nonprofit. That way, even if the professional experience isn’t there, the personal will be; in turn, this connection may work in your favor when applying.

The biggest (and hardest!) thing to remember is to keep at the job search and know that—though it will take time and effort—there is a light at the end of the tunnel! Don’t be afraid to try new things; in fact, this may be the best time to do so, whether it’s a project you take the lead on in your current role or joining a young professional’s board. Employers will appreciate your proactive approach towards your career development!

How long should one stay in an entry level position? – Nashika T., Chicago

The short answer here is that it’s relative. The question here shouldn’t necessarily be about how long one should stay but rather how to optimize an entry level role. Of course, no one’s expecting you to stay for ten years—but two years? Absolutely; there’s a point in the beginning of everyone’s career where you have to pay your dues. Sure, you may not be in the ideal role at the moment, but there are steps you can take to make the best of your entry level job. Some things to consider:

Do you have a career map? Do you have an idea of where you’d like to head next and how you can flourish in your current position? One great way to illustrate your next steps and better visualize your goals is by making a career map. Career mapping is a great way to view your progress, set goals and anticipate changes; it’s as simple as putting your ambitions down on paper and assigning them timeframes. For example, you can designate two years or so to your current role and allot certain professional milestones to each month or every six months.

Are you still learning? Building and expanding upon skills and learning from mentors and colleagues are often what keep an individual engaged in the workplace. If you’ve found that you haven’t been absorbing as much as you could, consider reestablishing your connections to your mentors and colleagues. You could ask your mentor to coffee if you haven’t in a while, or inquire into your desk mate’s latest project. This serves to foster a productive relationship between you and your acquaintances; you might also learn something new over cappuccinos!

How’s your work life balance? Many times, articles and discussions about work life balance seem to be directed at those who are in high powered careers and have been in them for years. Though that’s not untrue, work life balance is often overlooked in entry level candidates—many who tend to let the late nights in the office build and their emotionally fulfilling side projects dwindle. Even if you’re right out of the gate and the greenest person in the office, your work life balance should be a priority. Your time in your entry level job will only seem longer and drier when you’re working 60-hour weeks and haven’t seen your friends and family in months!

How long you stay in an entry level position depends on your goals (whether they’re long-term or short-term) and your circumstances. Regardless of what they are, consider volunteering, freelancing or working on passion projects on the side to build new skills and gain experience. This way, you stay refreshed and cognizant of life outside of your work, which will only serve to enrich you and make you all the better at tackling challenges in not only your current role, but in roles to come!

What advice/tips do you have for finding a potential mentor and asking them to be your mentor?” – Melor S. in Silver Spring, RD

Mentors give valuable advice, introduce you to life-changing contacts and opportunities, and guide by example. It’s to your advantage to have a mentor, and some even say you can’t get ahead at all without one.

First, examine your career so far and where you want to go—next quarter, next year, in five years. Identify gaps in your skills and experience, as well as any you would like to acquire. Basically, create a career map. (Our Career Mapping workshop is offered several times throughout the year; you can click here for our workshop schedule.)

Which items on your career map do you want your mentors—yes, more than one!—to help you with? Do you need someone to help you find a job? Excel in your current role? Strengthen your network? Advance within your organization or industry? Or overhaul your career completely? Knowing what you want will make it easier to find the right people to ask.

Two obvious places to look for mentors are within your organization or a professional association, but you can look for mentors through alumni associations, religious groups, community organizations, and your own family. There are also mentoring groups you can find on LinkedIn and through a general Internet search. If you’re looking for a job and working with a recruiter, they can act as a mentor by giving you valuable job search advice.

When you think you’ve found the right person, ask them for a short meeting, and be specific about what you want to discuss. Respect their time and be prepared with questions and goals. Don’t forget to gauge your chemistry with them! You’ll be coming to this person for support and advice, so make sure you feel comfortable with them. Having similar interests—both work-related and not—will help.

If the first meeting goes well, go ahead and lay down the parameters of your mentoring relationship. How often will you communicate, and how? What topics will you discuss, and what should be off-limits? What level of confidentiality do you want to maintain? The last two considerations are especially important if your mentor is someone who works at the same organization you do.

Your relationship with a mentor should be a friendship with someone who happens to help you out professionally. Instead of thinking of them solely as the benefactor and of yourself as the beneficiary, think of the ways you can help them out, too—by giving them an ear and a fresh perspective when they need it, or even imparting some skills and wisdom you’ve picked up along the way.

If you are on temporary assignment, how do you determine whether or not the employer is interested in hiring you permanently? If you want to make your temporary role a permanent one, what are the steps you should take?” – Toccarra W., Chicago, IL

Before you pursue converting your temporary assignment to a permanent position, you should make sure that your interest in a permanent role is truly based on your commitment and dedication to the organization and your work, not simply your desire to end your job search.

Are you achieving your assignment goals and exceeding them by volunteering to assist in other projects? Are you fitting in with the organization’s culture and making friends with the other employees? Do you “click” with your supervisor(s)?

Not only are these considerations crucial for getting considered as a potential permanent hire, they’re important for your own happiness and career success as well. If you can’t answer yes to all three of those questions, you will ultimately be dissatisfied and disengaged even if you do become a permanent, full-time employee, and will probably end up leaving.

If you’re absolutely sure this is work you want to do for the long-term, let your recruiter know you’re interested in a temp-to-perm conversion. Your recruiter is your #1 resource. They might already know if the organization is interested in converting your assignment. If they don’t, they will consult with the organization to put your interest on the radar, as well as gauge the organization’s position.

Once you’ve expressed your interest to your recruiter, it’s important to let them initiate the conversation about temp-to-perm conversion with the organization. Take cues from your recruiter when it comes to communicating with your supervisor(s) about pursuing permanency, and be careful not to be too pushy. Not only can your good relations with the organization turn sour, it can also be a red flag that makes your recruiter hesitant to place you in future roles.

There are many reasons why a temporary assignment doesn’t become a permanent assignment that are completely out of your control. The organization might have a policy, for whatever reason, that they don’t do temp-to-perm conversions. Or, they might have opened the assignment to address a short-term or seasonal increase in workload and don’t need anyone on a permanent basis. In either case, if you are passionate about working for the organization, keep everyone informed of your interest to join in on a permanent capacity.

What is the best way to address gaps in your resume? – Katherine K., Washington, DC

As is the case with all things regarding resumes and job seeking in general, my first point of advice is to avoid lying about why you have gaps in your work history. Even if it’s just a white lie, the consequences are far greater than a nervous slip of the tongue and should be avoided at all costs. Honesty is the best policy!

Another way to address gaps in your resume is to consider using a functional resume, which highlights your skills first and foremost as opposed to listing your experience chronologically.

If you would still like to use the traditional resume format, you might want to list just the duration of time you spent in previous jobs versus listing a specific time frame.

If a functional or chronological resume isn’t on the top of your list, a great way of sharing your skills and experience is to bolster your professional summary at the top of the document (or to create one entirely if you don’t have one).

If questions regarding your resume gaps arise during an initial phone call or first round interview, telling the truth prevails over attempting to mask why you haven’t worked for six months. In fact, questions from the recruiter or hiring manager can be a good thing—you’re given the ability to explain a difficult situation (say, in the event you were a caretaker for an ill parent) or how you’re attempting to break into a new field.

Contrary to popular opinion, gaps in your work history aren’t a resume’s kiss of death. In fact, they are more common than you might think. Recruiters and hiring managers alike are aware of the unpredictability of life and are sympathetic to that fact. While they are sympathetic, it’s also important to be aware that it might take some time to jump back on the career horse. Consider the listed advice and mind the resume gap in order to stride confidently back into the working world!