short answer Sunday — 6 short answers to 6 short questions

It’s short answer Sunday — six short answers to six short questions. Here we go…

1. Coworker laughs loudly all day long

This is going to sound weird, and possibly also like I’m an 80 year old curmudgeon telling teenagers to get the hell off my lawn. I have a new coworker (she’s been with our company for maybe 2 months now) who laughs. A LOT. Like, all day long. It’s really more like a cackle. And it’s really loud. Apparently, everything is funny. Who knew?

It’s really, really distracting. I sit in a separate office from her, across the office, and I can still hear it if I close our door (we sit 3 or 4 people to an office). I feel so bad for the people who share HER office and cannot get away from it. Our direct managers don’t really have the clout to do anything personnel/HR related, and our boss is hands off (and out of the office in meetings a lot, and sits farther away/can close his door). I’m pretty sure he’d say to just learn how to deal with it.

It doesn’t feel like it’s any of our (coworkers on the same level) place to talk to her about it, and truly, though it is super annoying, I don’t want to make her feel bad. We just need to be able to concentrate and do work. It’s already become something we all kind of acknowledge, and honestly, talk about under our breath. Which is not good for office morale.

Laughing loudly all day long in an office falls outside the bounds of professional behavior, and you’re entitled to ask her to hold it down, so say something! In a very nice, possibly apologetic tone, say “Could you keep it down? Thanks!” Say it once a day if you need to.

If being asked to keep it down daily doesn’t cue her to rein it in, you’re dealing with someone especially oblivious. (At which point your choices would be to get more direct with her, enlist some of those equally annoyed coworkers in supplying additional pressure, involve your manager, or start wearing headphones.)

2. Company asked me to donate to its PAC

Recently I received a request from a high-level manager at my company for me to sign up for payroll deduction contributions to the company’s Political Action Committee (PAC). Are there corporate political implications to my decision? Who usually knows whether and/or how much an individual contributes?

There are only corporate political implications if you work somewhere flagrantly unethical. Try ignoring the request or simply declining and see what happens; if there’s going to be additional pressure, you’ll get a follow-up request soon enough. (And by the way, if your employer is coercing or outright requiring employees to donate, it’s an illegal violation of FEC laws.)

3. Telling a coworker he looks “kinda gay”

We were required to wear t-shirts given out by the company to work in today. (We usually wear business attire.) My male coworker was wearing a particularly snug shirt, obviously too small for him. I blurted out, “Your shirt is too tight. You look kinda gay.” Aside from a warning, does this statement warrant any serious action?

Not sure if it’s relevant, but our dress code says that we aren’t allowed to wear anything too snug, especially if our backs are bared when we bend down. This was the case with his shirt, so it was actually a violation of the dress code.

Pointing out that he was violating the dress code isn’t the issue here; using “gay” as a slur is the issue. Your second paragraph makes me wonder: Do you really not see that pointing out a clothing issue and using bigoted language are two completely different things?

If this is the first time that you’ve made a remark like this, you’re probably just going to be warned … but take this as a sign that it’s time to update your language and that you’re likely offending plenty of people around you.

4. Explaining why I moved without a job lined up

I recently moved from one major city to another, without having a job lined up. My lease was up on my apartment, and I was feeling a bit antsy with where I was in my current position. Not to mention, I was living in a rather pricey city for the past two years, and was ready to rid myself of the financial burden that comes with living in one of the nation’s most notoriously expensive cities.

With that said, how do I mention these details to an employer during an interview process? I am searching for jobs that are on a different, but almost similar path, to the two full-time positions that are reflected on my resume (one of my main reasons for relocating, wanting to break into a different line of work that reflects what I went to university for). I don’t want to come off as impulsive and rash when asked in an interview why I left a position without having something lined up. Any advice on how to bring up the issues listed above without seeming irresponsible?

I’d just say directly that you really wanted to move to the more affordable and livable City X and that you knew it would be easier to find a job there once you were actually living there (which is true).

5a. Letters of recommendation when you’re been working in a foreign country

For the past few years, I have been working with an NGO in Latin America, but I plan on moving back to the U.S. at the end of the year (I am a U.S. citizen) and have started looking for jobs. I know that you generally don’t like letters of recommendation, but should I ask my organization for letters before I leave in December? I have a hard time believing they are going to call my NGO for references, particularly since no one here speaks any English. This is my first job after graduating from college, and thus I don’t have any other professional references aside from short-term jobs and volunteering while I was in college. Or should I just not worry about it and let potential employers decide what they want to do?

It wouldn’t hurt to get a couple of letters in this case, as long as you understand that they don’t substitute for references. Employers can take them or leave them as they see fit.

5b. Which reference would be better — my short-term manager or a longer-term manager who’s worked with me less closely?

On a related note, I have had 10 different managers during my three and a half years with the organization. (I’m not kidding; in fact, only 3 of the 20 people in my area were here before me, and I’ve lost track of how many people I’ve seen come and go, and the situation is pretty much the same throughout the organization.) Should I get a reference from my most recent manager even if I have only worked with her for a few months? Or would it be better to get a reference from my boss’s boss who has been here for 3 years and has a very high opinion of my work but has less direct contact with me?

Someone who’s worked with you longer than a few months is better, as long as she can speak to your work in a reasonable amount of detail (which she probably can, if she knows enough about it to have a very high opinion of it).

6. Moving to a post-science career

I have been in a particular branch of science for my entire career. I majored in it in university, taking almost no other type of coursework. After school, I was extremely fortunate to take a research position at a really wonderful institute. I spent eight very happy and productive years there, doing a lot of great work, and enjoying the satisfaction derived from getting the opportunity to publish papers, present abstracts, help write chapters for textbooks and books, and speak at symposiums. Alas, my laboratory lost funding and with it, my position.

I have since taken a position at a prestigious big name university, but it’s been a very different story so far. Budgets are razor thin, morale is medium-low, pay is very low, and opportunities for publication inclusion have not been apparent (this is decided by superiors). I thought my previous experience would help me establish myself here, but it’s a tough work environment.

When I was hired, the HR representative said that the university preferred a year’s commitment before moving on. At the time, that seemed like nothing. But now that I’m here in the position, I struggle. It really makes me realize that I had a very special position at the institute, and perhaps I may not see that sort of opportunity again. I am now considering leaving science entirely.

Do you know of any resources for people considering moving on to post-science careers? Would your readers have any advice for me? Although I only have side projects and volunteer work that is non-scientific, I do think I could move on to other career paths if needed. The stoic part of me says to try to stick this out for at least the year, and then decide so I don’t get blacklisted at this university (a big employer in my state). But many if not most days I cry either going to work or coming home, and if I don’t cry, I feel like it.

I’m posting this here in the hopes that readers will have resources or advice that might help you. But I encourage you not to decide to leave science entirely just because of one bad job! Lots of careers that people find extremely satisfying have the occasional bad job within them — and that’s no reason to leave the career entirely. Why not look around at what other opportunities are out here before moving such a major decision, based on a single bad experience?

Read an update to this letter.

{ 108 comments… read them below }

  1. Amber*

    Re #2 You mentioned that it is illegal if your employer is coercing or outright requiring employees to donate, does this apply to the military? I’m a civilian now but when I was enlisted it was required that everyone donate, they gave us a list of charities to choose from. They demanded 100% participation and we were always threatened with mass punishment if someone didn’t comply (such as everyone not being allowed to go home until that last person donated). This happened multiple times in multiple states while I was in the Army.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Political donations actually have different laws surrounding them. In the OP’s case, coercion would be a violation of campaign finance laws. In your case, it sounds like these weren’t political donations but rather charitable ones. I suspect there’s still some legal regulation that could be used to take action there, but I don’t know for sure.

    2. The IT Manager*

      That sounds like the Combined Federal Campaign (CFC). Except in my experience units did strive for 100% contact but never demanded 100% particapation. All anyone ever needed to do was say they were not interested and they were no longer bothered, but the campaign leadership wanted everyone contacted so they had the opportunity to donate of they wanted.

      Your description sounds horrible and would have definately left a bad taste in my mouth and many other people’s too. I wonder if its an example of the CFC before my time or simply “an Army-thing.” (I was not in the army.) If forcing a person to donate to a charity (even when given a huge list of options to choose from) is not illegal, it should be.

      FYI: I think the point of CFC was to have everyone only hit up once (or twice a year*). Charities who wanted to solicate donations from federal employees (through direct deposit)cannot do it any other way except through CFC.

      *We also were asked once a year to contribute to the service -specific assiatance fund.

    3. Chinook*

      I don’t know what it is like un the US, but in Canada military members are subject to a separate set of laws. as well as Canadian ones. (For example, you can be fined or confined to base for not shaving in the military but they can’t punish civilian clerks for coming in scruffy looking).

      That being said, in Canada the military is suppposed to be apolitical and it would cause quite a scandal if military members were forced to contribute to a political campaign. United Way campaigns seem to be another kettle of fish altogether.

  2. Lee*

    #3 – wow. Just….wow.

    You could really offend someone by saying that, OP, please be mindful of your language in the future…especially at work!

    On a similar note, I wish people would stop saying “that’s so retarded”. Do you really not have another acceptable word to express what you are thinking/feeling?

    1. VivWalker*

      Re: “retarded”

      I once had to tell a co-worker who was twice my age how inappropriate, offensive, and unprofessional using that word was, not only in the workplace, but in general. Luckily she was really embarrassed and apologetic rather than defensive, but it amazes me how few people have the critical thinking skills to recognize what that word really means.

      1. A Bug!*

        Some people will go to great lengths to defend their use of bigoted and “othering” language. Actually, it’s really quite similar to the same arguments used by people defending their use of “gay” as an insult – “Words change meaning over time,” “Nobody thinks I actually mean that literally,” “You’re just looking for offense on behalf of people who probably don’t care.” But what it comes down to for me is that it’s wrong to co-opt other people’s very lives for the sake of a cheap joke, because doing so is inherently judgmental of people you don’t understand.

        Here’s a powerful piece written by a Special Olympics athlete in response to an insensitive comment by Ann Coulter:

        There’s a link at the bottom of that article to an older piece of his; I think they’re both worth reading.

        1. Elizabeth*

          I’m glad you linked that so I didn’t have to go look it up – that’s exactly what I thought of when I read the above comment, too!

          A friend of mine ran acting workshops at a community center for developmentally disabled adults, and many of the people he worked with there also said how it stung when they overheard others use “retarded” as an insult.

          1. A Bug!*

            I think what bothers me about it personally is that it indicates a sort of intellectual laziness when people persist in using such words. If you can’t find a way to express yourself that doesn’t involve bigoted language, then I don’t really have the time of day for you.

            And when you say “I didn’t mean it that way,” I know what you really mean is “You were supposed to laugh at my casual bigotry and not point it out for what it really is.”

            1. Kelly O*

              I really truly hate the “well I didn’t mean it *that* way” argument. Or “I’m not politically correct, deal with it.”

              I hear the most racist, ignorant words sometimes, and I grow tired of hearing “well I’m just not politically correct.” There is a difference between politically correct and general asshattery.

          1. A Bug!*

            If this isn’t a joke post, but rather a suggestion that my comments here and similar ones by others are akin to an Orwellian form of speech oppression?

            I strongly disagree. Freedom of speech does not mean speech free from criticism. If someone is free to use slurs, then I am free to criticize that person for choosing to use them.

            1. Kelly O*

              It’s like the “is it legal?” question Alison gets quite frequently. Sure, it’s legal, but it’s not smart.

      2. Canadian mom*

        Until 30 or 40 years ago, “mentally retarded” was an often-used term and was not considered a slur at all. Taken literally, it really means exactly the same as “developmentally delayed”. It didn’t become a slur until people started using it to mean stupid/insulting etc.

        Was your co-worker possibly using it to mean developmentally-delayed?

        1. Another Emily*

          Not if she said “That’s so retarded.” She knows as well as you and I do what that phrase means. (I am also Canadian and though we do have regional differences in language use I don’t think that was one of them.)
          I think this is true for the States as well, if the person saying it is American. “That’s so retarded” is not an old-fashioned phrase who’s meaning has been corrupted. It has always been a slur, ever since people started using the word “retarded” to say rude things.

          1. Another Emily*

            Just to clarify, if she didn’t use that exact phrase maybe you’re right, but I have never heard that word used in a way that wasn’t a slur. Maybe I assumed too much though.

        2. K.*

          One of my friends is a special ed teacher who teaches kids with moderate to severe mental retardation, and she uses “mentally retarded” or “MR” (which I imagine comes from filling out a trillion IEPs every year) as well as “developmentally delayed” to describe her students. If she hears anyone say “That’s retarded” or “He was acting like a retard,” she will call them out on it, but she does use “mentally retarded” when she talks about her students. She never says “retarded” by itself though, always “mentally retarded.”

        3. VivWalker*

          She was talking about how the curriculum at her children’s school was “so retarded.” So, no. She did not mean developmentally delayed.

          1. Canadian mom*

            Fair enough. It’s just that I used to know someone who had a developmentally-delayed relative, and if she encountered anyone who used the term “mentally retarded” (even using it in the proper way, i.e. not “he’s a retard”) she would light-in to the person big-time.

            Just because it has become a popular slur does not mean that everyone who uses it is being derogatory. I thought that K. summed it up very well.

      3. Ellie H.*

        It really bothers me when people use the word “retarded.” I know a lot of people who are otherwise kind and good-hearted who still use it. The worst is that some of my former coworkers, whom I was close friends with, would use it and even though, or maybe because, we had a good social relationship I was too uncomfortable to say anything about it because of the dynamics. I try to always call people out on it, I even once told a guy I really liked on a first date, “Don’t use that word.”

        1. Victoria*

          My mother-in-law is kind and good-hearted too, but she still uses horrible racial slurs for black folks and hispanic folks. I won’t let her say those things around my kids; hopefully someday it will sink in that it’s not cool.

          1. Long Time Admin*

            If you MIL uses racial slurs like that, she is not “kind” or “good-hearted”. She’s a bigot. You’re right in not letting her say these things around your children, and I hope you talk to your kids about the things that grandma says, and why they’re wrong.

    2. pidgeonpenelope*

      I agree! Yes, I said it in my past when I didn’t understand the implications and yes, it is easy to revert to it but it is wrong and it is offensive.

  3. AdAgencyChick*

    OP #6, you don’t say what branch of science you’re in, but if you enjoy writing and can do it clearly and effectively, you might try your hand at technical writing. This can be anything from writing monographs for a medical education company (if you’re on the biology or chemistry side of things) to user manuals for technical equipment. People who both understand science and are able to write about it are still rare enough that such jobs tend to pay well.

    If you’re in physics, a lot of financial companies hire physics PhD’s to handle their mathematical modeling.

    1. EM*

      What branch of science are you in? What is your area of study? If you’re in Biology or Geology, there is a ton of demand for experienced people in environmental consulting. And I’m not talking about working for oil companies and helping them to crap up the environment, although there are those jobs out there.

      I’m a Biologist, and most of the work I do is to tell the engineers where the wetlands are so they can avoid them entirely or mitigate the impacts when they replace a bridge or widen an existing road. The pay is pretty good, too. :)

        1. V*

          Have you looked into working for the government or industry? My training is also in neuroscience, and by the time I finished my first postdoc, I was really questioning my career in science. I got a second postdoc working for the military, and really love it. It’s very different from academia, and I realize now that it took a change of scenery to rediscover why I enjoyed science. I would encourage you to look at government and industry positions (either directly through their web sites, or more commonly through contracting agencies and recruiters, at least for initial positions). The pay is also likely better, if that is something of concern for you. Good luck!

        2. AgilePhalanges*

          I’m not sure where your skills lie, but neuroscience is BIG in market research right now, if that sort of thing interests you (helping a client discover what attracts consumers to their brand and what’s turning them off, helping to understand shopper behaviors in a given store layout, etc.).

    2. ES*

      OP #6, have you looked at Science journalism? Journalism is in a crisis, as is most of the media, but I worked for a science magazine for many years and can tell you that the truly great writers–the ones who can form compelling arguments that can be understood by a broad swath of folks, AND who understand the science and can explain it plainly–they are very few and far between. Check out the AAAS’ science writing awards, or the National Association of Journalists and Authors Medical Writing Awards (The June Roth Memorial Award), and even look at the National Magazine Awards for the science rags (Discover has been nominated a few times; SciAm took a Magazine of the Year award last year or the year before). If you can produce stories like the ones showcased here, you can sell these to media outlets of many sizes. Buy a few magazines and go down editorial mastheads to reach out to editors for informational interviews. I think you’ll find that largely these people are approachable and want to help, even if they’re busy and require a little flexibility to make contact with.

  4. perrik*

    #6 – Check out the Versatile PhD website (it’s down for maintenance this weekend, so check it out on Monday). It’s geared towards PhDs seeking to move to the non-academic sector; however, the discussions and advice could give you ideas about alternate career paths and transferable skills even if you’re at the BS or MS level.

  5. Anonymous*

    One of my coworkers said “yep, I’m pretty gay” about a picture she was showing us of her on vacation. Nobody said anything, but i was taken aback since she is quite a few years older than me. I’ve only been in the work force for 3.5 years and my work vocabulary is 100% scrubbed of anything offensive as of 10 seconds into my first job.

      1. Anonymous*

        Now, why would I write that if she was actually gay? She maried a man and the picture was from her honeymoon

      2. Anonymous*

        Even if she were gay, it’s not appropriate at work. I’m black, I don’t use certain words (you know what I mean) even though its not offensive to me when/if I say it

        1. MP*

          wait, what? “gay” isn’t an offensive word to use to describe yourself if you’re ACTUALLY GAY.

          1. Anonymous*

            I agree with you, but it makes people uncomfortable. I think it should just be avoided. If Bob makes a joke because he’s “SO GAY.” What if the next person thinks it’s okay to make a joke because “Bob is SO GAY.” Now that’s offensive. We should just delete it out of work conversation.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              People who are gay shouldn’t avoid stating that fact just because it might make someone uncomfortable! Just like I shouldn’t avoid mentioning that I’m a Jew in case someone then uses the word as a slur in a different context.

              1. Katie*

                Right. Avoiding words that are appropriate only feeds the idea that there’s something wrong or different about these populations, and that we must only speak about them in hushed tones. This gets complicated when the words tip more towards the generally offensive scale, or when the words are in the process of being re-appropriated.

                Everyone hates this, but you really can’t get around context – an incredibly difficult, constantly moving target. The best we can do is try to be mindful and sensitive to other peoples’ interpretation of language and hope they return the favor.

              2. Anonymous*

                I think what I meant was not taken the way I intended. If its a fact, it’s a fact. But when you make a joke about yourself it’s not offensive to you (maybe a stereotype like that shirt is kinda gay looking and you are gay) And The next person says “bobs shirt is so gay” and then what now? You said it and it was okay. Now Jane says it and there’s a problem. We could have just avoided the whole thing in the first place by not making gay jokes at work.

          2. Ivy*

            It’s unprofessionally to refer to your sexual orientation or ethnicity at work. Other than the few relevant moments, i.e. if you’re comfortable enough with your coworkers to come out. You really shouldn’t be bringing up sexual orientation/ethnicity in casual conversation. Personally, my coworkers have no idea if I’m gay or straight (I’m straight fyi) because it doesn’t matter and shouldn’t be discussed at work.

            1. Ivy*

              Especially when your using the words in a directory fashion and not actually as they are meant to be used. This is true of the G-word and the N-word ;)

            2. Ask a Manager* Post author

              I don’t see how it’s unprofessional — people mention their significant other or their holiday celebrations in the course of normal conversation all the time. If it’s normal and acceptable for the majority sexual orientation or ethnicity, there’s no reason that others should feel they can’t be open about their own.

              1. Ivy*

                It’s fine to say “this is me and my partner”, but I think it’s unprofessional to say “I’m so gay in this picture with my partner” because I would say “I’m so straight in this picture with my partner.” I’m having a hard time explaining through writing, but if you want true equality, then one step is not pointing out the differences between people at every step.

                1. JB*

                  I’ve got to disagree that it’s “unprofessional to refer to your sexual orientation or ethnicity at work”. I mention my partner in casual conversation all the time, just as others in my group mention their straight spouses. I’m also a person of color and I’ve mentioned my heritage when conversations about that topic come up. It’s not pointing out differences so much as sharing my life as much as my colleagues share their lives (and within professional boundaries, of course). As a lesbian of color, I’m already different from the straight, Caucasian mainstream. It’s not an affront or a distraction if I acknowledge that. Equality doesn’t mean there are no differences between us. Rather, I feel lucky and proud to work in an environment that strives to provide equal opportunities for people of all gender identities, ethnic/cultural backgrounds, and sexual orientation.

              2. SJ*

                Well, to be fair, in some work places, we cease to be people and instead become robots. And robots are asexual.

          3. BW*

            It’s the context. There is a difference between describing someone as “gay” because they are gay (“My friend Bob just told me he is gay.” vs. saying “You look kinda gay.” to describe what you see as a problem with someone’s clothing. The latter is using gay as a slur.

            Even then, it’s hard to imagine where talking about anyone’s orientation would be appropriate work place conversation.

    1. Sunday's Child*

      Old children’s poem: “Monday’s child is fair of face, Tuesday’s child is full of grace,…” and so on, ends with “…but the child that is born on the Sabbath Day is bonny and blithe and good and gay.” “Gay” meaning “joyful” as it was used before it became associated with sexual preference. I’ve used it that way and always have to explain it…

  6. Jubilance*

    #6 – I can relate, 2 months ago I took my first non-science position.

    My suggestion is to try to stick out the year commitment, and use that time to 1) figure out what transferable skills you have & 2) build your non-science network. There’s lots of great careers that could translate – technical writing, grant writing if you’ve done that in your scientific career, careers involving statistical/data analysis, teaching, consulting, etc.

    1. Lisa*


      I don’t really care what some future interviewer / hiring manager might think about 1 job that is listed as less than a year. Your physical and mental well-being is worth much more than having that year be on your resume.

      Do you pause before opening the door to work?
      Are you nauseous when you wake up in the morning?
      Are you finding yourself thinking that jumping out a window is preferable to going to work?

      QUIT , QUIT NOW. Get your life back. You are destroying your body and your self-worth by staying so get out now. Its not worth it.

  7. Elise*

    For #6 – Don’t give up on universities/colleges just yet. Stick out your one year at Big Name School, but start applying to smaller, private schools. A smaller school will still give you the chance to help pass on your knowledge but you will have fewer competitors for the publications. Also, smaller schools are often trying to promote themselves so they allow the professors to seek out and pursue their own research studies quite easily.

  8. Kou*

    #6, Without knowing exactly what branch you’re in it’s hard to give more specific advice, but this is how research tends to be in general as well: There are places where there’s no funding and few opportunities, and there are places where both are plentiful. Don’t think that where you are now is the standard and you’ll never get another chance like you had before, you just might have to hunt to find that again.

    Also, this is the state of affairs right now. Funding is hard to come by at the moment, and things in general are tight and decidedly uninspiring pretty much everywhere. It’s getting better, and I can only hope it continues to get better. I got hired just this week at an amazing research institute into what is essentially a dream job after a solid 15 months of unemployment, and before that I too was wondering if I needed to bail from the industry entirely.

    1. EM*

      Exactly. Also remember that science =/= research or academia. There are a ton of jobs out there for scientists in other fields!

  9. Anonymous*

    #6 – What kind of Uni do you work for? Medical, Ivy League, or a major State school? The pressure on people working at those kinds of schools is much different than at other schools. For state schools money is always an issue even for grant-funded positions, for medical school you tend to have to be more “professional” (so no holey jeans there), and for and Ivy League they want you to push out papers to big name journals. Also it seems like “hierarchy” is more enforced or institutional there (as it, unless you are a grad student or post-doc you’re not getting your name on a paper, unless you actually do all the work and write it). It sounds like you would do better at a smaller school. However if you can survive a year at Big Name School, you will look MUCH better to any other place you apply.

    Also in terms of what you’re working on – take charge of them, if you’re the primary on those projects, make sure people listen to you, and can contribute to what needs to be done (don’t get clueless student pushed off on you). Tell Big Name in the charge of the research what needs to be done, and ideas of how the project could be expanded on. If these ideas come from you, and/or if you’re IN charge on a project, you’re more likely to get your name on a paper.

    1. #6 OP*

      Medical School for a very large Ivy level university.

      Thank you for writing. I will try to stick it out.

  10. Not So NewReader*

    OP6, as I read your post two things jumped out at me. Perhaps not appropriate for your area of expertise, but maybe a stepping stone to your next idea?

    One is advocacy work- environmental groups, health care groups are in need of people who can offer a professional opinion/guidance/ writing in support of their cause.

    The other is teaching work. No, not in the traditional classroom sense. There are plenty of opportunities out there for people that can explain scientific things in terms that lay people can follow along.

    OP#3. Yeah, the times are changing. Us “old” people remember saying “retard” or “gay” while growing up. We never gave it a second thought. Fortunately, this is one area that society has wised up. We now understand that, at best, these word choices show a lack of thinking. More than likely, choosing to use these words tells us something about the speaker– that UHH… is not good.
    A good rule of thumb is to stay away from any term that stereotypes groups of people and is used to degrade someone. I could name a few more such words… but I don’t really want to….

    OP#1. I had that loud coworker. Loud laughter and loud talk. Sort of adds a playground feeling to the workplace, doesn’t it? And not in a good way, either. Long story made very short- Ms Loudness had no intention of ever dialing it down. It felt like I worked at a carnival.

    1. Katie*

      On a different internet message board I frequent, someone solicited responses for insults/slurs that wouldn’t be sexist/racist/etc. Pretty much everything on the list involved poop or butts in some way, so I imagine they would also not be work appropriate. Guess we’re stuck just not insulting people at work.

      While I don’t use derogatory terms like retarded myself, I’m not one to dress someone down over it. We regularly utter very painful words on which there is yet no collective consciousness of their injuriousness (“crazy” comes to mind as a possibility…a cruel insult to those who suffer mental illness). Just because someone might be a bit more behind the offensive language curve than doesn’t make any of us immune from ignorant cruelty. Ergo, I tend to give folks who say these things the benefit of the doubt and discuss the word openly, should the other party seem open to it.

      Let’s not forget that offensive language can swing back into the mainstream. I can say “queer” without batting an eyelash (it’s pretty standard terminology now in LGBT circles, and even has it’s own field of study). These things aren’t set in stone.

      1. K*

        Yes, but using “queer” in the academic or social group sense is not using “queer” as a slur. The contextual difference is immediately obvious.

      2. Ellie H.*

        I think Katie meant that you can once again use “queer” to mean “strange, mysterious, unusual,” which I have observed a few instances of as well. My mom uses it sometimes in that way – for some reason it really grates on my ears, I suppose because it sounds so jarring to hear in its “original” usage that it totally distracts me from the rest of the sentence.

        1. Long Time Admin*

          I still occasionally say “queer” in that sense, too. Sometimes I remember to say “odd” or “unusual”.

        2. A Bug!*

          Queer is a widely-used term within LGBT circles used by people who doesn’t feel that any of the standard descriptors effectively describe their sexuality or expression of same.

        3. twentymilehike*

          My mom uses it sometimes in that way – for some reason it really grates on my ears, I suppose because it sounds so jarring to hear in its “original” usage that it totally distracts me from the rest of the sentence.

          Haha .. yes! My dad is so old-school Brittish … he uses “queer” as in “odd” and “fags” for cigarettes. And is just oblivious that those words are used offensively these days. His friends back home still call cigarettes “fags” and it just blows me away … talk about genearation gap!

  11. Chocolate Teapot*

    I sometimes have a fall-off-chair-hooting-with-laughter-moment, but not all the time (it tends to be linked to the absurdity of office life).

    Can you try the “What’s so funny? I’m sure we’d all like to hear the joke” approach?

  12. Jen*

    #6 – Don’t give up yet! Really good jobs are hard to find in any field… and you can also stumble into really terrible ones in ANY field. I’ve found I can do almost anything (not sales) as long as the people are nice, there’s good management, good morale, etc…

    I’ve had jobs I was super passionate about, working for people who were well respected and knew their stuff… and they turned out to be passive-aggressive and impossible to please (plus, the guy’s wife would show up and start yelling at people). Same job, different place… had one of the best times of my life, made lifelong friends with my employer, learned tons etc… Hang in there.

    Keep your eyes on directly related jobs and peripherally (technical writing, Non-profits, etc) related jobs – and focus on finding a GOOD job. I imagine there’s some advice on this blog on how to suss this out during the interview process, but word of mouth worked for my spouse – ask around.

  13. PB*

    I was so interested to see comments on OP#6. I am in a very similar position plus nationally research funding is going down recently so positions are disappearing left, right and centre. I’d like to transition out, but it’s hard when some people see you as overqualified and inexperienced in the ways of industry etc.

    1. Heather Jackson*

      Yes, there are definitely biases we need to overcome in the job search – that we’re unable to work within deadlines or budgets, can’t communicate the big picture, etc. Concentrate on demonstrating how you’ve shattered those biases, and make sure you communicate that to employers.

      1. PB*

        Thanks Heather. I have worked with industry partners on the majority of my projects too (and they are usually happy with my work). But still come up against this. Thanks for the reminder – I definitely have examples that I could bring up to demonstrate those qualities.

  14. Heather Jackson*

    Hi #6,
    First, keep in mind that “leaving academic research” need NOT be considered” leaving science.” Academic research is one job function, but the world of science includes technology, innovation, engineering, manufacturing, infrastructure, and more. Science is vast and has a lot of different roles that need filling. You can find your niche, it just might be different from your current role.

    Please, please, please read Cynthia Robbins-Roth’s book “Alternative Careers in Science: Leaving the Ivory Tower.” She profiles a bunch of science PhDs who determined that bench science wasn’t right for them. Instead, they’ve found success in a host of careers that benefit from a technical or analytical background and where they can apply science in a commercial or public-service context. It’s good for ideas, if a bit skewed toward the mid-90s biotech boom, but you can extrapolate to your own discipline. In any case, these people’s experiences really resonated with me. You can figure out if science research is intrinsically not right for you, or whether your particular institution isn’t a good fit, or whether it’s temporary frustration and you’ll get over it.

    I completely relate to your situation – I’m sure many science PhDs do, too. I quit my job as an engineer to do a PhD in materials science, then did a postdoc at a national lab for 2 years, and over time I realized that academic research was a poor fit for me. I also realized that academic research is only one of many fulfilling career paths where my background and skills are valuable. Not to mention that academic career options are shrinking, while industry is always complaining about needing more technically-trained people. Why not fill their need? I don’t know about you, but I worked hard and went to school for all those years so I could have better choices, not worse!

    There are a variety of resources to help you plan your career path and your next step. First, I’d recommend learning about the full range of career options for someone with your background. Read the Robbins-Roth book and Science Magazine Career Blog articles. You are a researcher – now apply those research skills to your career options!

    Then, reach out to your network and talk to people actually in these careers to find out what their job is like and if it’s something you’d like. Our mentors in grad school/postdoc are professors and professional researchers, so they are experts on this career path but are hard-pressed to give advice on others. I’m an introvert, so networking is challenging for me, but it’s important and will continue to be.

    Start with your alumni association. Alums have a bond with each other and are usually happy to share their experiences, give advice, and help you in your job search if they can. If they can’t help, they can connect you to others. My alum database lets me search for alums by major, location, company, etc, so I can identify relevant people to talk to. Ask them how did they get to where they are now? What do they do in their job? What are the best/worst parts of this job? Some people call this an “informational interview,” but that sounds stuffy and formal.

    Join a professional society in your discipline, ideally one with a local chapter that meets regularly. Mine has a monthly dinner and technical talk. This is a good place to make career contacts, stay current on developments in your field, and get to know companies and industries that need your skills (and for them to know you). You might also hear informally about job opportunities.

    And don’t forget people in your university and your previous institution who work outside research. Research institutions may have specialists in technology transfer, patent law, government relations, public relations, project management, manufacturing, etc. It’s not uncommon for programs and funding to disappear and for researchers to have to reinvent themselves in other roles within the institution.

    Once you’ve done your research, you’ll have a better sense of promising directions and be in a position to make a change (and it might be a stepwise change). Don’t escape into a new job before you have a clear picture of what a good fit for you looks like.

    But do get started on the soul-searching and networking. Life is too short to pigeonhole yourself in a career that makes you unhappy, especially when you have so many options.

    1. Heather Jackson*

      Oh yeah, here’s my example of a post-academic career path. In a week, I’m finishing my postdoc and starting a job in engineering consulting, where I’ll get to continue working in my area of expertise and help solve problems of immediate importance to industry.

      Choosing a technical role is a no-brainer for a technical person, but don’t forget about developing your valuable people skills: managing projects, leading teams, interacting with customers, etc.

    2. EM*

      Yes! This! I started as a bio major thinking I’d be a professor/researcher just like my aunt. It turns out that I really don’t have a passion for research. Luckily, my mentor in college saw a ton of potential in me, and told me that if I applied to the masters program in Environmental Science at the institution where I got my B.S., not only would I be accepted, but I would also get a departmental assistantship.

      I knew getting a M.S. would be a terminal degree for me, and it was. It opened a lot of doors, and I’ve worked in just about every area in the environmental industry (compliance, government, aerospace, manufacturing, worked at an airport) and I’m now a consultant doing my first love, plant biology. :)

      Just because I don’t do research doesn’t mean I’m not a scientist. I tell people I’m a scientist, and my 5-year-old son says to people, “My mommy is a scientist!”, and that makes me really proud.

    3. JessB*

      Wow, great suggestions! How nice of you to help in such detail, Heather.

      OP#6, one thing I would add, which I know others have already said, is to ask you to make sure you take care of yourself. It sounds like you are having a really tough time, and it’s important to make sure that you are mentally and emotionally able to get through this.

      If you want to stick it out for the year, you may be able to, but if you’re crying on the way to and/or from work, that’s not a good sign. For your own mental health, I would suggest that you need to get out for something more fulfilling as soon as possible, or make sure you have something else fulfilling outside work to help you get through.

      Good luck with everything! I’m sure you’ll be great.

  15. jesicka309*

    Ugh my office is worse than OP #1. It’s like a freaking kindergarten, and it sucks.
    People watch TV shows all day, and send each other funny emails, so there’s almost always an undertones of sniggers. Twice a day one team gets up and does ‘stretches’ than involve waving their arms around and having a chat for 15 minutes (because they need their team leader to guide them like children, obvs). Then they sit around laughing and yellinh for the last hour of the day!
    Not to mention the guy in the next room who’s booming, constant laugh can be heard all day, then he comes to visit our room, and it’s all laughter and screaming again.
    It’s gotten to the point where if I were to say “hey guys, can you keep it down?” I’d be told to wear earphones and stop being a party pooper.
    I need to find a job in a real office with adults, I swear,

  16. #6 OP*

    I am filled with gratitude –

    Thank you Alison, for posting my question and for creating such a helpful and informative site.

    And thank YOU kind posters for responding.

    I deeply appreciate your taking the time to write your thoughts and advice.

  17. Anonymous*


    You don’t have to stop doing science just because you’re leaving a university. I know that’s what the professors will say – but it’s just not true. There are lots of very serious research jobs for all fields of science off of campuses, but the professors are unaware of them or have undeserved contempt for them.

    I’ve just got my doctorate in physics, and I’m going to go work at a national lab. The national labs have lots of different areas of research, and they do some amazing things. The place I’m going also has lots of engineers, chemists, computer scientists, biologists. There are several others like it. Beyond national labs, there are several government jobs – military labs hire civilian scientists (often for normal, not-killing-people research, but you do have the potential to be involved in weapons work depending on what you do). Other government jobs include advising governments about science issues so the legislators do sane-ish things. Some large states have positions like this, and the federal government has several (they are usually, but not always, 1 to 2 year jobs).

    Then there’s industry. Depending on your field, there are probably lots of industry jobs. Medical devices need a variety of scientists, there are some large companies that do science consulting, and there are small start-ups or small companies that do neat specialized stuff in every field. Also in this area, there are loads of government contractors, who again may or may not end up dealing with military things.

  18. kelly*

    #4, I think AAM’s answer is great, but I thought I’d add some more suggestions since sometimes you can tailor the answer to what kind of interview you’re in. I’m in a similar boat, and I’ve used these before: “my previous job wasn’t challenging enough, I saw no career growth in my previous job, it wasn’t working out personally to continue living in my previous city, I’ve moved to this city to be closer to family, etc.” Obviously not all at the same time. Depending on what kind of position it is you’re interviewing for, you can tweak your answer to sound the best and still be truthful. Hope this helps! I agree that most companies will consider local applicants first so I don’t think you screwed up by moving before finding a job.

  19. Laura*

    #6- I dont know what type of “science” you are in, but if you are in any type of life science, your knowledge would be incredibly useful in a consulting setting, namely life science and pharmaceutical consulting. Most people we hire are PhDs in life sciences.

  20. Clobbered*

    I also would like to say something to #6. First, as you have realised there are lots of “micro-cultures” in science groups. You had a good experience, you had a bad one – you can find a good one again, and now you know better what the danger signs are.

    The other thing is that while this is a generalization, there are definitely “hiring cycles” for scientific jobs (even the non-teaching ones) with a lot of jobs advertised in the spring for a fall start. Also, scientific employers generally are more tolerant of delayed starting dates for a bunch of reasons. So even if it feels too early to leave the job, it is not too early to start looking – it might take months to line something up, and doing something about it might help you make it through the day. This blog has good advice about how to job hunt without letting your current employer know, and if you find something that really appeals to you – hell, quit. Who cares if the Dungeon blacklists you.

    1. Anonymous*

      In some academic fields, if your position is only for a year, you should start job hunting as soon as you arrive – the cycle really is that long. I would give one extra hint for picking such jobs, though: if in your field there is an agreement between institutions that candidates can’t be required to decide before a certain date, turn down anyone who attempts to go outside it.

      Also, for the academic career path, the movie “Kind Hearts and Coronets” is probably the best source of suggestions for career advancement. It’s easy to get caught into a series of postdocs without any realistic chance of a permanent position.

      I sort of fell out of academia, but was able to program. That helped get new positions, and the subsequent near-tripling of my salary has somewhat reduced nostalgic feelings for academia.

  21. OP#1*

    Thanks all, I’m OP#1.

    I guess I know I need to say something. I mean we all do. It’s getting SO bothersome and everyone is talking about it, but not to her.

    It doesn’t help that she’s new to the team, and doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of us (yet, hopefully she will in time) — and she’s wayyyy too overeager.

    Our office is pretty casual, and it’s not unheard of to have noise from time to time, and most of the time, it’s totally fine. But this is just persistent distraction, and something needs to be done, I just need to get the courage to address it.

    Or, maybe someone else will :)

    1. Canadian mom*

      I feel your pain. I once had a co-worker with a very loud, annoying laugh, and it really did affect everyone else in the room – we were all on the phone most of the time.

      The manager spoke to her about it every now and then, but it never really “took” – CW always figured “why does anyone object to my being happy?!” She also disrupted meetings with her loud, prolonged laugh. Again, there was the occasional “enough, please!” but no real warnings – at least, not to anyone else’s knowledge.

      Maybe powers-that-be are reluctant to take action against anyone who “seems happy”??

      1. OP#1*

        Yeah, it seems weird to be annoyed at someone for laughing.

        I just don’t think my boss cares or maybe he is not bothered by it. He’s also out of the office a lot for meetings.

        Just doesn’t seem like something that should be left to her peers, and people are annoyed with her for other stuff already, so it is compounded.

        So far, our best approach has been to ignore it, but we’re all kind of getting fed up.

        1. Anonymous*

          I have a colleague who seems to laugh out of nerves.

          ‘So I called Client and he said he’d never received the invoice and it must have got lost in the post. Hahahahaaaaa!’.

        2. Kelly O*

          You’re definitely not the only one. We have a cackler too, and everything is funny.

          I think she does it so people don’t take her seriously, and if people don’t take her seriously, when she inevitably messes something up, it won’t be as big a deal. Or that’s what she thinks. She cackles on the phone too. (She’s also the one who says everything umpteen times.)

          If confronted with it in person, I just wait until she’s done and then continue the previous thought as though there had been no hen-house response. I’ve been told she thinks I have no sense of humor.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Maybe I’m too willing to call people on inappropriate behavior (in fact, I probably am), but what about saying sometime when she does it, “What’s funny about that?” You’d have to say it in a very nice tone, like you were genuinely curious, and should probably smile while saying it because you don’t want to sound like you’re just being mean, but I’d think that getting asked that a few times might help her realize that the behavior isn’t appropriate.

    2. Long Time Admin*

      She needs a mentor! Someone should take her under their wing, to help her learn how to fit in with the office culture and be successful at her job.

      You could do it…

  22. Hari*

    #3 I am a bit taken back by the fact OP tried to justify it by saying it was a dress code violation. It’s like they didn’t understand its not something to be said in the first place.

    I have a ton of friends who prefer same-sex partners, some sling the term gay and “f” word around like its going out of style, others don’t use them. People do reappropiate words, and I don’t have anything against that but in professional or public settings, especially when you arent with an intimate group of friends its best just left out.

    I hope OP apologized profusely.

  23. Julie*

    In my new office location, I can hear a woman laugh and laugh, usually in the late afternoon. As long as I’m not delivering a remote class (over the phone and computer) or on a meeting teleconference call, I don’t mind (but she’s down the hall, not in my office). In my last office one of the bosses had such a loud voice, and she laughed several times in every conversation. At that time I was doing a lot of remote classes, so that was annoying. I told my officemates that I needed a bit of quiet when doing classes, so they helped me – the would “shush” noisy people near our area, which I really appreciated.

  24. Nicola*

    1. A friend of mine can be described as your coworker. She has a loud and generous laugh and she had been talked to back when she worked in my department. She didn’t know it bothered people and she didn’t realize how loud it was. It might not hurt to be the coworker who quietly tells her that while you love her laugh, it’s distracting and can she keep it down? It is much better to hear it from a coworker than it is to hear it from a boss. If your boss has to tell her, she’s going to be resentful. Then, after you’ve kindly asked her, if she doesn’t comply, it’s headphones time.

  25. pidgeonpenelope*

    3. Yikes! Talk about slip of the mouth! Honestly, if all you get is a warning, you’re lucky. I had a coworker use “Jew” as a slur and he was almost fired. Had he not had the rapport and tenure he had, it would have been game over. I get it was an oops and I side with AskAManager in her remarks.

    In addition though, you brought up the dress code as a way to reduce your wrong. I’m saying this with kindness and if it doesn’t come out that way, I apologize. I really don’t want to be jerky however, here it is: Own your mistake. You said it. It was wrong. Since violating dress code was not your mistake in this scenario, it shouldn’t even be mentioned. If you did mention this when your boss talks to you about the issue, it will not bode well for you. Your boss will assume you can’t take responsibility and ownership and you might see more consequences in the long run (such as being passed up for a promotion). I promise, owning your mistakes gets you so much further than trying to hide or point fingers.

    1. AG*

      Wow, I had a coworker use “Jew” as a derogatory term. When I told my manager that it bothered me (being Jewish) I was told that I needed to be less sensitive.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Wow. That manager needed to shown a copy of the law on religion and hostile workplace. (That single remark wouldn’t make a lawsuit, but that manager clearly didn’t understand her obligations as an employer.)

    2. Blue Dog*

      I agree. You will likely not get fired if you immediately and profusely apologize. However, if you say something stupid, stick to your story, or say something even remotely close to what you said in your post, all bets are off.

      Just because you grew up with people or associate with people who casually use words that gay or fag or retard doesn’t mean that they haven’t fallen out of favor in the work place any more than racial slurs. And, like the post above, I am still amazed at the number of people who are surprised when others are offended when they refer to “jewing down a bill.”

      You know what, I am not going to tell you have to live your private life. But in the workplace, find another word.

      So, if you want to keep your job, my best advice is don’t try to defend to the action. Don’t talk about people being overly sensitive or the world being too PC or how no one can take a joke. Things like that will demonstrate that this wasn’t an idle remark, but rather shows a much bigger problem that HR needs to manage.

      Rather, just say, “You know, I made a mistake. I am sorry. It just sort of blurted out and I immediately regretted it” And leave it at that. The more you try to explain it away, the more you run the risk of saying something that actually could get you fired. I have a feeling the less you try to justify your actions, the better off you are going to be.

      1. LCL*

        …had to explain to a family member why she shouldn’t ever use the phrase “chewing down the bill” with regards to workplace contracts. She hadn’t realized that the phrase was a sanitized version of the slur, and certainly hadn’t meant it as a slur.

      2. hanna*

        Wow….until today I’ve never even heard of the phrase “Jewing/chewing down teh bill.” Then again, I’m from Brooklyn (huge Jewish population here) and I haven’t really ver heard any jewish slurs (I’m not jewish).

        This is why I love this place….learn something new all the time!

  26. JBowmn*

    #5 – I have more of a follow-up question than any actual advice. I also work overseas (and have US citizenship), and in thinking long term about returning the the States, what is the best way to manage overseas references? Currently, all of my managers speak enough English that they would be very capable of speaking on the phone to give a reference – but how is that viewed by HR departments? Would it work to perhaps provide both a written letter of recommendation and also their email/phone contact?

    As of now I have been overseas for around 4.5 years, so any references I have in the US are dated comparatively speaking. But I understand that with time differences and all of that, tracking down an overseas reference may end up being a huge pain for a company.

    1. GeekChic*

      I’ve worked in multiple countries and here’s what has been successful for me when it comes to international references:

      – I provide multiple methods of contacting references (email and phone) and encourage employers to use any method. This is, of course, done with the approval of my references.

      – I note what languages each reference is comfortable speaking, reading and writing so the employer knows which method will work best depending on what languages are available at their office.

      – I note what time zone the reference is in and any general comments I can make about availability.

      – Unless I was applying for a job in one of the fields that actually uses letters of recommendation I didn’t bother with them.

      For my last few jobs, my references were initially contacted by email and then there was follow-up by phone.

  27. Carrie*

    #6, post-science career: Consider going into policy/government. There are lots of great policy fellowships for scientists, and people with PhDs often have an advantage when applying to work for the federal government. We need more scientists who care about policy!

  28. Anonymous*

    #6. Research Compliance

    I’m not sure how far you want to move away from the science community, but research compliance might be of interest to you. You can utilize your scientific background without actual ‘bench’ work. Understanding the science behind research is essential to making it safer and compliant. The school you’re currently employed with should have a research safety/health and safety/research compliance department you can look into.

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