how to answer “what do you do?” when you’re unemployed, employer restricts how I can spend my salary, and more

It’s five answers to five questions. Here we go…

1. How to answer “what do you do?” when you’re unemployed

What’s the best way to answer the “what do you do?” question in a city where it’s almost always asked and when you’re unemployed and looking for work?

I’ve been doing a lot of one-on-one networking, and in those meetings it’s clear from the beginning that I’m unemployed based on the way I phrase my email. The problem seems to be more at events, conferences, and social gatherings (though in this town social gatherings are also a great place to network). Obviously people don’t want to hear your whole life story, but I also don’t want to present myself as someone to pity, or, worse, someone who is overreaching in trying to demonstrate their value (I went to X program, just finished a contract at Y company, am currently in the interview stages at Z). Do I say that I finished a grad program in May? That I recently moved here? That I’m interviewing around but a good fit hasn’t come up yet?

I’d love a phrase to convey that I’m looking but am excited about the opportunities here and confident I’ll find something worthwhile, while also opening up the possibility for the person I’m speaking with to suggest a person/organization/short-term gig.

“I just finished a grad program in X earlier this year and am looking for work doing Y.”

That’s really it. Your initial answer shouldn’t get into the fact that you’re confident you’ll find something good or that the right fit hasn’t appeared yet. Further conversation might take you there, but it’ll be weird (and sound a little defensive) if you start with those things.

2. My employer has restrictions on how I can spend my salary

I recently accepted a new position (yay, thanks in part to your blog!) with a non profit. I am technically a fellow rather than a full-time staff member. During my interview, I was informed that half of my salary comes from my host organization and half is funded by another program. I was also told that the second half of my pay is designated for living expenses but that my salary would be the same as a non-fellow in my position. I had no problems with this.

A few days into my new job, I received an email from the program advising me that as per new restrictions, I am only allowed to use the second half of my pay to cover very specific expenditures. Additionally, if my permitted expenditures don’t reach the maximum amount possible, I simply don’t receive that maximum amount. For example, if my host site approves a living allowance of $2000/month and I only spend $1200/month on living costs (as very narrowly defined by the org) then I only get $1200/month. This part of our pay is not to be used on transportation costs, car payments, car insurance, home internet, cell phone bills, etc. We can ask the host org to purchase gift cards from a reputable grocery store but only in a certain amount and with the caveat that we can’t use the card to purchase alcohol.

Is the program allowed to dictate our personal spending because we’re “fellows”? I’m frustrated that as an adult, I can’t make the choice to live frugally and use the remainder of my salary to pay off existing debt. Similarly, I can’t make the choice to live a bit farther from work and spend less on rent because I won’t recoup the commuting costs. We are allowed to use the money toward student loan payments but we’re also strongly encouraged to defer those payments while we’re in the program. I’d just love to get your thoughts on this situation.

It sounds like like they’re saying your salary is $X, and they’ll also cover living expenses up to a maximum of $Y. In other words, they’re not dictating how you spend your salary — but your salary is only half of the total figure, and the other half is reimbursement for a list of narrowly defined expenses. It’s not unheard of for internships and fellowships to have arrangements like this — it’s basically a stipend plus living expenses.

But if they weren’t clear with you about that before you started and instead just told you that your salary would be $X + $Y, then there are definitely legal issues here; they promised you a salary that they aren’t paying you.

But it sounds like they did explain that there was some sort of unusual arrangement here. Without knowing the details of exactly how it was laid out, it’s hard to say whether they still weren’t as clear as they should have been.

Regardless, the question for you now is, knowing that your salary is actually half of what you thought it would be, plus living expenses up to a maximum of $Y, do you want the job?

3. My coworkers are treating me as the voice for everything disability-related in our office

I am a full-time wheelchair user, and I’ve been in my (entry-level, temporary) job for nearly two years now. When I was first hired, I was asked about reasonable accommodations in the work space, and aside for some help getting things off of high shelves, I didn’t need anything.

Now, apparently the affirmative action office at my work has been insisting that my office should put in automatic door buttons on the two interoffice doors in our space. To be clear, there are already buttons on all entry doors to the building and the entry door to our space. These are just doors that go between our office and the next one over. My boss and one of the senior-level employees in the office next door made sure I was aware of the upcoming change, and were very clear that it had nothing to do with me, but that the AA office was insisting on it.

Here’s the problem. As word has been going around the two offices, a couple people have been approaching me to ask about the change. I’m sure that will only happen more as work begins. It’s mostly been questions like, “Did you request that?” “If you didn’t, who did?” “Why are they doing that?” It seems innocuous, but I get really tired of explaining disability-related things at work, and I don’t want to have conversations about accommodations that aren’t for me and that I didn’t request. And I really don’t want to have to remind these coworkers – for the millionth time – that there are other disabled people in the world who might work here one day, who may want or need these accommodations. I know I’m an obvious target for disability-related questions, but how can I shut these interactions down? Or even better, how can I head them off before they begin?

Any chance that you can explain the situation to your boss and enlist her help in heading it off? It’s totally reasonable to say, “I’d rather not be the voice for everything disability-related at work, but I’m getting a bunch of questions about the AA’s office decision. Could you (or the AA office themselves) say something to people to head these queries off, so that I don’t continue to get approached as the Voice on All Things Disability-Related?”

You can also simply say to people who approach you, “I don’t know anything about it.” And if someone is pushy, it’s reasonable to add, “Having a visible disability doesn’t mean that I’m in the loop on everything disability-related here.”

4. Explaining to employers why I’m leaving grad school after a year

I am in the second year of three of a professional degree (Master of Divinity) whose graduates go into very specialized work in ministry as pastors or chaplains. I’ve learned the hard way it’s a bad idea to go into grad school without a clear vision of how this will positively impact one’s career. I’ve decided to start looking for full time jobs in hopes of sparing myself some pain and money. How would I address unfinished graduate work if I’m currently in school? I have decent experience in nonprofit work, and I’ve had relevant coursework and internships in the field during my first year in school. How can I spin this without having major gaps in my resume or coming across as a quitter?

“I’ve realized that I don’t want to pursue a career as a pastor or chaplain and instead want to ___. I’m excited to move back into full-time work.”

Hiring managers aren’t going to be terribly concerned about you being a quitter. The bigger concern with grad school is that you really want to do the thing you went to school for and are just settling for some other type of work. Because you’re leaving a year in, it’s pretty clear that that’s not the case with you.

5. Sending post-interview thank-you notes if you’re offered the job or another interview

Twice this week, I had experienced cases where I received either a verbal offer or another interview before I could send post-interview thank-you emails. In both cases, I stalled on sending emails because I didn’t know if it made sense due to the fact that I would be further engaging with these individuals. Does it make sense to send thank-you emails if you are moving further along in the pipeline?

If you’re offered a job, there’s no need to still send a post-interview thank-you. At that point, the conversation has jumped to such a different stage that it would seem odd. But if you’re simply offered another interview, yes, you should still send a note following up on the first interview. In it, you can mention that you’re looking forward to talking further at your next meeting.

{ 187 comments… read them below }

  1. PEBCAK*

    #5 — Would you use it a little differently? Typically the thank you note is to reiterate your interest after the interview, summarize why you’d be a good fit, and, sometimes, clarify something you said in the interview itself, i.e. use it as one last chance to sell yourself before decisions are made. If decisions for the next round of interviews have been made, would you include something different?

    1. Puddin*

      It never hurts to send a thank-you. Perhaps tailor the note to convey your current situation as Pebcak suggested. And if you have already accepted an offer, I would still send a note. I disagree with Alison a little bit on this. In case that new job does not work out, to build your network, and to just plain be courteous I would send a thank you. After all the usual purpose of a thank you is to show appreciation, not just keep your name ‘top of mind’ for the next round of interviews.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I think the OP is talking about sending a thank-you to the people who offered her a job (whereas it sounds like you’re talking about a situation where it’s a different employer?).

  2. Jerry Vandesic*

    #2: “We are allowed to use the money toward student loan payments but we’re also strongly encouraged to defer those payments while we’re in the program.”

    Ignore them. Pay off your student loans as quickly as possible. Use every penny that you can from the living expense funds to pay down your loans. Not sure why they would want you to defer, but that is not in your best interest. The fact that they suggest deferring makes me question their motives.

    1. Megan*

      I agree. Pay off your loans! As you say, if you don’t use the $ you loose it. Why wouldn’t you pay off your loans?! Seems like a no brainer to me!

      1. Stephanie*

        I’d pay them off, but I could see an advantage if OP had low interest rates and was able to do something with that money otherwise (like if the program offered some sort of retirement plan, but this doesn’t sound like that’d be the case). My friend rushed to pay off her student loans just to get the monkey off her back, only to realize she only saved like $300 by aggressively repaying ahead of schedule (but I’m sure the psychological benefit may have been nice).

        1. The Cosmic Avenger*

          Well, that, and if she was paying $100 a month, she then had an extra $100 a month in her budget sooner than she would have otherwise! Very important if you have other debt towards which you can put that $100 (“snowballing”), but if not, it’s still nice.

          1. fposte*

            Though if you defer, you have that $100 *now*, so maybe it’s best not to get too excited about that $100 :-).

              1. fposte*

                It doesn’t sound like that’s the case–they’re encouraged to defer their loans without endangering the funding.

                I’m actually in favor of paying the loan now, but I was noting that Cosmic Avenger’s point works for the psychological advantage of early payoff (when you’re already paying something and then you get it off your books) more than it does for deferment (when you’re not paying it now at all).

                1. OP #2*

                  No, that is the case. If we defer we have to let them know and then the funding we receive decreases accordingly. There is an educational award available, so there are options if a person chooses to defer. As I mention below, I’d rather pay and try to stay eligible for the 10 year forgiveness program.

                2. John B Public*

                  Unless paying off your loans puts your position at risk, you should absolutely pay off your loans. Why on earth would they think that wouldn’t be a priority? If the money is use-it-or-lose-it, pay those loans off. You gain nothing by continuing to defer them.

          2. MK*

            It’s not just nice, it’s safer. In my experience, the older you get the more money you need. It’s better to have the extra 100 in your early forties than your early twenties.

        2. the gold digger*

          I paid my student loans off nine years early. I did it partly because of the interest rate — nine percent — but mostly because I hate debt.

          I paid extra on my mortgage every month because again, interest, but also debt. I was very happy to have a minimal amount left on the mortgage when I was laid off from the last good-paying job in my life.

          I am not confident of my investment abilities so I don’t know if I could invest the money instead and come out ahead. I am sure, however, that I like the feeling of not owing anything to anyone.

          1. saro*

            This is my exact mentality. I have paid off my debt early (living like a pauper when I had the salary to live extravagantly) and I don’t regret it. I was able to quit that job after I paid off that debt and start my own business. It’s taking a while for the business to pick up but it’s okay b/c we have no debt. While I may have lost some money in ‘interest’, I needed the freedom.

            1. Melissa*

              Only for subsidized loans if we are talking federal. Subsidized loans are only given for financial need, so most middle-class students probably have mostly unsubsidized, which do accrue interest during deferment. The interest capitalizes at the end of the deferment period, too.

    2. the gold digger*

      We are allowed to use the money toward student loan payments but we’re also strongly encouraged to defer those payments while we’re in the program.

      Wait. So there is money you can use to pay off your loans but they don’t want you to use that money? Use it. Use as much as you can. Honestly.

      1. Artemesia*

        This ‘encourage to defer nonsense’ would make me think I was working for people who are trying to exploit and abuse me. I’d be taking a big look at this wonderful opportunity and the people running it. And of course take every penny you can and apply it to your student loans.

        There is nothing that gives you freedom like not being in debt.

        1. AdAgencyChick*

          Yeah, that really struck me as self-serving that they’re encouraging OP to defer the debt when that means OP’s total compensation would go down. (Perhaps that grant money would then be able to be used elsewhere?) I’d put every penny that doesn’t go toward other qualified living expenses toward the debt.

          I’m also rolling my eyes at the whole no-alcohol restriction. I understand that donors want to feel like their money is serving the organization’s work rather than helping people “have a good time,” but it feels really puritanical to me. Part of helping an organization do its work is by attracting qualified people by, you know, treating them like adults.

          I freely admit my eye-rolling is probably related to my one foray into the nonprofit world, where we were not allowed to be reimbursed for alcohol consumed on business trips — which meant that, after running a conference in which my team worked 15-hour days, we could expense our dinner at the Cheesecake Factory but had to put our drinks on a separate tab so we could pay for them ourselves. I was being paid about $14 an hour at the time for work that would have gotten me three to four times that in the for-profit sector. So…really? You’re going to begrudge us a stinkin’ cocktail? I’m curious to know whether AAM readers in Europe, where attitudes about alcohol are more relaxed, have the same kind of restrictions at nonprofits.

          1. Natalie*

            A good friend works in development and ran into this particularly harshly when she worked for a politically sensitive organization (women’s health care giant) – they could only tip 15%, only order 1 drink, etc. Most higher level fundraisers ended up increasing the tip out of their own pockets.

          2. KAZ2Y5*

            I don’t think it’s just non-profits that won’t pay for alcohol. One place I worked (definitely for-profit!) they wouldn’t pay for alcohol either. They also had a limit for what they would pay for lunch and supper. It was a few years ago, but maybe $15 and $25?

            1. Judy*

              I’ve only worked one place where they paid for alcohol on expenses. I’m not sure here, I’ve not yet traveled. Even the (at the time world’s largest) auto company didn’t pay for alcohol, at least for the engineer level expense reports.

              1. AdAgencyChick*

                Heh. Maybe it’s just that I work in advertising, then. Things are not quite like Mad Men these days (nobody has bottles of whiskey just sitting out in the office for a midday nip!) but oh man, if they took our alcohol away on business trips there’d be a REVOLT.

                1. Natalie*

                  I’m in real estate and it’s the same way – I don’t know how we’d entertain brokers without alcohol. I’m pretty sure the popularity of golf rests entirely on it being an excuse to day-drink.

                2. Scarlett*

                  I am in advertising, and they do have bottles of whiskey sitting around their offices, and beer is served on fridays at five. I dont drink, but it does amuse me that it is a thing here.

                3. CEMgr*

                  I used a large San Jose law firm a few years ago and they kept peppermint schnapps in their break room. Everyone had whisky or other hard liquor in their own offices.

                4. Pennalynn Lott*

                  In my 25+ years in sales, it was always OK to expense alcohol as long as you were entertaining clients. But if it was lunch / dinner on our own, then no dice.

            2. Sans*

              I’ve worked for several large corporations and at most, they would pay for 1-2 drinks. Most won’t pay for any alcohol. Probably their way of limiting liability.

          3. ProductiveDyslexic*

            This was the case in academia in the UK… essentially government grant money can be spent on food at conferences and such, sometimes on quite fancy food, but not on alcohol.

          4. Rose*

            I work in research admin. The alcohol rule actually has to do with how the federal government tracks grant money and probably has more to do with the way the company is being audited than what they’re willing to spend money on.

          5. Melissa*

            Lots of places do this. I’ve been on a variety of federal training grants for my undergrad + doctoral education and federal grants can’t be used to cover alcohol, so if we were getting reimbursed for travel we had to put drinks on a separate tab. I do think it’s a puritanical standpoint to take (why is it okay to pay for a steak but not for a simple glass of wine at dinner?) but I think it has more to do with Congress critters banning the use of any federal money on alcohol without thinking about all of the ways it affects people.

  3. KatieBear*

    OP #2, I have a lot of sympathy and so many questions. Hopefully, you can fill in some answers, because I’m highly curious.

    I agree with the advice of deciding if the restrictions in place are worth the job experience and paycheck. My only other advice would be to check into exactly what the authorized expenses are and make sure they are paid out of the half of the budget, so that your discretionary paycheck can cover other needed, unmet expenses.

    Out of curiosity, what is covered? After the exceptions you listed, it sounds like only rent and basic utilities are covered, as well as receipt-confirmed groceries. Is that the case?

    I’ve never heard of this kind of arrangement and would love to know more about why it’s so strict and how it works out for the workers.

    1. Graciosa*

      It sounds like these are restrictions associated with the grant that is funding the program. If that’s the case, the donors can choose almost any restriction as a condition of granting the money.

      I suspect in this case, the funding was intended to cover living expenses and the grantor wanted to make sure the money was not used for anything else. The prohibition on alcohol purchases could be a moral choice (the grantor is against alcohol use) or simply reflect the idea that the grantor, while agreeing that adults should be allowed to buy and use alcohol, does not want to spend limited grant funds on this rather than saving the money for other uses.

      I do agree with the other posters who said the OP should ignore the “encouragement” to the contrary and pay off student loans as fast as possible. The program may be concerned that having everyone using the maximum amount each month will exhaust the funds more quickly, but I don’t think this is a sacrifice the OP is obligated to make.

      1. KatieBear*

        I’m not questioning the ability to pay off loans or buy alcohol.

        If 50% of the salary is for living expenses, I don’t understand why commuting costs, internet, and food isn’t included.

        What do they include, for a stipend? Rent and utilities alone are aupposed to be 1/3 of living expenses. If they don’t include rent, utilities, internet and (partial) transportation it seems abusive.

        Is there a reason that 50% of your salary should be rent alone?

        1. OP #2*

          Thanks KatieBear, this is exactly my question. I knew what I was getting into (sort of). I just assumed that there was a broader definition of “living expenses.” Up until very recently, this living allowance covered far more than what it does now.

          1. Mister Pickle*

            That is … interesting. And unexpected. My guess was that this was the result of living expenses having been defined in the past before cellphone and internet were known. Odd that they would change this to make it even more restrictive.

          2. Treena Kravm*

            Do you live in a high cost of living area? I did a fellowship-type program in a “low” COL area, but other fellows in a higher one were granted additional funds for the same job to make up for the atrocious rent. So maybe that’s why it’s a use it or lose it policy. If it’s really there just for the higher rent costs, then if you’re not going to use it, why should they provide the additional, optional funding?

            Most fellowships have a combination of funding sources, and the hosting org has to contribute some set amount. The ones in a high COL probably required to provide an additional amount for living expenses, but they’ve noticed that fellows are still choosing cheaper or farther away housing and have put regulations on the money accordingly. OP2, does any of that sound applicable to your situation?

            1. OP #2*

              It’s not a particularly high COL area. And local orgs set the amount that they can reimburse so it’s very likely that a fellow working in an area with a higher COL would receive a higher reimbursement. Of course I have no issue with that. I think I’m concerned because I was very much hoping to pay down some (non SL) debt as soon as I got a job and now I’m finding that it will be very hard to do so with this arrangement.

              To be clear, I don’t begrudge my employer at all. So far I like the work and I’m hoping that my immediate supervisor will have some suggestions on how to make this work. I did relocate for this job and want to spend at least a year here, so I think it’s up to me to make the restrictions work as well as I can- I’ll just be living on a much tighter budget than I’d hoped.

              1. Treena Kravm*

                Does the living expense stipend cover only the minimum SL payments, or can you use the rest of the stipend to pay it down? I know you’re planning on the 10 year program, but if it doesn’t pan out for whatever reason, at least you’ve chipped away more of your SL debt.

                It sounds like you’ve already moved in to your apartment and started work, which is the really sucky part. If you had known the arrangement, I’m sure you would have chosen more expensive housing with less transportation costs, and maybe had some expenses rolled into the rent. Serious bummer if that’s the case.

                1. OP #2*

                  That’s something I’m wondering as well, I figure I might as well use it to pay down what I can, there’s no sense in not using available funds.

                  I haven’t actually moved into an apartment yet. Well, I did but I quickly moved back out, that’s another story. Decent housing is very hard to find around here, especially for someone with a rescue dog. So I’m still looking, and definitely considering how best to maximize my benefits.

                2. Rose*

                  OP, could you afford a bedroom with your stipend? If so, you could get some cash flow from rent and use that to pay down your debt.

        2. Graciosa*

          I’m not sure you realize how much this is in control of the grantor (and not the non-profit employer). If I tell you as a grantor that I will give you $100 toward your rent (but only your rent), how is that really abusive? Yes, there are other living expenses, but I’ve decided only to contribute to rent. I don’t have any obligation to give you a dime, so “abusive” because I choose to fund rent seems a little extreme.

          The real issue is not with the restrictions on the grant, but rather with the communication from the employer. How clearly did the employer communicate the terms of the employment *when they knew them* which might not have been until they received notice from the entity providing the money that it had decided to change the requirements for how it could be spent.

          We don’t have enough information to answer that question, and it sounds like the OP lacks this information as well. Assuming that the grant covered everything the OP wanted was a risk, and in this case it definitely did not pay off.

          OP, you may benefit by asking now for more detailed information about how this currently works (asking your employer – no one here will know) and possibly slipping in a question about how and when the rules changed if you can do it casually. This could provide you with insight not only into the rules so you can maximize your payout, but also into the question of how good your employer’s communication has been.

          Good luck.

          1. Traveler*

            Yep, this is exactly what I was thinking. When you work as a fellow, it depends so much on the person/group/org giving the money. They can dictate a lot, if the institution doing the hiring is willing to let them, in order to get the money.

          2. dediKate*

            Could this be that you are having to account for your living expenses so narrowly because of IRS regulations? A certain amount may be defined as living expenses, you may spend up to or equal to that amount (pre-tax) – but if you spend more it is on your dime and taxable? This is a very rough explanation. The tax ramifications of this stipend are important, and are something you should have well defined.

            1. OP #2*

              I don’t want to get into too many specifics but it’s actually the stable part of my pay that’s classified as a living allowance, the reimbursement for living expenses is classified as a benefit. You might see how it’s easy to get confused. Both are considered taxable income, beyond that I don’t know any tax specific information.

          3. OP #2*

            Thanks for your comment. I’d like to think I didn’t assume that the grant covered everything I wanted. I did research the compensation and, based on what was publicly available, as of 2013 car payments, transportation costs and other expenses were completely acceptable. If that was still true, I’d have no issues. I was also told by my interviewer that fellows are compensated with living allowance + benefits but receive the same dollar amount as a staff member in the same position. I have spoken to my employer and have looked at all of the available documentation but given how new these changes are, no one is confident in how they’ll play out.

            Again, I’m not suggesting that my employer is in any way abusive or that I’m being wronged. I think my organization is just as annoyed at these restrictions as I am. I’ve simply found myself in an unexpectedly difficult situation and I guess I was curious about how other people would respond. I’m not jumping ship, doing so would leave my employer in a terrible position and it would be rough on me as well.

            1. LBK*

              So one thing I’m still not totally clear on – do you actually get any salary that’s guaranteed to you with no restrictions, or just this sliding scale approved amount with nothing on top? Based on this comment, it sounds like they’re purely giving you whatever amount they approve for “living expenses,” plus your benefits. So you don’t actually get any disposable income at all?

              1. OP #2*

                I do, my total compensation is split almost half and half. We receive $X no matter what and then up to a maximum to cover aforementioned living expenses. It’s nice to have some flexible income but it’s certainly not a lot of money. Obviously I didn’t go into this line of work to get wealthy but I do hope to pay my bills.

        3. Rose*

          That was my thought too. If you’re spending more than 50% of your income on living expenses EXCLUDING so many things, that’s kind of an issue. It seems like a weird situation to encourage employees to get into.

          If commuting and all groceries aren’t covered, what’s the point??

  4. Dan*


    “I’d love a phrase to convey that I’m looking but am excited about the opportunities here and confident I’ll find something worthwhile”

    Just out of curiosity, why? That sounds way too salesy.

    FWIW, “what do you do” doesn’t have to mean “where do you work.” It can be as vague or as specific as you want it to be. Even for me, who’s currently employed, I can answer “what do I do” with a variety of answers, some of which may not look anything like the other.

    BTW, are you in DC? That question gets asked way too much around here.

    1. Stephanie*

      HA, my guess was DC as well. I was at the first day of an improv class and the instructor wanted us to go around and introduce ourselves. The first guy launches into his professional biography and our instructor stops him: “No, that’s ok. You don’t have to give your resume here.”

    2. Jennifer M.*

      This is so absolutely a DC question. It’s seemingly the only question that is ever asked. My only comfort is that people in DC actually understand what I’m talking about when I answer the question.

    3. Nervous Accountant*

      I’m gonna go ahead and say it’s an NYC question too. I get asked this all the time and I tell them my profession–whether I have a job at the time or not (lots of temp/seasonal stints)

      1. fposte*

        Yeah, I think it’s a pretty common question in lots of places, especially in situations, as the OP describes, that may have a professional component. And in those situations, it would be weird to go off about your yarnbombing or fantasy football league.

        1. The IT Manager*

          Yeah. I do not think it is a DC or NYC question. It’s going to come up at networking types of events sure, but I also use it when meeting people in my sports leagues. I mean, in general, people spend 8 hours a day, 5 days a week at work. It a way to try to get to know someone and understand how they spend their time. And the other area that may get a lot of their time – family – is awkward because “Are you married?” sounds like a come-on when you just meet for the first time.

          1. Jennifer M.*

            One thing about the way it is used in DC, in my opinion based solely on personal experience, is that in DC money doesn’t matter as much as power. So the “what do you do?” question becomes a proxy for “who do you know?” or “how can you be of use to me?”. It’s not a polite inquiry in an effort to get to know you.

            1. Cat*

              Oh I don’t think this is always true. There are power hungry types in DC of course but there are also a lot of wonky people who are genuinely interested in their (often very niche and nerdy) fields and excited to talk about it. My circle of acquaintances tends to be more regulatory and agency types rather than straight political types and it’s not like there’s no name dropping or power mongering but mostly it’s people who want to find someone to explain why the regulation of frozen foods is way more interesting than they think to.

              1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                Yeah, that’s my take on it too. So many people in D.C. have interesting jobs or jobs that they spend a lot of at / are passionate about that it’s a natural thing to come up.

          2. Stephanie*

            I noticed I was asked it a lot more in non-work related environments in DC compared to my current city (anecdotal, I know).

        2. Elysian*

          I think DC gets the reputation for this because its often the First Question, not just A Question. I think in most polite conversation “What do you do?” will come up eventually, but in DC more often than not it comes up first or very early.

          1. NP*

            DC resident here: I was recently out at a nightclub with some girlfriends and started dancing with a guy. First he asked me my name, then he asked me what do I do. In a nightclub. On the dance floor. At approx. midnight on a Saturday. Really??

            1. Dan*

              I don’t do night clubs, but really? Yes ;)

              When you think about it, how many openers can you really use that are appropriate and not going to accidentally offend somebody? “Where are you from?” is another DC-ism. Soooo many of those questions are going to get to the “what do you do” question anyway.

              Incidentally, I was at a social function not too long ago and bumped into some peeps from Chicago. They told me at a bar they actually ask “what do you do for fun”. I’m guessing the reason we don’t do that here is somebody’s going to say, “I work too much and don’t have time for fun.” Where do you work? “Oh, on the hill for Senator “

              1. Rose*

                This is funny. I haven’t been to DC since I was 9, but I think “where are you from” and “what do you do” are the first two things people usually say after they comment on the sports/weather.

                In bars, guys tend first ask either “what are you?” (I’m racially kind of ambiguous and it’s a huge part of culture here. I know what nationality all my friends are) or “what do you do?”

          2. LBK*

            Agreed. This was my experience in DC and part of the reason I left. It’s absolutely not universal, but the importance of What Do You Do (and, if it’s political, Who Do You Do It For) got old really fast.

            1. Dan*

              On an open thread awhile back, I asked people to explain the importance of “I work for a non-profit.” Everybody who answered had a different implication for it. (I work for one, but it violates every stereotype that one thinks applies to non profits.)

                1. Dan*

                  No, but I get your point.

                  There’s 7000 engineering, software developers, and math nerds. We don’t do fundraising activities. And while we enjoy our work, and may even be passionate about it, I think few are under the misconception that we’re “changing the world.”

      2. De Minimis*

        I’m an accountant too, and that is definitely a benefit of that type of profession, you can always say you’re an accountant even if you’re unemployed at the moment.

      3. Anx*

        I think it’s a common question everywhere, but the tone is different in NYC and DC. I’ve been asked it all over the East Coast, but I feel extra defensive in those two cities.

    4. OP #1*

      Yes, I’m in DC. I certainly don’t want to come off as “salesey” (though enough people here certainly do)…it’s more that when people find out I’m looking they look sorry for me, which is not the response I’d like to elicit, that’s all. Of course, you can’t control people’s reactions, but I’d just like to minimize that type of response, so I was wondering if there’s an appropriate way to do that.

      And, I definitely agree with your point that “what do you do” doesn’t have to mean “where do you work”, but if I respond with something that doesn’t convey that I’m looking then I’m less likely to get leads from people. A tough line to walk, to be sure!

      I think Alison’s response makes sense, and that’s mostly what I’ve been saying, depending on context– I think more of the trick here is to say it in a way that sounds upbeat.

      1. Annie*

        I’m in the greater DC area and when I get this question I usually give a small smile and say “I’m between full time gigs right now, but, I’m bartending and babysitting while I look for something full time.”
        It gives them a lead in for “Oh what are you looking for?” or an easy subject change. You could say something more like “I haven’t found a full time job, yet, I’ve been working part time as a teapot painter while recovering from grad school.” It gives them a couple places to go in the conversation and (hopefully) they won’t harp on it.

      2. Rose*

        I didn’t think it sounded sales y or cheesey at all for one. My sister is super underemployed, and if she doesn’t kind of “sell herself” people make terrible pity noises. She also often says “I don’t do anything” because she is grumpy cat in human form, which doesn’t help.

  5. Graciosa*

    Regarding #4, I wouldn’t be concerned about someone being a quitter for leaving grad school unless there was a track record to convince me otherwise. If you have a good explanation, you might get points with me for recognizing a problem and taking decisive action – but I really want to hear why you’ve decided grad school was the wrong path and why your new career plan is the right one. I would worry if your explanation does not seem to reflect self awareness and a realistic view of your newly chosen career.

    Good luck.

    1. Jen RO*

      I agree. It would be worse IMO to finish a program you hated! (My brother finished a 4-year university in some sort of engineering that he hated… so now he is doing 3 more years + 2 of master’s in civil engineering. The school system is different and the costs are nowhere near the amounts Americans pay, but he still wasted 4 years on something he will never use.)

    2. AdAgencyChick*

      Leaving one grad program early does not a quitter make.

      Leave two or more and put them on your resume, and yes, I am going to wonder whether it’s due to flakiness.

  6. Stephanie*

    #3 – Did anyone bristle at OP’s description of a being in a “temp” role for two years? Just sigh. (OP, I know that’s probably out your control. =\ )

    1. Jean*

      Yeah, that leaped out at me also, even though I dismissed it with a nonverbal, internal “but what can you do?” shrug. I do what I can to curtail the current urge–among folks on higher rungs of the socio-economic ladder–to screw those on lower rungs out of decent working conditions and all-around basic dignity, but I can’t fight an unnamed organization mentioned in passing on the Internet with anything except sympathy for the people touched by its bad behavior.

      OP, maybe you can contact a sympathetic state legislator or labor-support organization to see if laws exist or could be enacted to protect working folks from the indignity and aggravation of “being in a ‘temp’ role for two years.” I’m not suggesting Federal law because Congress is currently immobilized by partisan dysfunctionality.

      Yes, sigh. Also oy vey and FOOEY.

      1. Graciosa*

        I don’t agree that we should enact legislation to prevent people from working as temps on a long term basis. While I understand that some people do this as they are unable to find acceptable regular employment, there are also others who make this a deliberate choice. I have done this myself for shorter intervals, and have a family member who did it for more than a decade – again, by choice, and even when other options where available. He got to choose what he worked on and where he lived – a few years in one place, then move to another – and this is what he wanted.

        We all have freedom to choose to work – or not work – for an employer.

        Legislation such as you propose will most likely simply remove longer term temping options, leaving only shorter term assignments (under whatever the legislative threshold is for conversion to regular employment) or force everyone to go through an agency that takes some of your pay for their profit. This would create uncertainty (due to the need to keep finding new assignments) and lower incomes for the people you probably assume would benefit.

        There is already a disincentive to employers in this area due to co-employment rules (long term temps sued for retroactive benefits – including the right to purchase stock – and won) but again, it has not worked out the way you probably would wish. Large employers changed the language in their benefit plans to clearly exclude temps, put their own time limits on assignments, and required signed benefit waivers (and often third party employers) to engage a temp.

        They also put in place strict rules about the treatment of temps to ensure that it was clear that they are not employees – things like prohibiting attendance at staff meetings (to make it clear that they are not staff), prohibiting recognition or bonuses for great work (which are offered to employees, but not temps), communicating only through the agency instead of directly, not inviting temps to the holiday party, etc.

        A lot of the perceived indignities of being classified as a temp and not an employee are the result of companies’ reactions to being forced to treat temps as employees when they did not take these steps. I’m not sure we’re really better off now that “the temps” are not allowed to join us for lunch in December.

        Sorry about the soapbox – but the idea that legislation will “fix” everything without any unintended consequences is a bit of a hot button for me.

        1. Dan*

          My understanding is that the “temp vs perm” issue isn’t all that big of a legal deal. The issue is when the temp is an independent contractor that should be classified as an employee.

          After all, “perm” doesn’t exist for regular full time employees either. We can get whacked at any time.

          Although I fully admit that “temp” generally implies no benefits. The issue I have is employers want you to work like part of the team, and in exchange they get to treat you as a lower class citizen, which I don’t think is fair.

          1. Judy*

            My previous employer put limits on how long a temp employee could work for them. The person would need to take a 3 month break before temping again at that company. I’m pretty sure that was a direct result of the court ruling.

            1. Melissa*

              To me that’s just a weird circumventing of the temp rules. If you want a person to work for you for longer than a few months at a time, just hire them as a full-time employee with benefits.

        2. Anx*

          I agree that legislation often has unintended consquences, but many temps are being exploited.

          I think that if companies are going to try to get out of paying benefits or hiring better protected employees, then we need to decide as a society if we still value sick days (paid or unpaid), maternity leave, health insurance access, etc.

          1. Graciosa*

            I understand your viewpoint, but I don’t agree these are decisions that must be made at a societal level. I think individuals should have that freedom.

            That said, I do understand that my experience is colored by my knowledge of people who genuinely preferred some pretty specific trade-offs (higher salary in exchange for less job stability and fewer benefits) as I suspect others’ opinions are colored by knowledge of people who had different feelings about that choice.

    2. OhNo*

      I’m the OP for #3 – sorry, I should have been clearer about that. It’s actually a job that is for students only, and since I’m graduating in May, it’s just temporary for me. The place I work for is actually really great about giving students a leg up on working, and is an all-around decent environment, but it comes at the expense of knowing you won’t be employed anymore once you finish school.

    3. Rose*

      I was a temp for 20 months. It sucks. The temp agency set me up, and the office I worked for never had it in the budget somehow to actually hire me. My boss confessed to me once that the temp agency took 30% of my pay. There was nothing she could even do. I never got benefits, perm status, or even a real ID.

  7. AnonyMouse*

    #3: Nothing super helpful to suggest, just want to say I get how annoying that must be. It’s a personal pet peeve of mine when people treat someone with a disability, a person of colour, a woman, a religious minority etc as the “spokesperson” for that group. You’re not supposed to be their go-to for all things related to disability, nor do all people with disabilities have the same views! But all that aside, I agree with Alison that it might be worth asking your if the office of affirmative action could send out a memo about the changes and make themselves available (via email, maybe) for questions to divert some of it off you.

    1. Nashira*

      Oh man. That’s one of the worst parts about being a member of a minority group: a member of the majority can do something and it looks bad in them. If a member of a minority does it, then it looks bad on the entire group… but our awesomeness is only a good thing we’ve done, almost despite being one of those (insert minority) people.

      I really really hate it. Society as a whole needs to cut this crap out!

      1. OhNo*

        Ugh, that whole mess is just the worst. It’s true – when you do something “bad”, then it’s because all X are inherently “bad”. But when you do something “good” then it’s you rising above the group you’re supposedly representing. Ignorance and bigotry at it’s finest.

    2. Lora*

      Seconding this. ExJob didn’t install accessibility accommodations for doors and such until one of the C-levels broke his leg in a skiing accident. (Massive eye roll) There’s no reason they can’t announce, “FYI, construction will be going on at doors 3 and 4 to make them more accessible due to a recent safety audit finding/change in building codes/rash of snowboarding accidents. Sorry for any inconvenience and please be careful around the construction mess.”

    3. OhNo*

      OP for #3 here – I’m glad I’m not the only one who gets ticked off by that. I know it happens to other minority people in my place of work too, but they don’t seem to mind it as much as I do. Or maybe they’re just better at keeping their annoyance to themselves – who knows!

      1. Manager Anonymous*


        As the visible representative of disability where I work…

        Answer: Its called universal design. Its for everyone.

        1. OhNo*

          That line is brilliant. I hope you don’t mind if I steal it to use, because I think that is the perfect response.

  8. Jennifer M.*

    #2 – If the living expenses portion is coming from a federal grant, there is a government definition for those expenses. Of course, the definition was written in the ’50s and therefore excludes a bunch of stuff as would have made sense back then. I live overseas on a gov’t contract and my living quarters allowance (LQA) is governed by the Dept of State Standard Regs and I assume the differences between other gov’t agencies are minimal. LQA covers rent and utilities as well as some “make-ready” costs at the move in stage – I needed the wiring in two outlets fixed when I moved in for example. It specifically excludes a telephone line and because internet is not identified specifically, it too is excluded. Now, my lease didn’t come with a phone line, so I have to pay for it myself (I have to have a landline to get internet in this country) whereas a bunch of my friends got apartments where the phone and internet were included in the rent. However, their rent is higher and they end up paying for some of their own utilities whereas all my utilities are covered. It is also a spend to get allowance that counts as taxable income even though I never actually touch the money (I give my utility bills to the accountant and they automatically pay my rent once a quarter). And the prohibition on using funds to purchase alcohol is also typical of federal money.

    1. Jennifer M.*

      Sorry, to clarify why I regurgitated all these gov’t definitions, when I got my job offer, it included a total compensation package of which $X was salary, $Y was uplifts (hardship pay etc), and $Z was maximum living quarters allowance. It was presented this way so that I could have a full understanding on what would be reported as taxable income on my W-2, even though only a portion was salary. This is important in fed government contracting because in a lot of cost reimbursable contracts, salaries are approved by the relevant agency based on salary history and allowances and uplifts are excluded from the calculation but at the same time used as an incentive to say “yes we’re only going to pay you this much, but you are also getting all these allowances so it is like you are getting the 20% increase you asked for, but not really, especially when you try to negotiate your salary on the contract after this.”

    2. Artemesia*

      I remember working on a federal grant and having to provide dinner receipts that were detailed (not just receipt for total cost) to make sure no money was spent on alcohol. This became beyond ridiculous when the receipt was for McDonalds. I didn’t get paid for that one because I didn’t have the detailed receipt only the credit card receipt. I do all my heavy drinking on govt grants at McDonalds, doncha know.

      1. Treena Kravm*

        I know that seems crazy, but our regs don’t require the itemized receipt and my co-worker will order the cheapest food and 2-3 drinks, and will expense her entire bill. She’s told me straight-up that she can get away with it because the receipt she submits will not be itemized. With glee and a bit of a cackle-like chuckle. I want to slap her.

        1. Cat*

          If your employer is spending the same amount of money on dinner as she would otherwise, that doesn’t seem egregious to me. Or are you prohibited from expensing any alcohol?

          1. Treena Kravm*

            It’s that we’re prohibited from expensing alcohol. We’re allowed $20-25 for dinner, but only if it was spent on actual dinner. When my manager is with us, we’ll all drink and she’ll ask for a separate alcohol bill and pay for our drinks on her own card. But when it’s just us, my coworker will sneak her drinks into the tab.

            1. yasmara*

              That’s why my Very Large Company switched to a per diem system several years ago. Now they just set the per day reimbursement amount for you (and adjust for things like flight times, hotel breakfast, etc.) and you spend whatever you want (and drink whatever you want) but only get reimbursed for the per diem amount. Things like marketing/sales dinners are handled separately, I assume.

      2. Melissa*

        I have had the same experience with fast-food receipts – one of them wasn’t itemized and I didn’t get reimbursed because I couldn’t prove on paper that I didn’t magic up a nice Chianti at Burger King.

  9. TheDataQueen*

    #4, I only completed one semester of a PhD program before realizing I had made a HUGE mistake. When any employer has asked about the 4 month gap on my resume, I say basically what Alison suggested: “I completed one semester in a PhD program at Teapot University, but realized it was not right for me.” Have never had an employer bat an eyelash at this response, and actually got a job soon after I decided to drop out of the program.

  10. Amy*

    #4 could so easily be my housemate- also I totally agree with Alison. MDiv is a professional degree (rather than an academic one) and (depending on the divinity school/seminary) is generally geared towards those who want to go into chaplaincy or ministry rather than non-profit work, which is a bummer IMO because I think non-profit work is definitely a type of ministry, even at a secular non-profit.

    Fun fact: As an MDiv-er myself, I don’t tell people that I’m studying to be a minister at a church, I tell them I’m studying to be the “executive director of a small faith-based non-profit”.

    1. en pointe*

      Could you please explain more about why non-profit work is a type of ministry, even at secular non-profits? I don’t really understand that (or agree with it?) I guess I don’t know if I agree, because I don’t understand. But I’d love to hear more!

      1. summercamper*

        I can’t speak for Amy, but as another seminary student I can give my perspective on this issue (which may or may not match Amy’s view).

        I’m from a Reformed Christian tradition (think Presbyterians, Anglicans, the Pilgrims), where we heavily emphasize the notion of God’s sovereignty over everything. One famous reformer, Abraham Kuyper, famously stated, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry ‘Mine!'”

        This view, when taken to its logical conclusion, really wears down barriers between the “sacred” and “secular.” In fact, I believe that God is in the business of renewing the entire world, and any Christian who joins in making the world a better place is joining God in this work. (Secular folks who make the world a better place are on the team, too, although in a different way.)

        So this makes any work which makes the world a better place can be a valid ministry. Trash collector? Ministry. Cafeteria lady? Ministry. Politician? Ministry. All vocations (except things outside God’s moral law, like “hit man” or “mafia don”), when done with the idea of renewing the world, count as ministry.

        Of course, there are plenty of other Christians who see this differently, and that’s OK – Amy’s view may be different than mine. And to further complicate matters, even us Reformed folks who believe everything is ministry will still differentiate between ministering via a “worldly” vocation and ministering via full-time Christian service. But in the sense that working in a secular non-profit is entirely focused on making the world a better place, it can be defined as ministry.

        1. en pointe*

          Your explanation makes a lot of sense, thanks! I thought Amy was saying that non-profit work was like inherently a kind of ministry, whether you’re religious or not, which is what I didn’t understand. I can see how, for a religious person, any work that betters the world could be their ministry.

          Thanks for taking the time to explain that to me!

        2. NoPantsFridays*

          I agree with en pointe, thank you for taking the time to write this. While I am very religious (though not Christian), I consider most of my work or volunteer activities to be secular unless they are explicitly religious. I can see where you are coming from though and I think some people of my faith also consider their work/vocation to be ministry (although the term is different in our faith, the idea is the same). I know someone of my faith who runs a secular choir and I think he would agree with what you said :)

          1. summercamper*

            I’m glad this is helpful to you! If you’d like to read more on this topic, the folks over at The Gospel Coalition’s channel on Faith and Work have done a great job of expounding on this. Even though I’m not associated with them, I’ve listed them as my website on this comment – you can click my username to check out their content.

        3. Pennalynn Lott*

          I think I’d need to ask this question (or at least have the answers posted) on the Sunday Free-For-All, but I’m genuinely curious how you view those vocations / jobs when they’re performed by an atheist. Is the janitor, or accountant, or healthcare worker, or mortician, or factor worker, or county commissioner, or K-12 teacher still part of a ministry when the person performing the work doesn’t acknowledge the existence of any gods?

          I promise to check next Sunday’s Free-For-All if you feel like answering.

      2. TotesMaGoats*

        Never been to seminary but I am a part-time minister of music at my church. I can say that serving in a non-profit sector can easily be seen as a ministry. It’s not about converting anyone but about serving people in need, whatever that need may be. That’s what ministering means.

      3. Amy*

        I come from a pretty progressive, generally politically-liberal christian denomination (UCC), and for me, a lot of issues that people see as secular (economic justice, voting rights, gay marriage, abortion), I have come to my positions (socialist, pro-gay marriage, pro-choice) through my religion/faith, and I believe that if I’m working in a secular non-profit towards those ends, even if there is never a single religious word ever muttered, I am doing God’s work.

        Also, people in my tradition can be ordained to work in non-profits, as long as you can prove it’s a call of word and sacrament (which is too long to explain), but generally would only happen in a faith-based non-profit. So while there *is* a space for non-profit work to be officially considered ministry, my considering of secular non-profit work just has to do with how my religious and political views align and inform each other.

    2. Judy*

      I certainly agree that most work can be your ministry, I’m personally just curious because I read the comment to mean that an MDiv would prepare you to lead an organization, dealing with budgets and managing people and donors. I’d think some sort of MBA centering on small businesses (or if they have them MBAs that tend toward non-profits?) would be better preparation.

      1. TotesMaGoats*

        Actually, if the church is small enough pastors will be highly involved in administrative activities. My father has an M. R.E. (Master of religous education) from a seminary. While he certainly was taught how to preach (and Greek) and other “ministerial” things, he was also taught about management and administrative things. His experience as a minister also gave him teaching and training experience on a statewide level. You’d be surprised how far the experience of a minister goes beyond standing in the pulpit.

        1. Judy*

          I understand that the experience of a minister is far beyond the pulpit. I’ve seen firsthand how different pastors have different strengths, even within things they should be trained in.

          I’ve not investigated MDiv degrees, but I’d expect as the OP said below that there may be a course or two that covers some applicable things, but even one course a semester over 3 years is not necessarily a lot.

      2. summercamper*

        This really depends on the M.Div you get. While all accredited seminaries cover the major bases – like preaching, Bible interpretation, and pastoral counseling – they vary wildly on their approach to administrative stuff. Some cover these things extensively in the classroom, others cover them through optional seminars, and others leave them out altogether.

        For this reason, lots of young people who want to enter the pastorate are advised to get an undergraduate degree in business administration, then go on to an M.Div to complete the package. Not everyone does this – but it’s becoming more common.

        However, in some larger non-profits the leader will be more qualified via religion (M.Div, etc) and rely heavily on a business/admin VP to help with budgets. Even some larger churches follow this model. It all depends on how the non-profit is set up and what the leader’s job is. In some non-profits, the leader is the administrator (and would be most qualified with an MBA), while in other non-profits the leader is more program-focused and leads the hands-on work (and would be most qualified, in a religious work, with an M.Div).

      3. OP #4*

        OP #4 here! I think there is a big myth among seminarians that an MDiv will prepare you for work in nonprofits. I did a faith-based service year working at a secular nonprofit after college, and was encouraged by my peers that an MDiv was a good way to pursue that work further.

        It certainly prepares you to lead and connect with people, but hard skills like budgeting and administration are hard to come by. For example, my school offers a Nonprofit Leadership and Management course and a Church Administration course, but that’s the extent to which it offers anything tangible. Part of my concern with finishing my degree is that I would be much better served learning these things in a job than in my current line of schooling where I have to fill most of my semesters with Bible and theology courses.

        1. summercamper*

          With that in mind, then, it sounds like quitting your program might be your best bet.

          If you can find job opportunities that match up with what you want to do, and they don’t require an MDiv, then quitting makes a lot of sense. Perhaps the folks who advised you to get an MDiv didn’t understand the exact role you want to play in non-profit work. I was also advised to get an MDiv even though it didn’t directly apply to my chosen work in order to have options in the future (ordination, etc.). But if this is something that will NEVER interest you, then why keep doing something you hate?

          This is especially true, in my opinion, if you are wracking up large amounts of debt to pay for school. It’s also true if your dislike of Bible and theology courses is strong enough to translate into a dislike of religious practice in general. If you see yourself trending that way, it might be a good idea to quit before your spirituality slips away altogether.

        2. Amy*

          Yeah I think it definitely depends on if you’re at a stand-alone seminary or a divinity school where you have access to public policy/law/business schools on the same campus as to how equipped you can get for non-profit work via an MDiv

      4. Amy*

        My divinity school is part of a larger university that also has a business school, so there are actually several classes cross-referenced between the divinity and business school (and law school) about non-profit management, you can also get a joint degree if you want to focus on non-profit admin but still have the ministry aspect.

    3. Artemesia*

      Perhaps so with divinity degrees, but I have worked with probably half a dozen men of my age (old) in the non-profit sector who had MDivs obtained during the Vietnam War when it deferred them. None of them went into serving as pastors but all of them used the background on service oriented careers in non-profits. They were all service oriented people but not cut out for being ministers.

  11. OP #2*

    OP #2 here. Thanks for your comments. Just to clarify, yes, I was told that salary is X plus living expenses of up to Y. But I was also told it all comes out the same as a specific salary (and a dollar amount was mentioned). The restrictions on living expenses are brand new, I actually researched the definition before taking the job and as of last year’s guidelines, transportation costs such car insurance, car payments, etc were all covered. I believe that the strict definition of “utilities” (no phone, no internet, etc) is also brand new and again makes the situation difficult.

    As for student loans, I don’t plan to defer. I’m actually hoping to take advantage of the 10 year public interest forgiveness program although I’m aware that by the time I hit my 10 years, that program may not be around anymore. To complicate matters, I do have medical bills from a period when I was briefly uninsured. Medical bills aren’t permitted expenses, though I’m trying to figure out if there’s any flexibility there. I don’t want to panic yet, new guidelines were just put in place and I have no idea how they’ll actually play out.

    1. misspiggy*

      So in effect the new guidelines amount to a pay cut? I would not be impressed with an employer that effectively cut my pay a short while after I joined.

    2. The IT Manager*

      This may not be possible in your particular situation (given money comes from two different sources and your organizations budget may not be able to handle it), but given the rules change resulting in a pay cut you should either be grandfathered (and the new rules only affect new fellows) or your salary portion raised to cover the things that used to be covered by living expenses.

      But if that doesn’t happen, this becomes a question if you want to live with the job at drastically decreased salary.

      1. Jennifer M.*

        The only issue is that if these are federal guidelines, there may be no possibility for grandfathering. If certain federal clauses are incorporated into the grants, then the funding is subject to the updated regs. We went through this with federal travel regs that at one time allowed the purchase of economy plus (or equivalent) seats on planes but once the reg was updated, all contracts that incorporated the regs were subject to the update. . .

        1. OP #2*

          Unfortunately, no grandfathering. All fellows, even those who accepted work under a different agreement, are subject to the new restrictions.

    3. Mike C.*

      The whole thing feels sketchy as hell. I understand what’s going on, but it feels like the days of company scrip.

    4. Graciosa*

      I hadn’t read down this far when I posted above, but it sounds like you did everything you could and the rules changed. This is then not a communication issue as much as a change in the terms of your employment midstream – which is really annoying, but may not leave you with any more options than the usual “Do you want this job as it currently stands?” one.

      On the plus side, if this is really unacceptable to you, there is no sane employer in the world that wouldn’t understand your changing jobs after a short time because your compensation was reduced.

      I’m sorry this happened to you, and wish you the best.

  12. OP #2*

    Oh, I forgot to mention what is covered: student loan payments, rent, and basic utilities. As mentioned above, some help for groceries is available.

    1. The IT Manager*

      Wow! That is limited, and they encourage you not to pay off the loans. The word “cheap” comes to mind.

      Again I understand why economically your organization may not suddenly be able to increase your salary, but this is something that it should be trying to address. You are effectively taking a massive pay cut. If they can’t work something out to your satisfaction, it time to start devoting A LOT of time to hunting for a job with adequate compensation because this one is not offering it.

    2. Meg Murry*

      Not to encourage you to do anything to break the rules of your fellowship, but here are some loopholes as I see them:
      1) Rent an apartment with as many amenities as you prioritize in the lease. For instance, you may find apartments that have internet included in the rent (or possibly be able to negotiate it with a small private landlord -if our tenant said “I’ll pay x more per month to have internet (and/or cable, etc) included in the lease” and x was more than it would cost me, I’d take them up on it. Same thing that you may be able to find apartment that include a workout room or gym membership, etc.
      2) Find out what the grocery gift card maximum per month is and let the powers that be know you expect that every month – even if that means filling out a stack of post dated forms now and turning one in on the first of every month. Alternately, can you find out if they will instead reimburse you from itemized grocery receipts up to a certain dollar amount?
      3) this is borderline breaking the rules – but can you rent a 2 bedroom apartment in your own lease and then sublet a room? That way you write the whole rent check and therefore its your living expense – and have your roommate pay for internet and other non-covered expenses? For one semi-sketchy example – my brother in law once lived with someone who had him write the rent check out to “Mastercard” every month – apparently his roommate was trying to pay down debt and knew that any money he deposited in his own account would just be spent due to poor willpower – but having the check written directly to the credit card company meant he couldn’t spend it any other way.

      1. Gina*

        Getting a roommate could work, but I would even suggest that the OP look to be a roommate instead for a few reasons. On Craigslist depending on your area you can usually find a room for $400-600 (or more if it’s a really nice place) and there are all kinds of different terms but it’s really common to have that include everything–all utilities, internet, cable, etc, esp for the higher priced rooms. It’s also common not to sign a lease or only a few months of lease so if she ends up moving on she won’t be stuck in her apt. She could get a roommate as close as possible and cut out her gas money. It’s also less stress because you don’t have to deal with all the bills, just write one check every month.

        It’s not maxing out your benefits but might work out better for you anyway.

        1. Gina*

          And also because you have a dog, apartments are stricter about that or they want a big deposit. If you room in someone’s house they don’t have a landlord to tell them no and some don’t mind a dog. Then he can have a yard too!

      2. Turanga Leela*

        I second Meg Murry’s points 1 & 2. Could you rent a guesthouse or furnished house with utilities, internet, etc. included? Bring it up with the landlord and see if he or she is flexible. And definitely use the grocery gift card as often as you can.

        Also, if there’s money left over in your stipend, use as much on your loans as they will allow. If you need to, structure your loan payments for a shorter amount of time. I know one of the advantages of the PSLFP is that you can make small payments and they’ll forgive the rest later, but it’s better for you to pay down the loans sooner rather than later. As you say, we don’t even know if the program will be around in 10 years. Also, the program is very rigid, and my lender hasn’t always known how to manage it–I’ve lost credit for some months through no fault of my own. Pay what you can now, especially if you lose any money you don’t spend.

    3. Zillah*

      Wow. And they’re dissuading you from using the $ for one of the few things you can use it for?

      That’s so gross and sketchy.

      1. Kelly L.*

        Yeah. Now that I feel like I understand it more fully, it has a whiff of “here’s a perk…which we hope you won’t use.”

    4. Elizabeth the Ginger*

      If you do wind up leaving, I think you should be very clear that this is the reason. It won’t make a difference for you, but it could potentially help someone else not wind up in your situation. Your employer might not be able to control the grant conditions – but on the other hand, they a) might have some sway with the grant-givers or b) might be induced to offer more money themselves. At the very least, they could learn to be more careful about how they describe the salary situation to potential fellows, so no one is taken by surprise like you were.

    5. Joey*

      #2. So essentially they’re encouraging you to to fiscally irresponsible by spending more than you need on living expenses and deferring student loan payments? Sounds like a company that doesn’t care about sacrificing your financial well being for their needs. I bet others don’t stick around very long.

      1. OP #2*

        That’s sort of the feeling I get. Not from my employer but from the larger program. This program is meant to encourage new grads to go out into areas where service is greatly needed so most of us relocate to low-income rural areas where the only way you’re going to spend much on living expenses is to move into the nicest, newest apartment complex. I certainly think there will be perks: professional development, networking, experience, etc. I also feel like we’re being encouraged to spend money in a very particular way and that isn’t at all helpful to someone in my situation.

        1. dediKate*

          Hmmmm. The “we want you to go out into underserved areas so much we will pay for you to live in a way no one in the community could ever afford to live, thereby setting you apart from the community” line. Think about this carefully. Would you be able to purchase property? You indicated you planned to be in this long-term (10 years or more)?

          1. OP #2*

            I have thought about it, I don’t at all like the idea of living “apart” from the community. Given my student loans and (unfortunately) other debt, I really can’t even think about purchasing property until I’m in a more stable place. I can live frugally and am happy to do so if it means I get to eliminate debt but that’s the joke here, I can live as frugally as I want to and still keep my debt.

            1. OP #2*

              There’s also the part where I’m in a grant funded position with a nonprofit…I don’t yet know how reasonable it is to think that I can stay long term.

          2. Natalie*

            I think the 10 years is referring to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, not that the OP would stay in the fellowship for 10 years.

    6. Episkey*

      OP2, when I was in AmeriCorps (which this sounds a bit similar to), I found an apartment that covered all utilities (even including cable). My one rent payment covered everything except Internet — that I had to set up separately with the phone/cable/Internet provider in the area and it was my only separate bill. I’m wondering if it could be possible to find a set-up like this so that your “rent” expenses would go further.

      1. OP #2*

        I think that’s a really good idea, it’s certainly something I’m looking into. Not very common around here, but worth keeping an eye out for. Again, I’m happy to live without cable…and I guess I could live without internet if I needed to…I just hate that it doesn’t get me anywhere to do so.

  13. Brett*

    #2 The couple of time I held a fellowship, I had to sign an employment contract for that fellowship. Did you sign an employment contract, and does it contain the “living expenses” definition that you are now being held to?

  14. misspiggy*

    Just on OP2 again, it may be tempting to see the rules change as something outside the employer’s control. But they should have had a contingency in place to compensate for the rules change, or should be getting one in place toot sweet. If they negotiated compensation packages this shaky without backup they were either dishonest or incompetent, I feel.

  15. TotesMaGoats*

    I think I’m going to disagree with the consensus so far for OP #3. I’m sure it must get annoying after a while to field the same questions. But to some extent, if you are the “token” (and I don’t mean to imply that you are by any means) X, at an organization then you will get slotted into that role of educator and advocate. You can keep it low key. “Nope, wasn’t my request but I think it’s great that we work for a company that keeps the needs of everyone in mind and actively makes changes.” I think you would gain more by being a cheerful, informative source than otherwise. I think anybody who is the only person someone knows who has X different, whatever that may be, is going fall into that role. You can define the boundaries on that. Unless someone is asking out of rudeness, then it’s a chance to really build some bridges and educate people.

    1. OhNo*

      OP #3 here. Quite frankly, I’m sick of educating people. I do it all day, every day, and when I get to work all I want to do is my work. I’ve tried being a helpful educator and it doesn’t make the questions stop – all it does is create more questions, many of which can become quite personal and rude, because they are related to my disability, and therefore inherently asking about personal medical information.

      Also, I’m not sure what you mean by “gaining more” by being cheerful and informative. What, exactly, do you think I have to gain from these interactions?

      1. TotesMaGoats*

        I can understand being sick of it. Absolutely. I don’t think you have to be the ambassador for all things disability related but you do catch more flies with honey than vinegar, as my mother would say. Allison and others have given some good ideas for gentle deflection. I think you can “gain more” by being cheerful and informative because that’s how you play nice in the sandbox, regardless of what the sandbox is.

        1. LBK*

          I disagree that this is something the OP should have to tolerate just because it’s nice to do so. There’s a line between being nice because that’s what you do in the office and putting up with incessant personal invasions in the name of being friendly. That’s an additional burden that no one else in the office has to shoulder just to maintain the image of being friendly, and I can imagine the OP already has enough extra burden to deal with that other people don’t.

          Yes, it’s generally a good rule to play nice in the sandbox, but that doesn’t mean you keep your mouth shut when people keep throwing sand in your eyes.

        2. Formica Dinette*

          You’ve answered OhNo’s question about what they have to gain with platitudes. OhNo has nothing to gain by being “cheerful and informative.” They have already stated that they have tried being a “helpful educator” and it doesn’t make the questions stop. People who obviously differ from their surrounding majority do not have a responsibility to educate those around them. If OhNo’s co-workers actually care, they will educate themselves. Otherwise, they’re seeking to satisfy their own idle curiosity without regard for OhNo’s feelings.

      2. Turanga Leela*

        Really sympathetic to this. Do you have any good work friends who could spread the word that you have a job to do, and the job isn’t disability education? Sometimes it’s easier to have someone else say it. “You know, OhNo gets a lot of questions about his/her disability, and it’s getting exhausting. If you have questions about accommodations in the workplace, HR can answer them.”

        Honestly, you’ll be educating your coworkers by teaching them not to ask inappropriate questions.

    2. BadPlanning*

      I can totally see why the OP would be annoyed and tired of the same question — but being cheerful or at least neutral about it is going to be the best bet.

      Of course, if the scenario is something like the office “has no money” and people are seeing something “extra” like new door assists going in — the questions may turn from curiosity to accusatory and that wouldn’t be fair for the OP.

      The office is rather a social experiment — at my large office, we’re never told what’s going on with various construction or maintenance projects and we’re always dying of curiosity. So then we’re usually trying to mine the information from anyone we know. I’m sure if the OP was at our office, we’d be asking the OP to see if they have any information (for better or for worse).

      1. BadPlanning*

        I see that I cross posted with the OP. Do you think the coworkers would be deflected with “I don’t know why the doors are going in — but it’ll be handy in cold season, right? One less door handle to touch. when people are sick.”

        1. OhNo*

          So far, the answer to whether coworkers will be deflected – by any means or explanation – seems to be a resounding no. In general, the consensus so far seems to be that as the token disabled person in the office, I should know absolutely everything disability-related, even if I say I don’t. To be fair, the questioners so far have been the most annoying of the lot, so others may be more receptive to deflection.

          1. Pennalynn Lott*

            Have you tried turning it back on them?

            Coworkers: “Hey, OhNo, why are these doors being changed out?”
            OhNo: “No clue. What do you think is up with that?”

    3. Melissa*

      Yes, minorities often get slotted into the role as educator or advocate – but that is *wrong*. Minorities shouldn’t be forced to be the educator for their identity all the time, as it’s not any individual person’s responsibility to educate you (general you, not you specifically) on the issues attached to their identity. And I say that as someone who generally enjoys educating people about my own minority statuses – it gets overwhelming sometimes, and other times you just want to be Melissa, not the Ambassador For My Race/Gender/Disability. I agree that getting hostile is probably not the best way to go about it, but nobody suggested that – they merely suggested being neutral and deflecting questions.

  16. summercamper*

    To OP #4 –

    There might be alternatives to withdrawing altogether that would allow you to leave with a sense of acomplishment. My seminary offers 1-year certificate programs as well as 2-year academic degrees. Perhaps your school offers something similar? If you have already completed the requirements for a certificate or a MA – or are just one or two classes short – consider switching to that program instead. This way you can have the satisfaction of finishing something without hanging around for another year or two.

    The one year certificates are a well-kept secret around my seminary, but they are still accredited by ATS (the Association of Theological Schools) and provide a good base for transferring to a different seminary if you decide to go back to school later on. Furthermore, if you have a degree from a secular school but want to work in any sort of Christian ministry, a one-year seminary certificate is often sufficient for non-preaching jobs.

    1. dediKate*

      If you are planning to go into chaplaincy, get a year long CPE residency and your chaplaincy certification NOW.

  17. Mimmy*

    OP# 3 – As much as I would love to educate people about disability-related issues, I can completely understand how annoying it can get to be constantly answering such questions, especially when they begin to get too personal. While I understand the curiosity–it is, imo, very natural–you have every right to keep your personal history private. I’d say you’re going to have to start being direct and tell them that you do not wish to discuss your personal / medical history. Repeat as needed until they get the hint.

    I get it, I really do. I’d want to just be Mimmy, awesome coworker, not Mimmy, disability expert (unless I was in a job specific to that role).

    1. OhNo*

      OP #3 here – Sometimes I wish I could get a job as a disability expert – then at least I would be getting paid to deal with the questions I end up having to deal with anyway.

      Anyway, most coworkers have gotten the hint, after two years worth of effort, that most personal and medical history is off limits, except for information on the initial presentation of my disability (because that makes for a good story, and also freaks people out). Now most of the questions I get aren’t personal, which simultaneously makes them more and less annoying. Hopefully Alison’s suggestions will help head some of those questions off at the pass!

      1. Sara M*

        OP3, just wanted to say–I’m sorry you’re forced into the advocate role even when you don’t want it. That really sucks.

        It happens to many people with visible minority status. Small comfort, but it’s not just you this happens to.

        Have you looked online? There are resources dealing with how to handle these questions, written by advocates who understand that there are times you just don’t want to deal with this stuff. Allies who are willing to educate themselves and speak up are very helpful.

        I can’t search for you right now, but maybe later I can find sonething–or you can take a look.

  18. Wheeler*

    My company did make changes to the building for my benefit – before I started the office did not have a proper disabled bathroom (it had a wide stall in some of the bathrooms, but nothing suitable for a wheelchair user who can’t stand to transfer). To begin with I used a public disabled bathroom in another part of the building but I had to get a security guard to open it everytime I wanted to use it and it was so far from the office that just getting to the bathroom and back was taking 30 minutes without the time needed to actually use the facilities!

    Anyhow my company decided to install a proper disabled bathroom for me to use, but with future disabled employees also in mind. Since they were going to the hassle of building one they decided to go the whole hog and include a ceiling hoist, adult changing table, and various other features that I personally don’t need but which will be great if they do hire someone with those needs. So many people asked me questions about how the hoist worked and how would someone use the changing table and how do I get onto the toilet and so on and so on. Aside from the fact that I don’t really know about most of that because I don’t need that level of assistance, we’re talking about how people use the bathroom, not a conversation I want to be having with co-workers!

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Does your boss know this is happening? OMG.

        It’s not much, but FWIW I would be totally fed up also. I think you need to drag in the boss or HR on this. And you need to describe this part. I missed that somehow in your initial letter. Make sure you are citing these examples. This sounded really bad in the beginning but what you have stated is so bad, I cannot imagine putting up with this crap.

    1. Melissa*

      I just don’t understand…at many jobs people are sitting in front of a computer all day. Google it!

  19. jag*

    Q: “Did you request that?”
    A: “No, did you?”

    Q: “If you didn’t, who did?”
    A: “Why don’t you find out and tell me?”

    That said, the first question doesn’t seem that bad to me – it’s a reasonable speculation that the OP might have asked for it or someone made the decision hoping it would benefit the OP.

    1. Jillociraptor*

      I can imagine a world in which the first question is kind of a clumsy way of saying, “Shoot, are you getting everything you need here?” It could come from a really good place. I’m not sure, though, what information the asker is actually looking for if they just want factual confirmation that the OP made the request. It’s not a totally unreasonable assumption, but there’s really no use that I can think of for that information.

      1. Melissa*

        Mm, I would not assume that coworkers who have nothing to do with fulfilling these requests are asking out of a concern. They’re asking after the fact, once the need has materialized. I personally think it’s pretty safe to assume they’re asking out of their own curiosity – which in isolation is harmless, but majority group members often don’t realize that they are not the only ones asking the questions and/or that the questions themselves are mildly offensive, so when it you add up across several people it becomes more offensive. I mean, it *is* quite rude to ask a person with a visible disability if they requested a specific disability accommodation. It’s none of their business.

        1. Jillociraptor*

          Yep, I totally agree with you. I can imagine there being a more benign impulse underlying it, but I think for the most part it’s “So…there’s something kinda different about you and I want to talk about it without talking about it.”

      2. jag*

        Most or all people ask questions with no planned actual use for the information we’re likely to receive.

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