how to explain a late professional start, demotions, and more

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

1. How to explain my late professional start

I’m what I think of as a professional late bloomer. I was “home-schooled” in a chaotic, dysfunctional home from first through twelfth grades by my mother, a woman who had never gone to college and who frequently struggled with her mental health. We were usually below the poverty line and didn’t have the resources to supplement a spotty education. Even so, I went to a top college on a National Merit scholarship. I didn’t know how to study, was dealing with home life drama, and was struggling with my own mental health issues (much later diagnosed as Bipolar II). In any case, I flunked out after three years. I spent most of my 20’s waiting tables and working similar low paying jobs until I worked up the nerve to go back to school. I graduated with a bachelors in chemistry in my late 30’s and a masters in epidemiology a couple of years ago. I’m now in my early 40’s and working a job in my field that, while by no means perfect, has been a good place to get my feet wet. Up until six years ago I was waiting tables, cleaning, and doing whatever else paid the bills.

I work in academia and my team frequently collaborates with folks from all over the world. From time to time when I meet someone new they ask me about my professional background, just in a friendly, getting-to-know-you way. This question gives me so much anxiety! I’m proud of how far I’ve come in my life, considering the challenges I’ve faced. But I work with highly educated people who have had more typical career arcs. It embarrasses me to try to scramble for something to say about my background and I’m sure I come across as vague and odd. Is there an easy way to answer this question?

I think most people will be more impressed, not less, by your background because of what it says about what you overcame! But you don’t need to share more than you’re comfortable sharing. It’s fine to just say, “I just got my masters in epidemiology a couple of years ago, so I’m a late starter in this field!” If they ask what you were doing before that, you could say, “Pretty much whatever paid the bills — I was dealing with some health issues that have since been resolved, but it meant I came to this later than I otherwise might have. What about you?”

2. Should I demote an employee who can’t do her job?

At my new job, I have a staff member who was promoted beyond her capability. I have tried coaching her, and she simply does not have the skill or aptitude required for the job. I do think she could work in her original role — but to have the budget to replace her, she would need to take a significant pay cut. Is this ever advisable?

My instinct tells me it should be avoided because it runs the risk of causing bitterness, bad attitude, etc. But with the economy what it is, it feels unkind to fire someone because of how I guess she might respond.

Demotions are tricky. Sometimes the person being demoted is relieved — they recognized the new job wasn’t working out and they’re happy to return to something they know they’re good at. Other times, it leads to resentment and demoralization, and it can end up becoming toxic for the rest of your team. So it really, really depends on what you know of the person, their take on what’s happening, and to some extent their professional maturity.

A middle ground option is to float the possibility and see how they respond, and then to keep a close eye on things if they want to try it — but if you move them back to their old position and there’s toxicity, at that point you’d need to act decisively.

But also, don’t use a demotion unless you truly think the person would be good in the position you’re moving them to. If you’re not likely to be truly happy with their work in that role either, it’s better to just make a clean break now.

On the pay cut — would it be a decrease down to what she was previously earning in the role? If so, that’s not necessarily unreasonable, as long as you also give her the choice of declining and leaving altogether (you want her to feel like she had some agency in saying, “Yes, I will do this”). But if it would be less than that in order to make all the budgetary pieces work, don’t offer that — it would be rubbing salt in the wound.

3. Do I have to give two weeks notice when I’m leaving because of safety violations?

I’m a department manager in a large chain grocery store. I was about to start a job search to a different type of environment when COVID-19 hit. I put that off as I am considered an essential worker, got extra pay and total job security. Now the extra pay is gone and we have gone from heroes to zeros. People are supposed to wear a mask and practice social distancing, but that’s a joke. Customers don’t wear masks, practice social distancing, or even use common sense. They walk up on top of me to ask questions, hang over my waist-high counter with their face 2-1/2 feet from mine, take their mask off to talk to me, etc. If I ask them to step back, I get pushback about being rude or a long-winded explanation about how I’m not at risk from them.

Colleagues also wear masks with their noses exposed or take them off when they are not in direct customer contact on the sales floor but are still around other colleagues. Store management says they can’t ask customers to wear masks or keep six feet apart because it’s not a law and they don’t want to offend them. There are half-hearted attempts to keep employees in mask compliance, but we are already short-staffed and they don’t want lose any more people.

I’d like to start up my job search. Do I still owe my employer the courtesy of a two-week notice when I am literally putting my life on the line every day I work? Before COVID, of course ,I wouldn’t have considered doing anything else, but now I wonder if I owe myself the gift of less risk more than I owe my employer the courtesy of another two weeks on the job.

Your employer sucks. It’s not true that they can’t ask customers to wear masks or stay six feet apart “because it’s not the law.” (It’s also not the law that people must wear shirts in public, and yet stores can still refuse service to people without shirts.) They suck for not being willing to enforce public health recommendations in order to protect their employees and their customers.

Anyway, no, you don’t need to give two weeks notice in these circumstances. When you resign, you can explain you’re leaving because your health is at risk, and because of that you can’t work out a notice period. If you want, you could offer to work another two weeks if they can assign you work where you can be assured of masks and social distancing — but that possibility sounds unlikely.

Now, the caveat: A reasonable employer would understand you couldn’t give notice if coming to work is putting your health at risk. Your employer has already shown they’re not reasonable. So it’s possible this will burn a bridge and/or that future reference-checkers will be told you left without notice. You can probably ameliorate that last part by explaining to future reference-checkers that you had to leave suddenly for health reasons, but be aware it could go down that way.

4. Is it weird to talk to multiple acquaintances about the same job at my old employer?

Is there protocol/etiquette around what to do when you know multiple people applying for the same position? I’m in grad school and recently left a great job with a fairly prominent organization in a field related to my grad program. I left because I’d been there for a while, and I’m pretty early on in my career and wanted to branch out into slightly different work. Recently, a few graduating classmates have applied to the same job opening at my old org and reached out to me for insight and informational interview-type conversations. I’m super happy to help as much as I can — I loved my time there and these people are great candidates who I would love to see get hired there. But should I ever let someone know that I also talked to others?

My grad program is small, so these candidates almost all know each other and it’s very likely that in general conversation two applicants might realize they both applied to the same position and both talked to me. Is this weird? If it matters, these people are of varying levels of closeness to me, from friends to more distant acquaintances who I’ve just met briefly.

This hasn’t come up in any way yet, but it’s been on my mind about how to navigate in case it does and for the future. So far I haven’t said anything and have just approached each conversation as if I knew no one else also applying.

It’s not weird to talk to multiple people who want to learn more about the organization, and you’re not obligated to disclose that you’ve also talked to others. You’re not doing anything they could reasonably expect to be exclusive to them; you’re just offering insight about the org and the job, not promising to campaign for them to be hired or to promote them as The One True Data Analyst.

That said, if you get the sense that someone thinks you’re going to help them get the job, it’s kind to say something like, “In the interest of transparency, I want to tell you that I’ve had a handful of other people contact me with similar questions and I’m offering everyone the same information.”

5. Possible job offer left dangling due to Covid

Over the winter, I had several conversations with a senior executive at a consulting firm I work with in my current job that started out as “hey, I hear you might be looking for a new opportunity” (which I was) and then moved into “let’s talk about whether there’s a fit here” and finally got serious in March with me meeting with other senior executives. The last meeting ended with them telling me to expect the next step would be HR reaching out to me. Unfortunately, that meeting was on March 13 — right before everything in our area shut down with a stay-at-home order. I haven’t heard anything from them at all since March.

I don’t particularly want to change jobs in the middle of a recession or worse. My current job is really stable and I don’t necessarily want the pressure of a new job and the pressure to perform in a consulting role when outside forces might make that even more difficult than usual. But at the same time, there’s a reason I was looking for a new opportunity in the first place, and this has been the best role to come along since October.

I’ve struggled with whether I should reach out or not, and if so, what to say. I certainly understand that the role might have evaporated, and expect that at the very least it’s probably on hold. Should I just wait this out? Or is there a graceful way to say, “Hey, I’m still interested, but I’m cool with waiting to reconnect at some point in the future”? I’m not trying to force them to make me an offer now because there are definitely circumstances where I’d decline (my current job is really stable!). And it’s really important to me to keep the relationship cordial, no matter what happens.

It’s fine to reach out, as long as it’s in a low-pressure way that makes it clear you’re well aware circumstances have changed. You could say, “I wanted to touch base about the role we’d had been talking about earlier this year. I realize everything may be on hold right now, given the pandemic, but if it makes sense to reconnect about it at some point in the future, I’m happy to talk any time!”

Read an update to this letter here

{ 231 comments… read them below }

  1. Madame X*

    What you’ve accomplished so far looks pretty impressive in spite of the obstacles you’ve had during your childhood. It’s also pretty common for people to have a later start in their chosen career for lots of different reasons. Don’t focus too much on where you think you “should” be(easier said than done, but with practice it does become easier). Focus instead on where you are heading. Plus, as a former academic myself, I would say that academia needs more people whose background or childhood upbringing is atypical for what predominates academia. In fact, in some aspects, your life experience could provide some unique insights into your field of study.

    1. Alice*

      Agreed. Embrace it! I have my Fancy Law Degree framed, hanging next to my rejection letter from the same fancy school. Most people are impressed. Who wants someone that took no for an answer? Frankly, it says much more about those of us who took the windy road.

    2. AGD*

      Also an academic, and I agree! My mentors with PhDs included one who started a BA in their mid-twenties after working in the service industry and one whose teachers didn’t think they’d ever finish high school, let alone anything else. Two of my grad school friends did their PhDs in their 50s (one as a new career, one following up on an old loose end), and they were both incredible scholars and remarkably kind and supportive people. Academia benefits from being minimally gatekeepy and judgmental about people’s background. I don’t know if your field is snobbier, but in mine, my advice would be to be cheerfully upfront!

      1. Pippa K*

        The academic gatekeeping in my department (in a social science discipline) is limited to a couple of colleagues who are quite snobby about where one got one’s PhD, and one of them is also judgmental about people’s perceived class background. The rest of us think they’re jerks about this and are much more interested in your research, your ability to teach, and your willingness to work collaboratively with others. And some of the best grad students I’ve ever taught have been doing the degree a bit later than many of their peers. Sometimes the older, more experienced students have more sense of purpose. So yeah, even when encountering academic snobs, the best approach is just to be matter of fact about your trajectory – you really won’t be the only one who took an unusual path. And congratulations, what you’ve done is quite impressive!

      2. Sam.*

        Fully agree! My old boss (a full professor at a prestigious institution) spent his 20s working jobs very unconventional for an academic and slowly worked through college courses, and he had a very refreshing perspective relative to many of the other full profs I’ve worked with.

        My grad school advisor had a career after college that she dropped in her 30s to go to grad school in a completely different field. When another academic asked about her professional background, she generally didn’t get into the work she did before because she knew that’s not actually what they wanted to know. They cared about her background in our specific field, so she’d usually just say something like, “Oh, I came to [field] a bit late,” to hand wave over the first 15ish years of her adult life and then just talked about going back for her degree and what she’d been doing in our field since.

    3. Zombeyonce*

      Agreed. LW, your varied background is going to make you an asset! Never feel ashamed or embarrassed about it. You have valuable customer service skills (always useful when people are involved!) and plenty of other well-established skills that your colleagues are likely missing that bring nuance and a diverse perspective to your line of work that can’t be taught in a classroom. Your background makes you invaluable! Your employer is lucky to have you.

      1. NotAnotherManager!*

        This is very true! I find that folks who’ve worked in any sort of public-facing job – retail, food service, constituent services, doesn’t matter what – tend to have a better understanding of customer service and a little ahead of people with only book knowledge. I work in a professional services industry, and most of my peers will take someone who’s worked with the public because, after being front line with the public, even some of our more stressful positions are a cakewalk.

    4. Lena Clare*

      I don’t even think LW1 has to offer any explanation at all. In answer to the question about her professional career so far: “I got my masters a few years ago”, that’s it.
      I get that academia is different than other work environments, but I don’t think there’s any need to give more info than OP wants.

      1. Anononon*

        I agree with this. I think offering information re: the OP’s health is way too much. Maaayyybe in an interview if the interviewer is pushing for an answer, but with random people and colleagues you meet? Totally unnecessary and, I think, rather awkward.

        1. There’s probably a cat meme to describe it*

          I agree on saying anything about health, it isn’t necessary and screams Oversharer! on your first meeting with someone new. I’d just go with a simple “I’ve been in this industry 6 years, focussed on x and really interested in pursuing y. How about you?” It’s only chit-chat, not an inquisition.

          1. Important Moi*

            I think what we’re doing here with is for some people chit chat feels is an inquisition. Some people genuinely feel that every question asked deserves a 125% honest answer. And if they don’t tell 125% the other person will feel like they
            will be looked upon negatively. It’s about setting boundaries about what to talk about and being comfortable doing so. I may not be the best person to ask about this as inappropriate questions put me in a bad place and I have no problem telling people that.

            1. OP1*

              This is exactly right! I instinctively feel that the other person deserves a full and complete answer to their question, regardless of what the question is or how well I know them. Somehow that trumps my own desire for privacy. I tend to assume that my thoughts are written on my face and the other person will know if I’m dissembling. I’m going to blame that one on being raised super religious and being told that God and the angels knew what I was thinking!

              1. Altair*

                God and the angels have other stuff to worry about and most humans don’t care. I say this in my most encouraging tones. You really aren’t required to give every question a full complete painfully honest answer, and next time your conscience bugs you about this, you can tell it the Cowherd Star told you you don’t have to.

              2. EventPlannerGal*

                They don’t! Honestly, a lot of times people will ask this sort of question without even *expecting* a full and complete answer, let alone feeling they’re entitled to one. I think a lot of people who ask you this sort of question are expecting at most a quick summary of the important bits, not your life story, and it’s completely fine to give a brief or vague answer.

              3. JSPA*

                “I did a variety of not-very-interesting jobs to pay the bills while saving up to make the jump into Chemistry and then Epidemiology” is a thorough explanation. Having trained and worked as one and having married one, I can assure you that scientists are not known for being particularly excellent at human-focused small talk. The people talking to you are following the formula of looking for some experiences or people in common, while laying out some standard openings for the other person to run with (or not). A small number may be explicitly interested in hearing about different career paths. You can wait for them to make that clear; and even once they make that clear, you don’t owe anybody your life story.

                As a friend once told me, when I felt obliged to overshare, because my default was to prioritize (or actually, deify) the curiosity of other scientists:

                “Human subjects research requires IRB approval.”

              4. Frustration Nation*

                Also, it’s typical for adult survivors of childhood trauma to be over-explainers. I do it a lot and was just starting to work on it when Covid happened! And now I’m home alone with no one to explain things to, and it’s weird. ;) I encourage you to try out establishing some boundaries and respond to the next person with as little info as you like, and see how you feel. It’s hard, but it’s very worth it!

            2. EPLawyer*

              OMG, THIS. Yes. We feel that just because someone’s asks, we have to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

              It’s okay to just tell the parts you want to. Obviously lying is not okay (except when a friend is asking about an unfortunate haircut). But you are free to tailor the answer to the situation. Usually the person asking wants the short answer anyway.

            3. OP1*

              This is absolutely the case, setting these kinds of boundaries has always been a challenge for me.

              1. Jill of All Trades*

                My mom just got her PhD at 60 after teaching middle and high school science for most of her career. Your hard work is worth it no matter what age you are.

                What if you reframed what you talk about? Instead of being wary of judgment, you could say something like, “I’ve joined the honorary ranks of people who pursue their dreams later in life.” Then turn the conversation to 1-2 people far older than you who have done some really cool stuff, or jump into a topic about something you can talk about enthusiastically related to your new career. It’s less boundary setting and more redirection, which some people find easier.

                Also, I’m looking to start a different career because of newly diagnosed bipolar. I’m really appreciating this letter/post today, because I’ve been feeling like I’m starting late after sinking 7 or so years into a career I can’t continue with, and this just makes me feel like the change is so much more possible now.

                1. OP1*

                  Finding a job/career that works well with bipolar is not easy! And leaving something that isn’t working is hard too, because when you’re up, you think you can do it just fine, and when you’re down, not so much. I have to constantly remind myself to be kind to myself and give myself a little grace. I hope the diagnosis helps. For me, there were so many years of negative self talk piled up. Now I can remind myself (repeatedly), “No, not lazy, not stupid–bipolar!”.

            4. Shirley Keeldar*

              This is such a wise comment, Important Moi! It’s really true that 95% of the time, people are just expressing an interest and wanting a quick answer. It’s the social dance. But some of us have a hard time remembering that what people are actually doing is saying, “Hello, fellow human, I acknowledge your presence and wish to express a friendly interest in your welfare.” And you’re supposed to respond with a coded, “Hello back, fellow human! I acknowledge your friendly intentions and respond in kind.”

              “So how did you get into this field?”
              “Oh, I got my degree a few years ago–I’ve always been interested in X and Y. And you?”

              1. school of hard knowcs*

                Hello, fellow human, I humbly acknowledge your genius in explaining the process.

            5. Venus*

              In conversation we don’t give every tiny detail, as we pick and choose what we want to share. When someone asks about my summer vacation, they don’t want a list of what I ate at every meal. When someone asks about a professional background they are likely asking in order to see if there is any overlap (do we know the same people?) or out of curiosity about the thesis work. You could tell them what you studied for years, and where you have since worked. If you want to mention anything more then feel free, but there should be no need to explain everything.

      2. I can only speak Japanese*

        Agreed. What are people gonna say, “you look older than 25, what’s your story?” That would be rude.

        1. Cj*

          Yes, some will say that. And, yes, it’s rude unless you’ve gotten somewhat close to the person.

          1. I can only speak Japanese*

            If they actually have the nerve to ask that, you can just raise your eyebrows, pause and change the topic/walk away.

        2. Archaeopteryx*

          And people also just switch career paths midstream sometime, so it’s not even like your age would be clearly signaling that you got a late start.

        3. Washi*

          I wouldn’t ask it like that, but if I was getting to know a new colleague and they said they just entered the field a few years ago, I might ask what they did before that. Not so I could judge it, but just to get to know them as humans! I agree that in 90% of small talk situations, it probably won’t come up, but I think it may help OP to have a strategy in her mind for how she would answer if it does come up.

          This also might take some experimentation! I recommend trying it out in contexts where you’ll likely never interact with the person again just because the first couple times will probably feel super awkward, but then you’ll sort of develop a spiel with whatever pieces you want to share.

        4. Anonybus*

          OP, I’m in roughly the same situation you’re in, and the only people who get weird about grad students over 25 have been like, two really insecure undergrads in the lab. Annoying, but anybody who makes a thing of it is really showing their own ass.

      3. Tuckerman*

        Agreed. “I got my Bachelors in x and my Master’s in y. I’ve been especially interested in…” If people ask specifically about what she did before, it definitely depends on the audience. I tell people that I worked in daycare and food service before finishing my bachelors at 30 and getting a masters at 33. I work with a lot of non-traditional students so it’s a good common ground.

        1. ElleD*

          I didn’t finish my Bachelors degree until 11 years ago, and I was 48!
          And you know what? I’ve VERY proud of that.

      4. Metadata minion*

        Yeah, LW1, not that you shouldn’t share your full background later on if you feel like it, but it might be helpful to think of the kinds of responses you’d give if you’d been, I don’t know, an accountant for 15 years before deciding to go into epidemiology. Yes, you moved into the field a bit later than many people, but it’s not *that* unusual and doesn’t have to have a big explanation if you don’t want to give one.

      5. Dust Bunny*

        I feel like I know a whole lot of people who went back to school in late youth/middle age/even later to learn to do something else. Unless the person to whom you’re speaking is an unbearable snob I can’t imagine this would even seem uncommon, much less shameful. I honestly suspect that your anxiety about it is a lot bigger than the situation itself.

        Also, as others have said, you don’t owe them chapter and verse. It’s completely fine to offer a curated account of your academic history (and absolutely no more than makes you comfortable of your personal history!).

      6. anontoday*

        As a now-former academic, I would also try on for size some other lines:

        “I got my master’s a few years ago. My first time through college I didn’t finish because my primary schooling had been so inadequate; I finished college later when I’d gotten some more experience under my belt.” Whoa, that’s interesting — you sound cool, and maybe you’d be a useful connection for this undergrad I’m mentoring who is trying college in his 20s.

        “I got my master’s in 2018 — didn’t have the financial resources to do it all straight through initially.” Oooh, a person who has worked through (fairly normal) financial stuff! And yes, I know it leaves out 3/4 of the story, but it makes you sound like a scrappy hero in a story.

        “You know, I actually come from a blue-collar background. I just got my master’s in 2016 — I was really inspired by (insert inspiration here and use it to start a conversation about your research interests)…”

        Here’s the book I’ve been recommending all over even though I have not finished it: Edge by Laura Huang. The beginning bit at least is about managing other peoples’ perceptions of you and guiding them to seeing you in a way that helps you accomplish your goals (and in particular dealing with pesky issues of race/class/gender/health status/whatever people may bring their own perceptions for).

    5. DarnTheMan*

      100% agree; when I switched careers I did a one-year certificate program (the sort that’s designed for you to come out with real hands-on skills and often a job offer) and easily half my class were people in their 30s and 40s who’d been doing other jobs (most memorably a police officer) who wanted the career switch. My mom has switched careers three times now, the last at age 50. So congrats to you, OP and please don’t stress it too much – in my experience, people will absolutely take “oh I wanted a career change” as an answer.

    6. Harper the Other One*

      I was coming to the comment section to note that being a late started in a career may be unusual, but it’s not super rare! I’m currently retraining for a completely different field and anyone that I tell just seems to think it’s fascinating. I think if you don’t want to get into background/health issues you can just say that you discovered your love of epidemiology relatively recently and it’s been invigorating to find a work passion.

    7. Rachel in NYC*

      I have colleagues who have similar roundabout ways in their education- either because of their childhoods or they just weren’t interested in school growing up. Personally, I’ve always found their stories of how they got here way more interesting then the rest of us (supportive parents, decent school, yada, yada, yada) and more impressive. They did it on their own- most of us have a village to help us.

    8. MissDisplaced*

      OP #1 is to be congratulated ! It can be so hard to follow your educational dreams in the face of adversity like that.
      It says something about your personal mettle and perseverance that you kept at your goal. It is never too late!

    9. OP1*

      I actually did have an experience not long ago where we were meeting with members of a very small religious group, which I happened to have experience with as part of my atypical background. My boss told me I was like an onion, he never knows what’s coming up next. :)

  2. Heidi*

    Fellow academic here. Years ago, my lab chief and I bonded over our past low-paying service jobs. I worked in fast food. He worked at a petrol station. We both found this kind of life experience valuable and character forming. More so than a lot of the lecture hall didactics that were required for our degrees. I hope you can feel more comfortable talking about your background someday. It brings a lot to the table.

    1. Dan*

      TBH, most of this is about framing and how one presents them self. I have some of the same self-consciousness that the OP describes. The funny thing is, I work at a company with a lot of lifers. (I mean it… I’m 40, and there are people with dates of hire that precede my birth). And the reality is, when I really think about it, the most interesting people I work with are the ones that have had a few different professional experiences over the years. Those that “started here as an intern, been here every since” are, professionally speaking, somewhat boring most of the time. This is true for those that started here as an intern 5 years ago or 40 years ago.

      My low paid service jobs were on the blue-collar side of the academic research that my division does. That “field” knowledge is actually in short supply, and these days, I get sought out for that knowledge. What was once self-consciousness is in reality an asset. Most people I work with probably don’t know what I did for $10/hour back in the day, they just know when it comes to certain topics, things can get done really fast if people are so inclined. (Others like to waste time arguing in meetings. If that’s what they want to do, I’m not in a position to stop them. Thankfully, many people just want to get stuff done.)

      1. Bluephone*

        That’s a good point. My current company has quite a few lifers but among my own team, our hiring backgrounds are pretty varied considering what we currently do—one person ran a tea shop (among other jobs), this person was in social work, that person did actual lab bench stuff in grad school, this guy had so many different retail jobs, etc. The lifers certainly have so much institutional knowledge and can tell you crazy stories about when the company first started, but I don’t think anyone would look down on my team for how they got to where they are. And if they do look down on my team, they’re jerks who don’t deserve the time of day, quite frankly.

      2. kt*

        Agree. I work in data science in freight, and the folks who have actual experience with the actual business and material facts of freight are *invaluable* and respected and listened-to.

        1. Hillary*

          off topic – I’d love to chat offline sometime about how you ended up there. I’m a shipper in the business/project mgmt side of freight right now, I’m contemplating if I want to move over to data and/or consulting. My instagram handle is marguerida, or marguerida at gmail will get to me.

    2. Chinook*

      I have also seen blue collar people who later went for professional degrees and are now in demand because they know both sides. Think welder turned engineer or welder turned divisonal manager in head office. They started a grunts and did the university degrees much later in life. They were also able to “code switch” when talking with field staff and trounleshoot at head office level before giving plans to the field, which saved money and frustration. Only the newest/snobbiest engineers turned their nose up at our “ditch diggers” and, when they did, they were enlightened by their bosses about the realities of these jobs.

      It is also handy to remind intellectuals that not every “smart” person chooses/can choose the university route. Sometimes they prefer to use their brains in a hands on manner or having brains doesn’t mean you have the resources to optomize them.

      1. Jennifer*

        Yes, so many higher ups have no idea how to speak to the people who do the actual work in the company.

      2. New Jack Karyn*

        “Only the newest/snobbiest engineers turned their nose up at our “ditch diggers” and, when they did, they were enlightened by their bosses about the realities of these jobs.”

        Freshly minted lieutenants who ignore the 1st Sergeant. Wet-behind-the-ears interns who talk down to the nurses. New hire office professionals who disdain the admins. So many stories, so little time.

    3. Dust Bunny*

      My supervisor (academic librarian) used to teach sailing and once worked in an aluminum awning factory, before he went back for his MLIS. I don’t have a master’s but my first job out of college was cleaning kennels at a vet’s office.

  3. Dan*


    I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that it’s likely that fewer people care than you think. I didn’t start my “career job” until I was about 30, after going to grad school in my late 20’s for a bit of a “reboot”. I can scrape together an ever so slightly more coherent story about the ten or so years I spent doing “whatever it takes to pay the bills”. Some of those “whatever pays the bills” jobs provided some relevant background for what I do now, but the reality is… I got a late start to my career path. (And even then, I dawdled doing my thesis, so my actual graduation was a few years after I started that first career job.)

    The only time I ever recall my timeline being an awkward conversation was with some interviewer who *really* wanted to pin down very precise dates about my job and educational history. Now that I’ve been in my career for ten years (and I’m good at it), I’m just a dude with ten years of professional experience and a Masters degree. Most people I work with don’t even know how old I am, let alone the fact I screwed around in my 20’s. Some do know about that, but when you’re good at your job, they ask a lot fewer questions.

    Given the context provided with your question, I’m going to assume that’s mostly true for you too… the people asking are doing so at a superficial level, and I don’t think it’s necessary to provide dates/years in that kind of conversation. BS/BA in some field. grad degree in another, been with X academic institution for the last six years is more than sufficient. I doubt anybody is going to ask more than that, and you’ve probably even bored them with that :)

    1. Laure001*

      I think it’s an extremely important point that Dan made: people don’t care. In general. In life.
      People don’t care about your family, your history, your hobby, etc, if they ask, it’s to be polite, and they don’t listen to the answer anyway.
      For some people, this realisation is chilling, for me, it was freeing. After growing up with the exception to this rule, a toxic mother who judged everything and everyone and always found people wanting, the news that the immense majority of people really don’t give a damn about your choices was absolutely wonderful. So they ask you questions, you struggle to find the right answer, feeling self conscious… While really any vague polite answer would do, because they are not actually looking for “real info, ” they just want a pleasant interaction.
      And the 2 % of people who sincerely want to know you better will be so impressed by the truth! Because this is a story to be deeply proud of, OP. :)

      1. KimberlyR*

        This is still a struggle for me, for the same reasons (toxic mother, criticism, etc.) But yes, I also find it freeing that people really don’t care that much. When I torture myself for flubbing an answer or replaying an unsatisfying conversation over and over, I have to remind myself that the other participant literally didn’t care if I said “have a good day” or “have a food day”. They aren’t thinking about it. I’m giving brain space to something that literally does not matter at all in the grand scheme of things. Its amazingly refreshing.

    2. Important Moi*

      Agree with Dan and Laure001. I couldn’t figure out how to state this and was hoping other people would have addressed this.

    3. OP1*

      Yes! I love the idea that most people aren’t thinking about me and really don’t care. Although it’s one of those things I keep needing to remind myself.

      1. ampersand*

        Yep. It’s both liberating and a bit sad to realize that you care about you much more than anyone else does!

        I also got a late start (on everything!) and feel you on this. Years ago, in my late 20s, I was still floundering and was talking to a friend about how to explain my early 20s and childhood to people–it wasn’t happy, it left me kind of traumatized, and I hated talking about it. My friend told me that I needed to reframe my story. It was eye opening to hear because I’d never considered that it was even an option.

        I’m still working on it, but you know how there are the basics about who you are and you can kind of generalize that part? And then there are the nitty gritty details that only you know and that can weigh on you and that you might feel compelled to tell people because they’re part of your background, and you might feel disingenuous if you don’t mention? Leave those out! No one cares or needs to know! Work on a general explanation and leave out all the other stuff with people who don’t need to know. It helps tremendously!

      2. JSPA*

        “The only person who cared enough to micromanage you to that degree was your parent with issues” (or alternatively, “your insular immigrant group or faith community”) and that the only lock you have to pick, to get out, is the the one they installed inside your head, can be a very freeing realization. Not that nobody else will ever judge. But (aside from police, judges and jury), most of the time, it’s safe and healthy to ignore random people’s random bonnet bees.

      3. Laure001*

        Hello OP1 ! I just wanted to add that it doesn’t mean nobody cares about your past. The small circle of people who really love you will really care. But the others… nope.

        Also, people can learn to care, but then not remember what you said at first. If I chit chat with a random colleague chances are I won’t remember for long what she told me about her past, or education. And I mean, like, we had the conversation at 3pm, at 6 I already forgot all about it (my memory is connected to emotions, so if I don’t care, it doesn’t compute.)
        But let’s say then two years pass and this colleague and I are becoming real, sincere friends. Then I will ask again about her background, and this time I will really listen, because I care. And sometimes the person tell me, “but we already had this conversation, and in fact I was really embarrassed because… something…” And on my side, I have absolutely no memory of it. :)
        Happens the other way too, of course, I fear I have said something embarrassing or revealing and I realise years later that the person doesn’t even remember the discussion happened. ;)

    4. MissDisplaced*

      This has been my experience. Generally, reply with something vague and redirect like: “Oh, I didn’t start in this career until later in life, how about you?” or “Actually, I started on this educational/career path later in life, and I hope to keep moving forward to X or Y aspect of it.”

      I have a not as bad, but similar late bloomer career story, and it took me 15+ long years to finish my undergrad! Rarely do people question that deep. But I also had one really weird interview where they basically wanted me to “start at the beginning,” and detail my whole entire career and job track going back to 1983, and including things like high school jobs NOT listed on my resume. It was so awkward! Needless to say, I didn’t get that job. Probably age discrimination at play.

  4. nnn*

    #1: I agree with the others that there’s no reason to be ashamed of or hide your background. But if, for whatever reason, you do want to keep it private in a particular conversation, one thing you could do is really emphasize a passion for what you’re doing now.


    – “When I heard of [epidemiology thing that existed six years ago] I was so inspired that I just had to go back to school to study epidemiology!”

    – “Yeah, I was kind of adrift in my 20s. I didn’t even hear of epidemiology until six years ago, and then I knew right away that it’s the path for me!”

    – If your previous attempt at college should come up: “It can be hard to buckle down and focus when you’re 18 and don’t know what you want to do with your life. So I tried various things that didn’t pan out until I discovered epidemiology!”

    1. Language Lover*

      This is where I fall.

      LW 1, it’s amazing what you’ve overcome but I get probably not wanting to share all.

      However, with most people, deciding to pursue a STEM career in your 30s is going to be impressive to them. Don’t be embarrassed, be proud.

      You could always shorthand that you spent much of your 20s convinced you wouldn’t be able to hack it and your 30s proving yourself wrong.

      Or, if you’re a woman, you could always joke that you were waiting tables but when you saw so much about needing more women in STEM fields, you decided to answer the call.

      1. Taniwha Girl*

        I agree. I suspect that 5 years from now we will see stories of people who entered epidemiology inspired by COVID-19. There are many roads through the wood, some take the road less traveled, and that has made all the difference.

    2. WS*

      My mother trained as a nurse (in the days when that was a hands-on education, not a university course) then stopped working to have kids. Then, at 40, she started her masters in Public Health and kicked off her professional career. She was working with people who had gone straight from university into the civil service and stayed on that track their whole professional lives, and brought new and exciting perspectives to the table and was promoted over the lifers many times (and anyone who knows the civil service knows how hard this is!) She recently retired, in her 70s, having worked longer in public health than as a nurse or as a SAHM. A different background is an asset.

    3. Bluephone*

      Word to all of this! And again, not to make it all about me but OP, A LOT of people try college at 18 like we’re “supposed to,” don’t finish it then, then go back later on. My mom *really* wanted to be a nurse and was accepted into nursing school as soon as she graduated high school. A stint in a nursing home put her off the whole career until she was in her 40s and was like, “oh crap the youngest kid is starting school next year so WTF am I going to do all day???” In between those 2 nursing school experiences, she did a lot of things: bank secretary, insurance transcriber, housewife, in-home daycare provider, etc. Life happens. FWIW I think you should be proud of how you overcame so many obstacles to get to where you are but you’re also not obligated to spill all of that to every Tom and Nancy that comes by.

    4. Washi*

      I like all of these! I was thinking that mentioning health might inspire more questions, but the “I initially struggled in school and kind of bounced around, but then something clicked and I got my master’s two years ago” type story is pretty common and relatable.

      I agree with other commenters that most of the time “I got my master’s two years ago” is all you need, but sometimes people will ask OP what she did before that, just out of curiosity and to get to know her, so I think it’s wise to decide ahead of time what she is and isn’t comfortable sharing.

    5. Derivative Poster*

      Definitely agree! I’m in a very similar situation. I generally don’t bring up my “previous lives” unless anyone asks, and if they do I emphasize how I became interested in the field. Likewise, I don’t see any reason to mention your health issues. If they become relevant now — e.g., you have to take a leave of absence in the middle of a collaboration — you might need to tell your colleagues you’re dealing with a health issue. Otherwise, let the past stay in the past.

      Unexpected bonus: In my last job, people often assumed (probably in part because of my age) that I was a post-doc. I most decidedly was not and would say so if asked, but I didn’t go out of my way to tell people I was less experienced than they might have guessed.

  5. MJ*


    Your employer not only sucks but is incredibly short-sighted (and cowardly).

    How will the store operate if one or more staff are infected with the rest having to go into quarantine for two weeks? How much would it cost to have the entire store cleaned and sanitised? How long would it be before customers are willing to return to a store that “let” the virus in and possibly caused customers to become infected?

    Sucky, short-sighted, cowardly, and stupid.

    1. Zombeyonce*

      My favorite grocery store started the pandemic with incredibly strict protocols and it was great. I loved shopping there (only when I absolutely had to) because they were so fastidious. Fast forward 3 months and now they’ve let all the rules slide and I hate going there. I feel like I have to fight to keep my distance from other shoppers and even employees by practically using my cart as a battering ram and they don’t keep up any of the distancing at the register any more. I hate it so much and feel so gross when I have to go, but everywhere else is even worse.

      1. MK*

        That’s just human nature; the level of strict watchfulness is simply not sustainable over a longer period of time.

        1. RB*

          But it needs to be more sustainable than it has been, I think that was the point. Stores are backsliding but now is not the time to be backsliding, even a little bit. Maybe when everyone’s numbers improve, a little backsliding will be no big deal.

        2. Taniwha Girl*

          But you don’t have to have health and safety precautions driven by panic. They can become routine decrease in emotional significance while still being carried out.

          Think about how often you do other health & safety checks in your daily life: looking before you cross the street, putting a towel on a hot pan/pot handle, handing scissors to people handle first, washing your hands before handling food, putting a non-slip mat on your shower floor, backing up your data, using handrails on trains and buses, hiring a regular cleaning service to clean workplace bathrooms…

          We can easily incorporate new habits into our health & safety checks. Going outside? Don’t forget your mask. Coming home? Wash your hands. Lining up? Give others space.

          That doesn’t mean that everyone is flawless–there are still people who step out into the street looking at their phones, or walk on golf courses during thunderstorms. But most of us can learn to do most of these new habits automatically. And it’s much easier as we build the habit.

          Seeing people struggle with this now is like that friend who never takes their shoes off in your house, even though you ask them every time. Except instead of just tracking in mud, they’re possibly infecting you with a deadly virus.

          1. Cambridge Comma*

            People don’t pick the climate of the public health messaging they receive, though. While some people, like you, may reflect and chose a different way, the majority of people would need a different approach in messaging to make that switch. If that isn’t present, that isn’t their fault.

            1. pancakes*

              It might be, depending on the circumstances. I don’t believe it’s been established that people who can’t think lucidly about public health unless someone is holding their hand are the majority, either.

          2. Kelly L.*

            Right, I don’t think “OMGHOLYSHIT” every time I put on my mask; it’s just become a boring part of the routine, like putting on my shoes.

        3. Keymaster of Gozer*

          Actually, most safety procedures can become simple habit if practiced enough. How many people make a conscious effort to put their seat belts on? (I don’t).

          If people ceased pushing back on all the restrictions and took a ‘I may as well do them’ attitude I believe they’d be far less stressed about doing them (no anti Covid protests by conspiracy theorists) and we’d have far fewer deaths.

          Meanwhile, I totally support getting the heck away from anyone who doesn’t obey the guidelines, and companies who lose staff or customers due to their lax attitude (I.e. people walking away from them) have only themselves to blame if they go bust.

        4. JSPA*

          Sure it is.

          It requires training, reminders, checklists, “days since accident” type signs, and either a culture of cooperative reminders or one of significant consequences. But if being careful were not sustainable, we’d have far more explosions, releases of radiation, foodborne illnesses and surgical tools left in patients, than we actually do.

          You don’t have to be an air traffic controller to put on a mask along with the rest of your uniform. If you can manage to not dig in your itchy butt crack while stocking shelves, you can also learn not to touch your nose. If you can learn not to hug people at work or give noogies at work, you can learn to stand at a six foot distance. The question isn’t, “can we monitor people 24-7.” It’s, “can we require them to be professional about Covid risk reduction while we’re paying them to work.” And the answer is, heck, yes.

      2. MJ*

        We’re in the 7th month of this. Larger stores have been requiring masks (and doing temp checks) for some time. No mask, no temp check – no entry. Staff will tell people to put their masks on properly if they tuck them under their chin. Those are the rules and if you don’t like them security will show you out.

        Currently we have mandatory mask wearing in all public indoor and outdoor places (law in place). So pretty much everywhere except home – and office if permitted. It was introduced when, after 21 days with no local cases, we were hit with the 3rd wave. In one month the number of cases rose 300% and the deaths rose 900%.

        We know people are fatigued by this, but the alternative is worse. And this is how it’s going to be for a long, long time.

        1. pleaset AKA cheap rolls*

          There are stores doing temperature checks before letting customers in? I did not know that.

          1. Retail not Retail*

            The local library is doing temp checks and so is my stadium job. My stadium job is requiring masks unless you are putting food or drink in your mouth. My full time job, not so much.

              1. Retail not Retail*

                Both! My current job does temp checks and questions for staff but the library and stadium do guests as well.

          2. Deliliah*

            I’m in NYC and the only places that have done a temperature check on me are my hair salon and the doctor’s office.

          3. ThatGirl*

            I haven’t seen any stores doing that around here (Chicago), but I have seen it at the nail salon, hair salon, dr’s office, dentist — anywhere someone would be in closer contact with you.

        2. I can only speak Japanese*

          I wish it were like that everywhere. Not even in fricking Japan where I live (and where people were pretty used to wearing masks before) can I take the train without seeing at least one maskless person, and there are even more in the supermarkets and on the street. (Yes, the streets are outside, but social distancing is physically impossible on Tokyo streets.)

          People take their maks off to talk, they take them off when they get ON the train, they were them below their noses or even their chins, sometimes in their hands, and they cannot stay away.

        3. Archaeopteryx*

          A rule that is not enforced is just a wish. A lot of these stores want to be given credit for taking people’s safety seriously without actually genuinely doing so.

    2. Not So NewReader*

      I spent a few years working in a grocery store, so my view is a bit jaded. But I think I can give you an idea how that would have worked in my chain.

      How will the store operate if one or more staff are infected with the rest having to go into quarantine for two weeks?
      People are a dime a dozen. Hire temps.

      How much would it cost to have the entire store cleaned and sanitised?
      A lot of money. So be sure to tell the employees it is their fault and their jobs are at stake if this happens again.

      How long would it be before customers are willing to return to a store that “let” the virus in and possibly caused customers to become infected?
      It’s it’s up to the employees to magically fix this, after all, if we go out of business they have lost their jobs. In the mean time, any one who ticks off a customer will be automatically fired because employees are a dime a dozen but customers are very valuable.

      We did have one store here that had dozens of infected employees. It made newspaper headlines because there were so many employees infected. I am sad to say that it had zero impact, people just kept going to the store. I refuse to shop there, but I knew from the get-go not to shop there. My friends and I made sure others were aware of the outbreak at that particular store. I probably will not walk into that store for at least another year, maybe even longer. I am in the minority.

    3. SMH*

      Two thoughts for OP on this issue. One if people come up too close and/or without a mask walk away from them. Do not answer their question or speak to them or help them. Second talk to your coworkers about going on strike for one day and force the store to shut down. Be outside with masks and social distancing and with signs that tell the public ‘We will not die for you.’ ‘How will you shop if there are no workers?’
      This may not work everywhere, especially considering a 70 year old woman had a tantrum in COSTCO over masks, but workers refusing to work because of people not wearing masks may be the next step.

    4. OP*

      So far no one in my store has been infected. In other stores the individual and those who have worked with him/her have been sent home to self-quarantine for two weeks. In one case this was the entire department. I have no idea who did the work; they probably pulled in people from other stores and management at several levels came in. There is a sanitation team that comes in overnight when the store is closed and performs their duties, whatever they might be. The store opens up as usual the next morning.

    5. Helen J*

      Unfortunately, many people don’t have any respect for retail workers. They think they are unmotivated, lazy ne’er- do-wells. I’ve worked a few retail jobs, and in my experience, that is not true for the majority. Like any company, there are those who don’t want to work and will do the bare minimum to stay employed.

      Because a good number of the population have no respect for them, they don’t care if their refusal to simply wear a mask and social distance could save lives. They feel if they are the “customer” anything they say and do is “right”, even verbally abusing workers. They think asking them to wear a mask is somehow restricting their “rights”. Where in the constitution does it say you don’t have to wear mask?

      Three close family members currently work in retail. They go in everyday knowing that some customers are going to behave badly, blame them for things they have no control over, management won’t enforce simple rules and they will be risking their health, and their lives, to make a living. These are human beings doing the jobs that most people think are beneath them. If these folks did not go to work or got sick and couldn’t work, there would be nothing on those shelves. There would be no one to for customers to yell at about their “rights”.

      Yes, the company sucks because they won’t enforce basic safety rules because they might get bad press or blasted on social media. People who refuse to do simple things that could help save lives and verbally abuse workers who usually have no control or decision making power over what they are currently yelling about, suck the most.

      1. Ashley*

        I do think stores need to do more to enforce basic safety like requiring masks. But the amount of violence individuals have suffered in asking people to wear a mask is down right alarming and so telling stores to do more is a little limiting unless we end up talking about hiring out of work bouncers to start working at the local grocery store. Calling the police on someone not wearing a mask seems extreme, but at some point people lives are being put at risk. (And I know that calling the police in many instances can put peoples lives at risk. Our society has problems galore.)

        1. Helen J*

          I agree- calling police is extreme, unless they threaten or do bodily harm to an employee. The most famous of the big-box retailers had actually recruited and trained people to be the “enforcers” of the mask policy. They had so many incidents where people were causing scenes, blocking entrances, recording things and throwing it on social media, so they decided it just wasn’t worth it.

          My main issue is that the hourly associates are often the targets of the verbal abuse and dramatic over-the-top scenes some people like to cause. The associate might agree with them but they can’t say so or risk losing their job, they do not have the power to change the policy and the screaming scene never accomplishes anything, except to upset the associate and make their day worse.

        2. Keymaster of Gozer*

          I’d be a lot happier if everyone who acted angry or hostile to being told to put on a mask/distance themselves were put away somewhere far from the rest of us. There’s just no excuse for it!

          Luckily the worst I’ve seen in the UK in retail is a young man who tried to climb through the gap in the plexiglass barrier because he felt he was being disrespected by the staff (who were telling him to put on a mask, which you must legally do in the uk now, and stop shouting in the coffee shop).

          Although also, all my local food stores do have security guards outside now…

    6. ...*

      The store isn’t going to close and quarantine everyone for two weeks. Basically every store would be shut down if that were the case. They will just tell person to stay home for 10 days.

    7. B*

      Hate to sound negative, but in many cases no one will quarantine, the store won’t be closed and cleaned, and the public will never be told that there was an active case at the store. I work at an essential business retailed that’s been open through all of this. My store hasn’t had a case but our other location did and the staff had to beg corporate to let them quarantine and close the store for a couple days. I know of a handful of grocery stores in my area that have had it, but only because I heard through the grapevine from people that work there. The general public has no idea. Working retail sucks, most of the corporate people who make decisions care more about losing a sale that losing an employee’s life.

    8. Sacrificial Pharmacy Tech*

      I can answer that! The pharmacy in the next town had their entire staff quarantined because the pharmacist got covid. People from other stores got overtime to work and fill in (we all work for the same chain) and the store was never deep cleaned. Just professionals coming in to scrub surfaces, which we honestly could have done (and probably better) ourselves. So very little cost overall.

      Customers never found out. They’re too effing stupid to realize what’s going on anyway. As long as they get their adderall, oxy, and suboxone, they don’t give a damn who’s filling them. And in a regular retail place, I doubt customers would even notice the regular staff wasn’t there.

      1. Sacrificial Pharmacy Tech*

        And yes, I am well aware calling my customers stupid is rude, but you have never had to explain the most basic of concepts to them 8000 times so I don’t want to hear it.

  6. Daily reader, rare commenter*

    There is absolutely nothing – nada, zilch, zero – to be embarrassed about. What you have accomplished is truly impressive and you need to own your awesomeness.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      OP, I hope you smile knowingly. It took me almost 20 years to complete my bachelor’s because of life! stuff. I. just. kept. circling back and showing up. Finally it was done/completed.
      That was rough for me because as you show here, I was so disappointed in my own self. But I got a surprise at the end because very few things since then have been any where near as difficult. I find that I can quickly come up with ideas for solutions. Things were apparent to me that were not so easily apparent to other people. Just like athletes we can learn to jump the non-physical hurdles in life. We can train our brains to quickly sort through to solutions. I think you will find that this is what has happened to you also. Don’t be surprised when people start turning to you and saying, “What do you think we should do about x?”

      I have a friend who started professionally as an engineer. Long story short, my friend quit that and became a vet. So my friend is solidly middle-aged and launching a new career. For reasons they do not explain why they left the old and very lucrative career. My friend does not have to explain, all my friend has to do is be good at their current career and they are. Interestingly, there’s engineering concepts that carry over to how an animal’s body works. Who’d thunk that their old career would have carry over like this? And you will probably find the same, that your previous experiences are not totally wasted AT ALL.
      So you can ask yourself, “If I did have a previous career and I changed to something different, how would I process that and briefly explain to others?” The answer could be that you might NOT explain it to others, just like my friend chose to do.

  7. CastIrony*

    #3, I work in retail, and I must tell you, it’s not that great, either. Store policy doesn’t even let me scold people for not wearing a mask or following the rules, but it’s because they value my safety (Customers can turn ugly if confronted.)

    I am so sorry!

    1. MJ*

      “… it’s because they value my safety”

      But not your safety from the virus then. ( ͠° ͟ʖ ͡°)

      1. Perfectly Particular*

        I don’t think it’s fair to say that her company doesn’t want her safe from the virus, but they have to make risk-based decisions. If she is wearing a mask, and tons of other protections are in place (plexiglass, hand sanitizer all over the place, cleaning protocols, etc), then the likelihood that she will be shot (and die) due to a violent anti-masker may well be greater than her risk of catching Covid and dying from it

          1. Not So NewReader*

            The cynic in me says that the management will just say it’s far cheaper to tell the employees not to tick people off and do whatever it takes so the people are not ticked.

            1. Loves Libraries*

              Yes. But I don’t shop at stores that don’t enforce mask policies and I let them know why.

              1. Anxious cat servant*

                Thank you for letting them know! My retail job just went from very strict (the one reason I was comfortable returning) to strict instructions that we can’t even mention masks to customers because we’ve had too many complaints. I really wish our customers who DO care about safety could be just as vocal. Maybe then my workplace would be safe again instead of catering to a few jerks.

          2. Tuckerman*

            Most non-law enforcement security is meant as a visual deterrent. In fact, a while back there was a story of security guards “doing nothing” during an assault. But per their job requirements, they were not allowed to intervene physically, could only call for help. Most security guards are minimally trained, paid low. So the other option is armed guards and I don’t know that stores want that optic.

            1. SMH*

              I watched a guy slap a 7 year old across the face twice and man handle a 13 year old at a supermarket and the stores policy was not to intervene in domestic violence. And yes I called the police but they didn’t arrive before the people left.

          3. Observer*

            Not all that useful. And in at least once case, it WAS the security guy who was killed.

        1. WellRed*

          Oh please! She is not more likely to be shot! What’s your source? Hysterical hyperbole only adds to the problem.

          1. Observer*

            Guess what? It’s actually not hysteria. I don’t have solid numbers, but there have been a number of cases of people assaulting store personnel who told them to wear a mask, including some shootings.

            I just did a quick google on “shooting mask covid” and the first page comes up with at least 3 different cases, with an article about what seems to be a trend.

            I know it sounds insane – It *IS* insane. But it’s also reality.

            1. virago*

              Sadly, it is not “hysterical hyperbole” to suggest that one may be attacked for asking someone else to wear a mask (or to follow another coronavirus protection measure).

              If you Google “People keep shooting each other over coronavirus restrictions,” it will take you to an article on the nonprofit journalism website The Trace. (An earlier comment with the link is hung up in moderation.)

              They have documented 13 shootings related to COVID restrictions that have taken place in the US between March 19, when the first statewide lockdown went into effect, and Aug. 3.

      2. Koala dreams*

        Becacause of covid, it’s not safe to have discussions with people who stand too close with no masks and don’t care about safety rules. The longer the interaction, the more risk of transmission of virus.

    2. Wherehouse Politics*

      Although I am aware it’s not wise to confront customers (& staff!!!) I’ve been loud, pugnacious, obnoxiously scene-making to non mask wearers- with the idea that they are skating by for personal comfort—risking mine and other’s health by assuming we all abide by the not-make-waves social contract— I’m going to make them feel so awkward/embarrassed/upset/angry as I feel. An acknowledged perversion on Captain Awkward’s “give awkwardness back to sender”—I have a strong feeling this isn’t quite what she had in mind but I’m so, so angry and scared.

      1. Wherehouse Politics*

        Added note- I know it’s not healthy or safe either, and yes I need therapy. As of the moment I have surgery coming up, & need to stay covid free of course or it will be put off until I’m not really sure. If it was it would be coming up on election time and who knows if my particular healthcare plan gets modified/changed/eliminated by the powers that be.

        1. Pretzelgirl*

          I have often thought about carrying disposable masks with me and handing them out to people not wearing them. Saying ” Here you go! You forgot something!”

      2. ...*

        I mean you are welcome to do that but others may choose the path of least resistance for safety reasons. I am not going to angrily confront people constantly in a super market. Getting up in peoples faces seems like a high risk of Covid than just going around them. And you know what? 100% of people aren’t going to wear masks. Because 100% of people dont follow the rules. If we can get a good percentage of people to, I think that’s a win. We can’t get people to not murder each other, or follow traffic laws, so I dont know why 100% mask compliance is something people think can be obtained.

        1. Wherehouse Politics*

          The problem in my area is it’s a significant number not wearing them. I dropped my cart and exited after encountering a half dozen workers in a huddle in the back ( but still very public facing area and where I needed to get items) of one store in the evening – all maskless. Ignored me until I took their picture- only to protest I have no right to do so.
          I did offer a clean mask in a ziplock bag to a father who let his five year old unmasked. He took it then refused to put it on him. Passed a tall, healthy (looking) man strutting in with complete confidence unmasked right past me – I said- do you know anyone who died from this? He said yes— and with either a sincere eat sh@t or trolling ( but ultimately it doesn’t matter) wide bold grin said “But I don’t care.”.
          Plunked my groceries again at the customer service desk and walked out.

    3. londonedit*

      Our masks-in-shops rule came in on 24 July, but two UK supermarkets (Sainsbury’s and Co-op) have said that while they hope everyone will wear a face covering in their shops (and they have signs up reminding people to do so), they won’t be asking staff members to confront people who aren’t wearing masks. They have all the other hygiene practices in place (stations to sanitise hands and trolleys, plastic screens at the tills, an emphasis on using self-service checkouts, etc) but – while there’s a very low chance of anyone being seriously injured – they’re taking the stance that they don’t want their staff to put themselves at risk of being abused or yelled at by members of the public when they’re just trying to do their jobs. From what I’ve seen, in my area people are extremely compliant with mask-wearing (I’d say probably 90-95% of everyone I’ve seen in shops and on public transport is wearing a mask) but it’s a tricky issue when you’re asking people on minimum wage to police what people are doing when they’re shopping.

      1. JustaTech*

        One of the reasons I’m doing grocery pick up instead of going to the store is that my usual grocery store serves a higher-than-average number of people who aren’t super mentally balanced, and the store staff (totally reasonably in my mind) chooses to not confront them about wearing a mask.

        The other reason I’m not going to that store is that their security guards aren’t wearing masks either, and there’s no excuse for that.

      2. Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers*

        Where I live, we have much stricter rules and better adherence when it comes to masks in public places. You can be arrested for being in public without a mask. Shops do not allow you in without a mask, you are required to santitise your hands on entry, and only limited numbers are allowed in at a time, meaning that you sometimes have to queue for 10 to 15 minutes to get in. Some have extra requirements such as a temperature check before entering, or that you must take a shopping trolley/cart when you enter, because it keeps people physically separated. I have only ever seen one person make a fuss about any of these restrictions, and that was a person who truly didn’t seem to understand why he had to take a trolley because he didn’t need one for his small shopping list.

        I’m astonished by the reports of non compliance, aggression and even violence around this issue. And my fellow countrymen are not in other ways particularly law abiding.

    4. Thankful for AAM*

      I work in a library that has not yet reopened. We are struggling with this balance; do we require masks and risk incidents with patrons or do we request masks and keep staff safe by keeping them behind plexiglass walls and removing services that encourage lingering?

      We are tracking incidents with patrons in libraries that are open. Patrons have spit and coughed on library staff over mask policies, threatened to spit or cough, and even threatened physical harm.

      So the fights over masks could be a problem too. This is not as straightforward as it sounds.

      1. WellRed*

        Our library is not open to the public. We reserve online and make an apt to pickup at door where we must be masked.

      2. acmx*

        The libraries in my area (a hot spot state) are only partially open. You can pick up books outside – they place on a table and you’re supposed to wait until they go back inside before approaching the table (I’ve always waited at a distance wearing a mask and have seen others do so) and patrons can make an appointment for computer use. Returned books aren’t handled by the library for 72 hours.

      3. AngelicGamer, the Visually Impared Peep*

        The library that I frequent did all of the above. Masks are required (law in my state, IL) and you will be turned away or asked to put on a mask. They have people stationed at the entrances and will firmly turn people away – I saw them do so yesterday. There are very few chairs for people to sit – all sitting areas are roped off, children’s area is closed, and so is the teen area – and the majority of staff are behind plexiglass. Those who have to be on the floor for shelving do mask and glove up but I also saw someone with mask, gloves, and face mask. She has immune compromised family members at home so she wants to be triple careful. I don’t blame her.

    5. MatKnifeNinja*

      I’d give a two week notice, and hope they let me that day. This way, you did everything by the letter, and they chose to let you go earlier. Most sub par managers will get petty, and make you leave right at the moment.

      I would not tell them “why”. It’s like teaching a pig to sing. It frustrates you, and aggravates the pig. Either the manager is gutless (so nothing will change with your information), or flat out doesn’t care (nothing will change).

      I live in where masks means tyranny. I had a doctor’s appointment, where the doctor (MD), took his mask off when he came into the exam room. His help all had their masks under their noses. An endocrine specialist. I won’t be back.

      If a doctor can ignore precautions, there is no hope getting a store manager to move on enforcement.

        1. MatKnifeNinja*

          Why waste your breath on someone who doesn’t care?

          Have you worked retail with an atrocious shift/store manager? Best case scenario is they go “meh”, and give you your paper work. Worse case is a 10 minute screed on how you’re a sheep, and brainwashed.

          The store actions say they barely care. Me throwing a cup of water on a dumpster fire does nothing.

    6. Archaeopteryx*

      It’s because they value their revenue, not because they value employees’ safety. It was such a relief when I left retail for medicine, and our practice was more than happy to fire patients if they were rude or aggressive. In retail customers can do whatever they like as long as they keep buying things.

  8. The one with childish shirt*

    LW 1 – from experience you can always say that you had to quit studies due to health reasons, that are now resolved (have flunked out twice due to similar health problems, so it does work).

    Besides, it usually is much more pleasant to work with people who have had experience in the not-glamorous service industry, no matter which field you are in now. The “customer service voice” has proven itself to be a very valuable tool, even in accounting.

      1. JJ Bittenbinder*


        “This is actually a second career for me. I dabbled in a few things before figuring out how suited I am to this. By the way, have you seen Susan today? I need to ask her about the photos for the brochure.”

  9. ThePear8*

    OP 3, I’m so sorry. Your store totally sucks.
    I’m living in a COVID hot spot where lots of people haven’t taken it seriously, but I have been really glad to see my local grocery store has signs up that all customers must be wearing masks, all the employees are masked and as far as I can recall I haven’t seen people without masks inside the store (I have seen unmasked folk in the parking lot). There are screens in front of the registers and plastic wrapping over the card reader. The store even has stickers on the floor in aisles and registers directing people to stay 6 feet apart, although I’ve seen those get ignored a lot more (I think the ones in the aisles have gone largely unnoticed, but at the register they are loosely adhered to).
    Your store has absolutely no excuse.

    1. Retail not Retail*

      I think the ones in the aisles get ignored because some people still grocery shop like they used to, stopping in the middle and browsing. Passing by someone is better than standing there staring at them.

      Also I wonder when this letter was sent in – the 2 big grocery retailers in my area have national wear a mask policies now. Not that it’s easy to enforce proper wearing. (The nose is connected to the mouth!)

      1. EPLawyer*

        Oh yes, in the time of social distancing, park your cart in the middle of the aisle than stand there for 10 minutes debating which hamburger helper you want to buy. I hated that when there wasn’t a pandemic. Then I used a very sarcastic — excuse me I need to get by. Now I mutter something about social distancing and hogging the aisle.

        My favorite grocer used to have one door for entrance, and another for exiting. In the last couple of weeks they got rid of that. It is very jarring. They never did do the arrows on the aisles which another grocery store did. But the other grocery store did it very badly, if you followed the arrows precisely, you literally could not get to one section of the produce department. Plus, people ignored them, if they were in an aisle and needed to go back for something in the same aisle they did. That’s human nature and the nature of grocery shopping. I think just distancing as much as possible and passing quickly is the best solution (thank you to the doc on here who said holding doors and just passing someone is probably not going to be a danger, it eased my my mind tremendously)

        1. Mill Miker*

          One of the stores in my area had arrows that, if actually followed, could leave you trapped in the back corner of the store with no allowed way to leave.

      2. Helen J*

        I think all of the grocery stores/retailers in my area have that policy, but most will not enforce it because they don’t want a confrontation with customers. They will ask unmasked customers to wear a mask and even offer them one, but then the phone comes out, recording starts and the “my rights” BS starts.

        Back in early April when stores started limiting capacity and making you wait outside until opening, I had a minor argument with a woman and her mother. They had signs and chains clearly stating to maintain 6 foot of distance between customers. This lady and her mom walked within 2 feet of me and they were both staring at their phones*. I (masked) turned around and politely asked them to please move back 6 feet. The lady said “You don’t have to be rude about it. My mom didn’t see the sign”. I said “I wasn’t rude. I am simply asked that you please move back. (Gesturing with my arms I said)You and your mom missed the 10, 3 foot high signs all across the entrance and all the signs on the chains? Perhaps if you looked up from your phone you would have seen them”. She said again “You don’t have to be rude about it!’. I replied “When it comes to my health, yes I can and will be rude about it. Now please move 6 feet back!”.

        *I have no issue with people using their phones and entertaining themselves while in line. I just think you should occasionally look up and see what is going on. I watched the woman and her mom staring at their phones from the parking lot to the line. They didn’t even bother to look up when they were going into the crosswalk. You would hope cars would stop but people get hit nearly everyday in crosswalks.

    2. WellRed*

      I forget those floor arrows are there. I also hate having to go down an extra aisle to turn around to get to the one I want (I do my best, though).

  10. Sushiro*


    Wow, it’s really helpful to hear stories from other people who’ve been in the same boat of moving into a career at a later stage! I had to move countries with nothing to my name in my early 20’s, and battled for a solid 5 years just to stabilise my life. I’ve only just found the chance to start studying for certifications while working full-time, and I should have a bachelors degree by my early 30’s.

    If anyone else has similar stories of career success in later life, it’d be great to hear them – it’s reassuring knowing that there’s light at the end of the tunnel while you’re slogging so hard to get there! :)

    1. Jackalope*

      Does it help knowing a story about career shifts? I started off certain on the career I wanted; knew it from fifth grade, progressed forward in my life, started my career,…. realized I couldn’t keep doing it. I stayed at that job a few years, much of which I loved, and I don’t regret it, but then I found myself at the end of my twenties with nothing for work but a job path I knew I couldn’t continue. I worked a seasonal job on and off for a couple of years and finally stumbled into my current career (at a job fair) in my early thirties. Now I love it (over a decade later), but I never imagined anything like this when I was younger.

    2. Chronic Overthinker*

      I had a mental health issue affect my first time at college. So I worked retail and customer service to make ends meet and finally got frustrated enough to go back to get an associate’s degree. It helped but still limped through retail until my 30’s before getting professional office jobs. Now I’m soon to be 41 and working as a receptionist/admin at a private company. It may be entry-level, but at least I love what I am doing and am challenged enough to be able to move up in the company eventually. Moral of the story; it doesn’t matter when you start your career! Just as long as you can love what you do or find what motivates you to keep working hard.

    3. Bluesboy*

      I started a career in investment banking at 36 (typically where I am you would start ten years earlier).

      It was difficult to get in, because a lot of people start out with unpaid internships, and I had a family and a mortgage. But since I got that first job, I don’t feel that I’ve been disadvantaged. Now I have 20 years of professional experience, 5 in this sector and I feel people treat me as though I had 10 years of experience in the sector, so while I suppose I’m a bit behind where I would be if I’d started younger, overall things are good.

      In relation to OPs question, when I was in my first job in the sector, people asked me all the time about my background. One of the reasons for changing job was practically so I would have a past job to reference! (Yes, I’ve been here for a year, and I came from Job A, which…)…but the reality is that since I changed job, I don’t think anyone has asked me! I suspect this is because now I show a lot more confidence, whereas before I was very uncertain, but I can’t be sure.

  11. London Lass*

    OP1 – my experience has been that people who come to a field of work or study later in life through less conventional routes are among the most committed and determined, for the simple reason that they appreciate the privilege of the opportunity they now have, and have taken a whole series of very deliberate decisions (and often sacrifices) to get there. By comparison, those who sail through the “expected” educational paths thanks to an easier start in life can quite often lack direction and commitment, because they haven’t really needed to think about it.

    Don’t be embarrassed about your fantastic achievements. Anyone who looks down on you is missing out by not appreciating what you bring with your experience.

  12. Aphrodite*

    Gelson’s is a high-end southern California grocery chain and they, along with Trader Joe’s, have and are still enforcing the mask requirements. Gelson’s is proud of its stance, and rightly so, and every hour of every day that they are open, they have someone outside the one open front door letting one person in for every person that leaves. They have a second right there gathering the carts and sanitizing them. There are no arguments, no problems. There is a tall Plexiglass shield at each register. It is amazingly clean, nice, well-run, ideal. TJ’s is not far behind either. Neither one tolerates bullshit from customers toward other customers or store employees.

    Both have my business and my loyalty. They continue to take this as seriously as I do, and because of that they have a lot of loyal customers.

    I am truly sorry for your sucky managers and customers, OP #3. In my eyes, all of you in retail and healthcare and trucking and other frontline or near-frontline professions ARE NOW AND ALWAYS WILL BE HEROES. Don’t you ever forget that many of us think that.

    1. Helen J*

      It would be great if all stores did this. I would say 99% of those who scream about losing their business and I will tell my friends, blah, blah, blah end up returning anyway.

    2. Insert Clever Name Here*

      Every time I go to TJ, I tell the employee at the door and the employees at the register that I really appreciate their efforts to keep everyone safe. If I could buy all my groceries from TJ, I would in a flash.

    3. Anxious cat servant*

      For everyone who is pro-mask – PLEASE take the time to call or email corporate of your favorite shops and either thank them for consistent enforcement or complain about their laxity, depending on the way they’re handling it. Our store was doing SO WELL but of course a few loud complainers blasted corporate about “my rights” and how mortally offended they were so now we can’t say a damn thing to people who aren’t following the rules.

      I’d love to know if corporate would reverse that if they started getting an equal volume of calls from those who care.

  13. Amy*

    #4 I recently applied for the same role as my friend B and it turned out afterwards we had both approached the same person for help/coaching. She gave no indication of this to either of us and I was so glad after because if I had known B was up for it as well, it would have stressed me out before the interview as she is brilliant! So if anyone tries to get information out of you on who else is applying, tell them it would do them absolutely no good to know. I’m sure you would not let it slip, but office gossip has shown me in the past that not everyone treats this kind of knowledge as confidentially as I think it should be treated (I’m also mega superstitious and don’t tell many people when I’m applying for something in case I jinx it) Fortunately in my recent circumstances there were two roles in the same team and B and I now work together :-)

    1. V*

      Under no circumstances should LW4 disclose to Person A that they have also spoken to Person B about it or vice versa. It’s fine to use Alison’s words about “I’m also talking to others” but not to name them. The other applicant(s) may not be comfortable with anyone else knowing they are applying for all sorts of reasons – it might be a really long shot, they might not want their current boss knowing, they might want to lick their wounds in private if they don’t get it… all sorts.

      1. LW4*

        LW here – I’m so glad it worked out so well for you and your friend, Amy! I agree with you and V, I would never say something like “oh by the way, Sally and Mike and Tom are also applying for this” – I know that’s personal info – at most I was thinking something like “I’ve talked to a few other [program name]-ers about the job also.” I just felt awkward that so many people I know personally were competing for it, it felt sort of like I was withholding info by not mentioning it, for some reason. And even though I gave everyone the exact same info/advice I was worried folks might think I didn’t if one of my closer friends got it, though I don’t have any sort of influence over it now, etc. etc. … just way overthinking I see now :) Alison’s advice, and this, is reassuring!

  14. Postdoc-erella*

    LW1, you are not alone in academia. When outsiders looked at my lab, they saw a department chair at a top-tier medical school with publications in Nature/Science-tier journals and grad students with national-level fellowships.

    If you asked us who we were, it was an auto plant assembly line worker leading a lab with an ex-addict (me), an ex-traveling musician, and an ex-strip club DJ (who was 40 at their PhD defense), and a tech who actually ruled all of us (including the PI). We all had atypical backgrounds, and I genuinely believe it makes academia better to have more voices of experience at the table. You’ve demonstrated drive, sacrifice, and intelligence. Don’t let the douchecanoes hide your light under a basket. I’m glad you’re here :)

    If you don’t want to discuss it with the world, 100% cool. Most people won’t even ask, but if they do you’re free to give them the most blasé or funny answer you like. Is there something that inspired you into your field? Is there some cool aspect of your work (I describe my job as shooting bugs with lasers)? Some big overarching societal question? Black box mystery in undergrad you couldn’t let go of? I know someone who jokingly tells people she can’t cook so she decided to take a class, but mixed up baking chemistry and biochemistry and was too embarassed to leave when she realized her mistake.

  15. Roeslein*

    Lots of people I know (regardless of background) changed careers in their late 20s / early 30s. To some extent that’s what MBAs are for! Some folks founded start-ups or became life coaches, but going back to school in order to join a different industry is completely normal as well. Many people just did “the expected thing” when they were younger and only found their true calling later in life. Many left academia for a new career in industry. Someone I know is back in school to become a midwife in her 30s – nobody bats an eye. There’s nothing wrong or odd whatsoever with saying e.g. that you used to work in hospitality (or whatever) when you were younger but decided to switch careers / follow your passion and go into science instead!

    1. NotQuiteAnonForThis*


      I caught up with an old friend/coworker fairly recently. He asked how my husband was doing and if he still was working for Teapot Supplier At Large. His response to my reply that he’d instead started his own business in Llama Grooming was hilarious and proof that no time had passed “Wait, WTF? That’s not what he went to school for! Good for him!!!!”

      Really the two industries could not be less different ;)

  16. Also an epidiemiologist*

    OP1 I’ve never commented before, but as someone who also started working as an epidemiologist in academia in my early 40’s after working bar and catering jobs throughout my 20’s and 30’s, I just wanted to say that I’m not ashamed at all about my past career and you shouldn’t be either. When discussing my past career I just explain that I used to work in catering until I decided to change career and and go back to university to do a masters degree. I don’t personally think that you need to mention to people that you have has past health issues, you need no excuse and it is nobody else’s business.

    I’ve been told that gaining my undergraduate degree by distance learning, while working full time is a selling point of my CV and I’ve recently been offered a job that is a promotion.

    You’ve overcome more obstacles than I have (I had a convention education and no health issues) be proud of what you’ve achieved and focus on what you want to accomplish in the future.

    1. OP1*

      You’re right, it would help if I stopped focusing on where I am compared to where I would have been if everything had gone according to plan, and just focus on where I want to go. Also I love hearing that you’ve had such a similar career path!

      1. Also an epidiemiologist*

        Yes, I read you’re post and thought that’s weirdly similar to me! I don’t know if this is the same for you, as I’m in the UK and my background is more statistics/ epidemiology , but it is a speciality that is in short supply and my career has progressed far quicker than I thought. I don’t know if you have the same sort of culture in the USA, but I think it helps that everyone is on first name terms and interacts with each other the same no matter what their title is.

        It was hard though starting working in an office for the first time aged 40, it’s a very different environment.

        I should also have added in my first comment, nobody has ever asked me why I decided to switch careers.

  17. Retail not Retail*

    #3 – I don’t blame you, they don’t care (or if they do, someone higher is like “we don’t want to lose their business, i don’t care that they threatened you” (stalking, touching, coughing in your face)) but you don’t know if any new employer will care either. I had a video interview with a city department and there were 2 of them sitting side by side, no masks. And whining about wearing masks. In a hot spot state.

    We’re learning an awful lot this year about what people value.

  18. White rabbit*

    #1 be sure to read the memoir “Educated.” Your story is inspiring, not something to be ashamed of.

  19. Bookworm*

    #1: I haven’t read ‘Educated’ but from what I understand that story is actually quite similar to yours and you might relate. It sounds like you thrived despite your initial circumstances and there is no reason for you to feel embarrassed or ashamed, etc. Totally understand if you don’t want to talk about it because it’s personal but it should not be seen as a reflection of some sort of failure on your part.

    Thank you for sharing and good luck to you.

  20. Bluephone*

    Ugh, that store chain sucks, OP 2. I’m sorry they’re being such butt-heads. And I don’t know where you are but in Pennsylvania at least, masks and facial coverings are *required by law* inside any business, across the entire state. I’ve noticed that employees at say, Wawa, will call out customers who try to come in mask-less and offer them a free disposable mask whereas before it became law, they had to rely on other customers shaming the mask-less butt-heads.

    Anyway, your store/store chain is being a real jerk, I hope you get a new job soon where people aren’t selfish jerks who refuse to believe in science or altruism, and good luck!

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Likewise in my state, employers kept saying “there’s no law”. Well apparently the correct information suddenly became public knowledge and now stores are doing a bit better enforcing it.

      A well placed letter to the editor also helps. One such letter named a particular store in a certain town as being off the charts careless. Yes, named the store and published in the regional paper. It was delicious. Now that store has a new “religion” so to speak. No mask, no service.
      But again, the cynic in me says that TPTB told the employees that it was their fault for following instructions and not enforcing the mask rule. s/The fact that management failed to back up these employees when they asked for help enforcing the rule has no bearing here./s

  21. Eitac*

    OP 1, I’m an epidemiologist and most people I work with have very roundabout ways of getting into the field. I wouldn’t worry about it at all!

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Yeah, this is the stuff that inspirational books are made of. People crave seeing this type of perseverance and accomplishment. It gives them hope for their own lives.

  22. Jennifer*

    #1 I think this is just your insecurity talking, which I can understand. I sometimes feel the same way when I’m around people with fancier backgrounds than me.

    But your story is super inspiring. I was thinking of Tara Westover or Jeanette Walls when I was reading it. You should write a book. I think many people would feel empowered by it. Plus, there are a more people than you think out there who had a rough upbringing or dealt with other challenges in life who managed to become successful. Some may even be in your field. It’s just not something most people lead with when you first meet them.

  23. Jennifer*

    #3 This is rough. People should be wearing masks and social distancing. I can also understand not wanting to tell a random customer that for fear of being cursed out, beat up, or even killed. It’s happening all over the country. We’re asking the people who make the least amount of money to enforce rules that the government refuses to. f you can leave this environment you definitely should, who cares about a notice at this point when your health is at stake. I just think the employer may be in a tough spot too.

  24. Pretzelgirl*

    OP3- Can you report them to your health department? A few weeks ago I was at a large national hardward chain. A few employees had their masks off, some not correctly and several customers didn’t have them on. So I reported them. Not sure what happened. But it was on their website, and was anonymous.

  25. Data Analyst*

    OP #1 – Just wanted to say you’re not alone – I dropped out of college due to what ended up being Bipolar II also! I did a lot of temp work until I felt ready to go back to school. I graduated college when I was 25 (so…not that far behind typical students but I felt SO much older and like some sort of failure). Then I got my masters in stats. I know it’s impressive what I’ve accomplished, but sometimes I still do think “yeah but it would have been cool to have done it ‘on time.'” There will always be a little grief there about what the illness took from me. Allow yourself to grieve! It can be impressive, but still not exactly the trajectory you would have preferred. I once started a job where one of my coworkers was someone from my high school, same class year. I was like “agggh he’s gonna notice that I finished undergrad a few years after he did”…..of course it never came up. Nobody cares. And, no need to say health issues if you don’t want to! Plenty of people float around and go back to school later for all kinds of reasons.

    1. OP1*

      Yup, I felt like a HUGE failure when all my friends were graduating. I found something recently that I had written when I was 26 about how I was too old for whatever, it was too late for me. At 26! I look back now and can finally have compassion for that person who was trying as hard as she could but just didn’t have the resources to make it work.

  26. Harper the Other One*

    OP2 – if you opt to offer the demotion to your employee, in addition to ensuring she will be making what she used to make in the position, could you also offer a little more than that with your budget? If she got promoted because of performance but just wasn’t suited to the next tier of responsibility, it would be nice to give her a greater-than-COL boost to acknowledge that, and it would reassure her that she’s not going to get “trapped” in a place where people don’t recognize her because she’s not constantly moving up the ladder.

    1. Geek*


      Is it your employee’s fault that she was wrongly promoted?

      I’d try to be as transparent and honest as possible. And gracious. Yes, telling your employee that she isn’t meeting the grade is going to be a really tough conversation. It will most likely upset her.

      What might upset her more? Losing her job and benefits. Give her a way to save face. Give her a path that meets all of your needs. If that’s impossible, defer to meeting her needs. Going from 100% income to 0% income is going to have a disproportionate impact on her finances than keeping her around will have for your company’s.

      “We need X, Y, and Z from this role. We need to figure out a way forward. Here are some options, and not all of them are great.

      “If you cannot meet the above, we could have you do A, B, and C, instead. That is not as valuable to the company as X, Y, and Z. We will not be able to compensate you the same for both roles.

      “Do you want to stay on these conditions? Why don’t you take tomorrow off, paid, to think about it, and we can discuss this on Wednesday. If you wish to leave, we’ll keep you in your current role for n months, and give you flexibility to search elsewhere. If you wish to stay, here’s the timeline for your salary and role change…”

      Is there a way to create a new position? Slightly higher than she was before, but not as high as she is now?

      1. voyager1*

        I am not sure a demotion but with a minor raise in pay above to what she was making before. It would depend a lot if she being demoted to a role where she being sent back to a team or group. If she is being sent back to a group then no, I am not onboard with a raise. If she is an individual contributor then I would be more onboard.

        1. valentine*

          If she is being sent back to a group then no, I am not onboard with a raise.
          She shouldn’t lose everything. It makes sense to place her to where she would’ve been sans promotion. Presumably everyone else had at least a COL, so putting her back to where she was would puts her behind and below her group.

  27. Mainah*

    LW1, I had a rough childhood too and worked in food service for over a decade before settling into academia after earning my degrees. The work ethic I developed as a line cook more than compensated for the lack of experience. And it also helped me appreciate the struggles that I saw many students endure while working their way through school. What you described is an asset and not a liability, academia needs more people like you.

    1. OP1*

      Servers have to deal with the customers, but line cooks have to deal with the servers–I never knew which was worse! :) And I agree, I worked as a TA while in undergrad and I could definitely appreciate the struggles some of the students had, especially those whose backgrounds hadn’t prepared them well for college.

  28. MicroManagered*

    OP1 I finished college and started my career in my 30s as well.

    First, nobody cares. A lot of people begin or change careers at different points in life. I suspect (because this was true of me) the dysfunction you grew up with, that led to the so-called late start, is what’s fueling your feelings of shame around this.

    Second, try re-framing it as a career change. Work is work, and waiting tables is work. That’s the work you did in your 20s. It’s not the fake-job you did before you got your life together.

    1. OP1*

      You’re right. Doing the academic work to get those degrees has been nothing compared to the work I’m constantly doing to challenge all the shame and other childhood bs. I didn’t go into all the dysfunction in my letter, but growing up I wanted to hide. Now I can’t hide and I’m purposely putting myself out there. I’m afraid everyone will see that the emperor has no clothes, but really all that is based on childhood stuff and not the reality of the moment.

      1. Christina*

        This is very similar to how I have been feeling myself. I got my Masters in Social Work a few weeks before I turned 40. I suffer from “imposter syndrome” and I have surrounded myself with people from my program that encourage and lift me up. I am always reminding myself to believe in myself as much as my friends do. Also fake it til you make it can help as well.

  29. Not for academics*


    -I work in academia and my team frequently collaborates with folks from all over the world.

    -I think most people will be more impressed, not less, by your background because of what it says about what you overcame!

    OP1, you’re right and Alison doesn’t understand academics will not be “impressed” by anyone with a working class background.

    When academics are asking you this, they’re trying to suss out your academic lineage. Since you don’t have one (thus no answer will satisfy), It’s okay to say something like, “I used to work in the private sector but now I ___.” That’s both true enough and makes the point.

    1. OP1*

      Yeah, maybe it depends on the department. I work with people who cure fatal diseases and there’s a certain amount of ego running rampant. Nice people, but snobby nice people.

      1. Sophie1*

        It’s the same across all departments – I work in research infrastructure so I interact with them all and it’s the same.

        It’s the competitiveness of academia that drives it, I think – being snobby about working class backgrounds or people who weren’t valedictorians gives them some sense of safety in their own careers. I mean there will also be straight up snobs, but what makes it more widespread is academics needing to feel more secure in their own skills and backgrounds and jobs and intelligence in order to just keep going in the competitive environment. It’s not that they would think less of you but they might not take you with as much seriousness as you deserve. So I think go with “Not for Academics” advice, it is good. Definitely don’t mention health issues.

        But yes, lovely snobs in all departments! (And they ARE usually lovely!)

    2. NLR*

      There are a bunch of academics above who disagree with you. Maybe you’ve worked with unusually bad people.

      1. Sophie1*

        Academics often don’t see how a lot of other academics interact with the people below them in the professional hierarchy who they have decided for one reason or another isn’t an intellectual equal.

        But the main issue is not whether academics are snobs or not – the main issue is that this question in a collaboration or academic context isn’t actually a “getting to know you” question. It’s a a credentials questions. So divulging info about health or saying before OP did whatever paid the bills is TMI here – all they need to say is they got their degree blank number of years ago.

      2. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

        You know, I’m not sure if it’s entirely a function of snobbiness, because I see some of this from friends who attended, uh, non-snobby universities. There are those fields where people disproportionately enter grad school within a year or two of finishing undergrad, and so there’s a lot of people who come of age professionally in a very age/life stage-homogenous setting. There’s a certain type of 27-year-old freshly-minted PhD who really doesn’t relate well to their contemporaries who’ve spent any time outside the academy, and they never shed that lack of perspective if they stay close to higher ed.

    3. Gaia*

      I worked with a lot of highly educated academics that were in a field adjacent to epidemiology. They would have been impressed by the OP.

  30. Ellie May*

    3. Of course your employer can require customers to wear masks (see Costco as an example – they’ve taken their stand, regardless of the location or local requirements). The truth is they are trading the possible risk of offending a customer at the expense of employee safety. Hmm – that’s not very reasonable or fair.
    Additionally, they are putting their own customers at risk if not enacting and enforcing a mask policy. Do they realize that is causing people to by-pass their store(s) in favor of those with a mask policy that is enforced? Too often I see signs saying “Masks must be worn at all times” and the retailer doesn’t enforce it, leaving the customers to police themselves.
    Save yourself and leave and be prepared to explain the circumstances of your departure.

    1. That Girl from Quinn's House*

      Costco is a different situation, though. Costco is a club and you have to be a member to shop there, so they can just say, “As a term of your membership you’re agreeing that you will wear a mask while shopping here or you will not be allowed inside the warehouse.”

      Stores that don’t charge membership fees lack that much of an ability to stipulate terms and conditions on their customers.

      1. Kuddel Daddeldu*

        Any shop can do that – it’s not much different from a “no shirt, no shoes, no service” policy. In most places it’s not against the law to enter shops shirtless but store owners regardless make it policy. There is nothing to stop them making masks a requirement-and there is lots of good science making this the morally right choice. Also, there are more sensible customers than oblivious (although the oblivious can be rather vocal), so my money would be on catering to the sensible people. The obliviots are invited to discuss the fruits of their actions with Mr Darwin in the afterlife.

  31. just a small town girl*

    OP 1, I feel as though, for the first half of the story, it could have been written by me or any of my siblings! People are always awed when they contrast what they know of me and my work skills to the story of my early life/education. It’s really more of something to be proud of, in my thoughts. But I understand the struggle of explaining to people that your story isn’t nearly as simple as they assume, and I just wanted to give a shout out from another homeschooled before it was cool by an under-educated low-income family but managed to get through life and come out the other side “graduate”.

    1. OP1*

      I love it! I grew up in the Midwest and we knew other homeschooling families, but they were all closer to middle class and actually had money for things like, I don’t know, textbooks. To all the folks out there who are (rightfully) struggling with trying to educate their kids from home right now, I just want to say, try doing it for 12 years. . .with parents who didn’t believe in evolution. . .

  32. Anonymous At a University*

    I’m sorry, OP 3, that really sucks. Stores and restaurants in my town have been really good about enforcing mask policies for the most part, but it also means they’ve lost some customers. There was a news article about how a customer coming for takeout they’d previously called in threw a fit about being asked to wear a mask for the less than one minute it would have taken them to be in the restaurant and pay, and called everyone in the place, including other customers, “communists” and “Nazis,” and then stormed out and left their food sitting there. The restaurant owners were firm that they were still going to require masks, and when the reporter asked about customers with breathing problems, the particular manager they were interviewing said, “Then ask for delivery.” So I think your store is thinking about problems that could happen, but the way they’ve chosen to deal with it, by putting employees at risk, is absolutely bonkers. Yes, the “discomfort” of wearing a mask to speak to someone is so much greater than being on a ventilator.

    I don’t think you owe them notice, but as Alison says, it might burn bridges.

  33. Sandman*

    OP1, just chiming in as another late bloomer. I was at a complete loss as to what to do with myself in my 20s and it’s a long story from there, but in my mid-forties am just moving into what I’ve known I wanted to do for 20 years. It’s hard to have a story that doesn’t sound like (what we think is) everyone else’s in the room, but I also know that sometimes I see things not everyone does because of that unconventional background. Somehow we need to figure out how to own these stories of ours.

  34. TexasTeacher*

    LW 1, my dad was a chemist for 20 years, a programmer for another 20. Forced into early retirement, he did a little freelance work for another 15 or so years, but was largely retired. Two years ago he decided he wanted to teach high school, and at 82 years old is now teaching full time high school maths. It’s a long and winding road sometimes. Congratulations and good luck!

    1. MinnieK*

      Your dad sounds awesome! As a student, I found that teachers with non-teaching experience really brought something special to the classroom.

  35. CareerChanger*

    OP1, I have lately started saying “I made a career change [in my 30’s]” and people get it. Most importantly, for ME it helps me frame my life less like a late start or a decade of messing around and more like a bold move! Also it helps me value my “first career” experience; it wasn’t much of a career, but it also wasn’t nothing.

  36. Bagpuss*

    #2 – I think you need to address it like you would any other performance issue, including considering whether you will have to put her on a PIP and potentially dismiss her if she is not able to improve, but perhaps when you initially sit down with her to discuss the issues do as Alison suggests and give her the option of reverting back to her previous role and pay. If she is not able to do the job then you need to address that whether or not she is open to returning to a less senior / lower paid role.

    How long is it since she was promoted? And is there any scope for slightly tweaking the original role / job title so it is less obviously a demotion when seen by other staff members?

  37. Betsy S*

    I too got a somewhat late start, dropped out of college, worked a lot of odd jobs, went back to night school and graduated just before 30. Had an internship that turned into my first professional job; got my MS at night at 34 while working my second professional job.

    My experience has been that absolutely NOBODY has cared about what I did before graduation. I could talk about my first job; I could talk about what got me interested in the field. If anyone wondered why I graduated at almost 30, they didn’t ask (it would be a pretty rude question, actually).

    I wouldn’t even bother to bring up health issues – it’s very normal in our world for people to find a professional interest later in life. I attended an urban university where the *average* age of undergraduates at the time was 29 ; the average age in the Master’s degree program was much older. Some people were going for second careers but a lot of us were on our first ones.

    Honestly I think it’s better, for many people, to not go straight from high school to college to grad school. Many of the folks I knew who went straight through school ended up drifting afterwards. A few years of working low-wage jobs taught me a lot about how the world worked and inspired me to be a very diligent student.

  38. Sasha "Potato Girl" Blause*

    OP1, I’m a homeschool dropout who grew up poor, graduated college with an easy/butt-of-jokes major at 24, and didn’t find a career path until 29. My insecurity when faced with questions about the in-between years went away when I came up with a short, clever answer.

    I used to have a sort of long-winded answer to “how did you get into llama photography?” because I thought I owed the questioners my truthful life story. But the thing is, they’re just making conversation, trying to get to know me on a surface level. So I came up with a short, funny, surface-level answer to the effect of, “well I studied llama braiding in college, but I only enjoyed the part where we took photos of the finished llamas. Turns out that’s an actual job!”

    Anyone who asks what I did in between gets either, “paid my bills, lied about my job at parties *shrug, change subject*” (if they’re a peer or above) or a truthful account of how I got my foot in the door (if they’re an intern/junior).

    I honestly think you’ll do fine to act like your age is invisible and answer without acknowledging the late start. If anyone does ask about it, consider an abbreviated truth and subject change like: “Oh, it took a while to find my passion. What got you into [their field]?”

  39. MinnieK*

    Lw1 – Hello friend! I was also a late bloomer! Due to family issues, I couldn’t start college until I was 24. (For those who may not know, in the US, you have to provide your parents’ financial information on your financial aid forms until you are 24, or you are legally emancipated.) Once I started, I couldn’t take full time classes because I was working full time to support myself, so I basically took 1 or 2 classes a semester. It took me 10 years to get my bachelors degree after several false starts. (My state college’s advising department sucked, and as a non-traditional student I made a lot of mistakes with both class choices and student loans that I wouldn’t have made if someone had properly advised me.)
    While I was in school, I worked administrative jobs in various fields, including higher ed and journalism, and now I am in clinical research and find myself surrounded by PhDs and MDs. I’ve found that in my field, people are more obsessed about the “healthcare provider” versus “non-healthcare provider” classification, so I spend more time proving myself worthy of being at the table despite being a non-provider. When people ask about my background, I literally say “I am a late bloomer. Before working in research, I worked in non-profit management, journalism, and public health emergency preparedness.” I’ve only had a couple people follow up with questions about my actual degree, which frankly, for me, is a red flag. Typically people who focused on degrees/schools instead of my actual experience were snobs and/or shitty colleagues. I know its a little different in academia – people can be really focused on your “pedigree.” But I think if you say, “I am a late bloomer, I shifted to this field because I was really interested in the epidemiological study of bla bla bla.” If someone responds, “But why are you a late bloomer? What did you do before???” or really anything other than a version of “Oh, that’s fascinating…” then consider it an exercise in maintaining boundaries. You shouldn’t be ashamed of where you came from or feel like you have to hide it, but you also don’t owe anyone your life story to prove yourself to them. Just be your awesome self!

    1. Agree*

      Yes, the fact that you can’t take out a student loan without a parent co-sign until you’re supposed to have already graduated is an absolute outrage that I’ve honestly never seen discussed in any public forum until your post – WHY?! My guess is only some elite universities and television shows have useful advising. I’ve had the same experience with people hyper enthusiastic about prestige – they don’t realize that money doesn’t buy grit and that lack of opportunity and access is a gigantic barrier for many talented people, even in the richest country in the world. I resent the term late bloomer as a descriptor of someone who has always had the intelligence, work ethic, and determination to be successful and just had to sift through a mountain of shit rather alone to get to the same place others do on the backs of their parents. A superhero character would be a far more appropriate symbol.

      1. MinnieK*

        I feel like it is very much a dirty little secret about college financial aid that no one knows. I’ve talked to a lot of people about this over the years, including a friend who covered higher education as a reporter, and no one has ever known about it until I told them. For the longest time I was convinced that the policy must have changed and I didn’t realize it because I aged out of it. Eventually I looked into it and it is still the same, 20 years later. So, until you are 24, or legally emancipated, or married, you have to include BOTH parents’ financial information in your FASFA and their income will be considered when determining how much aid you are eligible for.

        And you’re right – most kids in that situation are doing all of that navigation alone. I made massive mistakes with my student loans in the beginning (I didn’t know that if my tuition/fees were $1000 but they offered me a student loan of $3000 that I could reject the surplus. So I took way more loans than I needed. Years after my time there, my college actually got in federal trouble because they made it so difficult for students to reject the surplus.) And I should note, I am a cishet white girl. So even though I had to navigate it alone, I still came from a place of privilege. My mountain of shit was a lot smaller than some of my classmates mountains of shit.

        I feel like another dirty little secret about US student loans is how interest is accrued and payments are applied on loans. I wish someone would do a deep dive into it to explain to older generations why we are all so pissed about student loans.

        I will also say that

        1. Agree*

          Wow, we have such a long way to go. I guess who ever invented this system had two gold star parents and couldn’t even imagine the possibility that others might not. Agree on the loan thing too, there could be a lot more information provided about how it works.

  40. Maggie R*


    Also how you approach your job and work effects so much. I work in a field that 99.9% of our interns are current students or recent graduates. And kinda in a fluke a few years back, I had two interns in their mid- to late-40s and their approaches couldn’t have been different.

    One came to the job after the death of her child and bitter divorce and she just made an abrupt career change to start a new life. At work she approached everything with an open mind, ready to learn, and was willing to do everything asked of her. She only mentioned her life situation once, and volunteered it herself. I found that because she was so focused on her work, most people were eager to talk with her about their jobs and eager to help her succeed without knowing why. She was a team player and someone we knew we wanted to be around and work with. Intern 1 previously made three times what she was going to make in our field, but we all knew that and her positivity and enthusiasm made us question everything about her less.

    The other woman was unwilling to do the work assigned to her because she thought her previous experience put her above that and her attitude was more focused on telling me how to do my job better even though she was just breaking into the field. Frankly, because she used her previous career as a crutch to tell us what we could do differently (not better, just differently) a lot more people questioned her background and had sour feelings about her past.

    At the end of the day, we hired the more eager, open-minded intern. She successfully managed to bring her previous experience and outlook on life to our field in a positive way and we wanted to be around that.

  41. Immunomaven*

    LW1, I don’t know if you’ll see this but I just wanted to chime in that I’m in academia and many people I know took a non-traditional path to where we are now. I was actually the minority in going to graduate school directly from university. My graduate school mentor went to medical school after 10 years as a journalist, several of my friends started college and then grad school school after working odd jobs and/or raising kids and are now in a very similar position as you. I think everything you have accomplished is awesome and anyone who would judge you for it is ridiculous. Good luck in the future!

  42. Apt Nickname*

    OP #1, I too had a later start. I dropped out of college due to depression and frankly, immaturity. Once I got back on track I ended up in a field that fits me better than what I originally planned. I always frame it as taking some time off to figure out what I wanted. And people change fields all the time and thus have a later start than people who follow a more traditional path. I know I was a better college student the second time around because I was more motivated and mature, and I’m sure your experiences gave you valuable traits too. You aren’t less-than, you’re just a little different.

    1. OP1*

      Agreed, I was definitely a better student too. Like actually getting up for my early classes.

  43. ChemPhD and Endless Advocate*

    LR1 – Academic chemist here, who also had a different background from others and WHO ALSO found the questions difficult to answer!! I want you to know that the reason you feel awkward about this question isn’t anything you did, but it’s the culture in chemistry departments and in the field outside of academia too. People who did things differently are unusual and we worry that they will see that as bad. And, because I’ll give it to you straight, if they’re older faculty or a blowhard young person, they might.

    So, my advice on how to answer those getting to know you background questions is to use the phrase “non-traditional”. You can say that you come from a non-traditional background, but just earned your masters in chemistry and are excited about X. This will be a cue to the listener to not try to view you through the prism they usually use (or use their usual measuring stick to assess your value) and will likely put them in a non-competitive frame of mind to ask you more about what you used to do, if desired. But if not, you can just pivot back to your current science.

    I would use this phrase because it keeps things brief and communicates to them that you didn’t just jump into grad school at 22. I think keeping it brief makes the best impression. :)


    1. OP1*

      I really like this! I should be able to remember this one phrase even if I’m feeling flustered :)

  44. Ray Gillette*

    Demotion can work, but it needs to be handled gracefully to avoid alienating not just your own employee, but the others around her as well because they will be watching how you handle the situation.

    I was in a position where I was demoted because I was promoted to a position that I was in no way prepared to handle – the company needed a department head, and wanted to get someone as quickly as possible. I was a team lead, so they decided to ask me to step up. Being a team lead in no way prepared me for running a whole department, so I flamed out miserably. They hired a new department head with experience and demoted me, but instead of demoting me back to my original position of team lead, they busted me back down to the same level as the people I was previously leading. This obviously left a bad taste in my mouth and several of my colleagues saw their trust in the organization badly shaken as a direct result.

    The only reason I didn’t leave was because my new paycheck was still more than I’d been making before the failed promotion. Upper management handled everything else about the situation poorly, but even they were savvy enough to acknowledge that even though the promotion hadn’t worked out, they’d offered me the position in the first place because I was good at my original job.

    I stayed for the long term because the department head acknowledged that the company handled the situation badly, saw that I was a valuable asset, and (after a few false starts based around poor communication on both sides) decided to invest in me as an employee and mentee. He eventually promoted me to management the correct way, and while I constantly feel like I’m in over my head, the feedback I’m getting is consistently positive.

  45. Alexis Rose*

    LW1 – Holy cow, you sound amazing! Be proud of what you’ve achieved and where you are.

  46. Koala dreams*

    #1 This topic is sensitive for you since it brings up bad memories, but for other people changing fields is not necessarily associated with any bad things. On the contrary, many people are impressed with people earning degrees later in life, and happy to hear success stories about people changing fields. “I graduated with a bachelors in chemistry in my late 30’s and a masters in epidemiology a couple of years ago” is an excellent answer!

  47. Urban Fervor*

    #1 – Wow. With the exception of the part about being home-schooled, I could have written this letter. I feel so SEEN! Thank you so much for writing in. Here’s a virtual high-five from a fellow professional “late bloomer” who also feels weird when people ask about my career!

  48. OP1*

    Thank you Alison for running my letter! All of these comments are so kind and thoughtful, and I love that so many people have had similar experiences. I agree with several commenters that a lot of my anxiety stems from feeling that I “owe” people a complete and factual account of my entire life history. As though I don’t own my story, they do. I tend to assume it’ll be obvious to people if I’m dissembling–I’m going to blame that one on the paranoia that comes from being raised in a religion where you’re told that God and the angels know what you’re thinking. There are some great ideas here about how to phrase a response, but I also appreciate the reminder that most people really don’t care about my background, and if they do, that’s about them–not me. Thanks all!

    1. You Are A Phenomenal Woman, My Friend*

      I have two thoughts. One, reading your story was inspiring, and being able to relate to your story in some ways, I will say that I think it’s inspiring because it’s exceedingly rare for someone without a supportive family plus other life challenges to accomplish what you have. Most successful people I meet have had more luck with less difficulty and so they just assume the same is true for you often without even realizing how much advantage they have had. So I think you should be very proud of yourself! I think the anxiety questions about your unique path are very normal. People worth knowing will value you more because of it but there may be others that can’t relate or are judgmental. Which brings me to point two. My impression of academia in general is that you may be more likely to encounter folks in the latter category. There are far too many people that only understand the traditional high school, college, ladder climb and value prestigious institutional brands over hard earned real world experience so I like Alison’s advice, which answers the question but doesn’t get into details. They need to prove they deserve to hear your story first. Overall our culture is far too intolerant of non traditional paths and I hope this changes because this kind of thinking suppresses creativity and innovation while mortgaging the futures of our youths with crippling student loan debt.

      1. Persephone Underground*

        Your comment brought up a good point- “Most successful people I meet have had more luck with less difficulty and so they just assume the same is true for you…” Looked at another way, aren’t you (OP) assuming this traditional path of some of your coworkers when you haven’t actually asked? It’s natural to think that way but I wouldn’t assume you’re entirely alone either, or that even co-workers with traditional paths haven’t had struggles that let them relate to or at least respect yours. Not saying they all will, but there are more people who have been through some @$@# than we can know from the outside either. Telling your story could turn up others who thought they, too, were alone.

  49. Hiding from my Boss*

    LW2: I replaced Jane, who was promoted beyond her qualifications, given an extensive time to get qualified, and flat-out failed. In the meantime, the co. had hired Sansa for Jane’s old role. When someone fails to attain their certification, they’re usually let go (because they are absolutely, positively not qualified for a job that requires it); instead the mgr moved Sansa to another (some would say less desirable, lower level) vacant spot and demoted Jane back to her old spot. At least one other mgr said Jane should have been let go like anyone else.

    When the co. posted the job again, I was certified so I applied. I could only find out that the previous hire “didn’t work out.” When I interviewed, the mgr told me Jane didn’t get certified and assured me everyone was over it now. So I accepted the position.

    That department was so toxic the EPA couldn’t have fixed it. Jane was fuming mad, resentful, and it showed even to visitors from other parts of the company. Jane was supposed to support me but she gave me a cold shoulder. The mgr said things to the effect that Jane had gotten a raw deal, and others in the dept clearly felt sorry for her. Jane complained about me constantly, and the mgr used my “inability to develop rapport with my team” against me. Jane got upset over everything, and I caught the blame. She insulted me and criticized me in meetings and mgr let it happen. Over time the mgr devalued my promotion by not letting me take on higher level responsibilities I was hired for, and finally told me Jane and I were peers.

    It’s less bad now because we got a new manager. I set a time limit to see how things went and spoke with him about the major difficulties working with Jane. I believe he genuinely understands, but he thinks we can just “move past it” and start fresh. When my time limit was up, I faced the fact that it was time to start looking for real. Immediately after that, the pandemic hit so I’m still here for the foreseeable future.

    This ran longer than I meant. And not everyone will be like Jane in that situation. But it’s an example of how promoting and then unpromoting/demoting someone can affect morale and effectiveness.

  50. Persephone Underground*

    #1- I’m a late starter too, and it’s now just part of my story. When talking casually to co-workers about it I usually leave in/summarize the retail and hostess and dog-walking jobs I had, but leave out the clinical depression, alcoholism, and long period of semi-outpatient treatment those years also included. So Alison’s script is great- it just states things matter-of-factly and without shame, but leaves out details that might be too personal.

    Btw, you’ll get plenty of empathy from anyone who graduated college during the Great Recession, like myself and others in the 30-35 age range, and we’re just one group of people who get it. Even your colleagues with traditional career arcs could easily have people close to them struggle with similar situations, or just respect your hard work getting out of the low wage job cycle etc.

    I guess my point is that you shouldn’t be ashamed- you are a warrior to have come this far and beaten all the obstacles you have! You don’t need to share the whole story with everyone who asks casually, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with it being different from your colleagues’ more typical stories either.

  51. Llama Llama Ding Dong*

    Op 5. I think it would be a good idea to reach out. At least to reestablish a cordial/friendly relationship. Even if you’re not in the place to make a move now you want them to remember you. And at least you’ve made a good networking connection. If you don’t have any contact until they are ready to contact you they might not remember you, when the job opens up in say 6 months or something.

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