Does Ten Years In One Job Mark Me As A Loser?... Is A Top MBA A Must?
By Anne Fisher

(FORTUNE Magazine) – DEAR ANNIE: My company has been bought, and my department is fairly certain that we are toast. I've been here for a little over ten years in pretty much the same job, because I like my work--and I have tried to make the most of it. I learned new skills, volunteered for projects and committees, and made some great friendships with people who have moved on to interesting places. I am just afraid that having spent ten years in the same place is going to look bad on my resume. What can I do to make myself more marketable? CAREER RUTS FOR $200, ALEX

DEAR RUTS: I don't think a Jeopardy! devotee like you has much to worry about. But I forwarded your E-mail to David Opton, head of Exec-u-net, a national network for job-seeking executives. Dave spends his entire waking life studying what employers want. Says he: "If you are in a staff position, you probably are toast because the acquirer's staff always wins. But having been in your job for ten years is not, in itself, a problem. You must have done well there. Don't forget, skills are portable."

Opton suggests that you stop being defensive about your "rut" and be proud of your accomplishments. In job interviews, he urges you to mention what you learned from those special projects and committees. He also thought the tone of your letter was appealing: "People do rely on personal chemistry when they hire, and you sound like a smart person who knows how to have fun. This alone could carry you on to whatever category Alex proposes next."

DEAR ANNIE: My company's tuition-assistance policy is rather vague. It seems to offer 50% of tuition, books, and other basic expenses, but there are "exceptions," and many men are getting everything reimbursed at 100%, though I and several other women have been denied 100% reimbursement for pursuing degrees in similar fields of study. Do I have grounds for an EEOC complaint? DELAWARE GAL

DEAR DELAWARE: If you do decide to contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, you'd be wise to have more detailed information in front of you than this. As long as the policy remains "vague," you won't have a clue as to whether anybody is violating it. On precisely what grounds are the exceptions granted? Are you sure that only men are benefiting from them? Can you document that? Do some serious homework. Then sit down with the people in your company who wrote the policy. Maybe they can make it less confusing. Government lawyers should always be a last resort. Just ask anybody who's ever met one.

DEAR ANNIE: I just graduated from college with a business degree and am thinking of going on for an MBA, but I have some questions. First, although my GMAT scores put me in the 90th to 95th percentile, my grades were not great (3.0 average), and it has taken me seven years to get my bachelor's. Do these things hurt my chances of getting into a good business school? Also, does a degree from a top business school carry the same weight it used to, or can I impress with less? ROCKY MOUNTAIN MAN

DEAR ROCKY: You're asking a whole string of good questions here. First, Jobtrak, a Los Angeles-based service that keeps a running count of entry-level job openings nationwide (see its Website at www.jobtrak.com), reports that 32% more positions are available to new grads this year than last. In this market, you may well wonder what you need an MBA for. Further, bear in mind a couple of things. Your lofty GMAT scores may serve to redeem your so-so grades, and grad-school applications typically give you plenty of space to explain quirks in your background, such as why you took so long to graduate. But--and here's where you may have a problem--most good schools look for candidates with five to seven years of real-life work experience. So unless you already gained all or most of that while inching your way through college, you need to get a job.

While you're working, try to figure out what you want to do with the rest of your career. Unless you hope to end up on Wall Street or at a prestigious consulting firm, you really don't need to invest several hundred thousand dollars in tuition and lost wages on an MBA from one of the top B-schools (Harvard, Columbia, Wharton, Chicago, Stanford, or the five or so others that are in their league). According to Margot Lester, author of The Real Life Guide to Starting Your Career (Pipeline Press, $16.95 paperback), a big-name degree could actually hurt your chances with the vast majority of employers: "Hiring managers in small to medium-sized companies--including almost all startups, which is where many of the really exciting opportunities are now--see one of those topflight schools on your resume and go into sticker shock. They think they can't afford you." So an MBA with a lowlier pedigree might make more sense.

Lester would also like to remind you that the School of Hard Knocks is a widely respected alma mater: "Ask yourself why you really want to go to grad school. Are there specific skills you feel you need? If so, there are quicker and cheaper ways to get them than pursuing an MBA. Or are you just trying to avoid reality for a couple more years?" She doesn't mean to sound snarky: Years ago Lester was asked those very same questions by, of all people, a B-school dean, who encouraged her to work rather than study. Now she owns her own publishing company. There may be a lesson here. Think it over.