Monday, July 20, 2009

Do Online Classes Make Sense for Your Career?


When I graduated from college -- even though I loved the experience -- I literally ran to my car after the ceremony, speeding away in my '72 Olds Cutlass Supreme. (An awesome car I could now kick myself for selling.)

I was done with school. Forever. I looked at fellow graduates who said they were going to get their master's degrees or even their PhD's with the same face I used to pick squashed bugs off the bottom of my shoes. "Ugh!" I'd exclaim, walking away from them quickly for fear I'd catch whatever it was that was making them insane.

Now, many years later, I've contemplated going back to school as I've watched the journalism profession take a beating. I'm not exactly sure what classes I would take, but I was glad I did the research on this story for my Gannett column because taking online classes might be a good option for me -- but I need to be smart about my choices. Here's my story discussing online universities:


As the job market continues to flounder, many professionals are turning to online classes as a way to help save a current career or start a new one -- but both universities and students are warning that not all online educations are created the same.

“I was very disappointed in my online classes,” says Beverly Cornell, a consultant for global businesses, marketing and social media in Detroit. “People just did the work and never challenged anything that was said. I missed that exchange of ideas you get in a regular classroom. There was no chance to articulate ideas and help form ideas.”

Having just the opposite experience was Jan Melnick, who said she found her online classes from 2004 to 2007 were a perfect fit for her busy lifestyle as a businesswoman and mother of three.

“It was an outstanding experience,” says Melnick, a career coach in Durham, Conn. “I had a very busy career, and I wanted a program that was rigorous and had top-notch professors.”

Those varying experiences are why David Clinefelter, provost at Kaplan University, based in Davenport, Iowa, says those seeking an online education need to do some homework before they even take their first class. Clinefelter says that prospective students need to check out everything from the school’s accreditation to quality controls to considering their own learning styles.

Part of the problem with some online programs may be that the growth has been so explosive nationwide in recent years. For example, Kaplan University started online classes with just 34 students in 2001, and now has 54,000 students participating in its online programs. “It’s a hang-onto-that-tiger-by-the-tail thing,” Clinefelter says. “The numbers are staggering.”

Melnick says that she was one of those who had very specific criteria in mind when she went searching for an online university. Costing the same as if she were attending regular classes ($25,000-$30,000 for a bachelor’s degree), Melnick was ready to be challenged by a tough curriculum.

“You’ve got to look for the legitimate programs,” Melnick advises. “I was looking for professors that had the highest degrees, who had themselves graduated from Ivy League schools.”
Clinefelter agrees that any online university should offer the same quality classes and instructors as those provided to students in the traditional brick-and-mortar classrooms. He also advises that students looking for an online education should:

• Make sure the online university is regionally accredited. Check out the U.S. Department of Education database of accreditation.
• Verify that the university offers a degree that will be valued by the industry or career you are pursuing.
• Check out not only the academic credentials of professors, but what real-world, professional experience they bring to the classroom.
• Ask whether the university will accept transfer credits in order to avoid paying for a class you’ve already taken somewhere else.
• Determine that there is a commitment to quality. For example, the classes should be consistent (not changing every time there is a new professor), and there should be a clear method for measuring student learning outcomes from the classes. Also, the university should be responsive to the demands of a profession, keeping current on what is needed to give students the skills and knowledge they need to compete.
• Think about your learning style. While Cornell says she needed more human interaction and better communication than provided online, Melnick says she excels in written communication and working independently, so the online classes suited her. It’s a good idea to ask an academic admissions advisor or check the university’s website to find out the student/faculty ratio; how you will interact and communicate with faculty; the teaching style online; the opportunities to interact with other students; and what academic and/or technical support is available.
• Consider your age. Those interviewed for this story agree that online courses are better suited to the “older” student. Clinefelter says the majority of Kaplan’s online students are female, in their mid-30s and have children.

Melnick adds that she believes the self-discipline and more “experienced and real-world view” of the older student are better suited to the online classroom.

“Many people have gotten to where they are in life without a degree,” Melnick says. “But they may find it’s now holding them back. I tell them, ‘It’s never too late.’ There’s a real confidence that comes from getting that degree.”

What are some important criteria to use when deciding to go back to school?


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Tuesday, May 6, 2008

I’ve Stared Into the Abyss…and Seen a Lot of My Friends

If you’re not worried, you’re not paying attention.

Bad times are here, folks. Those people who make the numbers 4 and 5 are busy printing them up as fast as they can for gas stations. As in: $4.00 a gallon. $5 a gallon.

The front page of AJR (American Journalism Review) reads:"Maybe It Is Time to Panic."

And here's a press release from JobFox: "While the value of the dollar is shrinking, many job seekers - including in-demand technology specialists - must accept new positions at lower salaries than they did just a month ago."

OK, you don't have to beat me over the head with it. I get it. It's bad and it's time to take action and not just sit around and wring my hands.

So, in the last two weeks, I have:

*Networked with dozens of new people and established contact with them online and via phone.
* Done detailed research about where new opportunities are being predicted and how I can move into those areas.
* Checked in with all my bosses and clients to make sure they still find my product of value.
* Began adding "extras" to my work -- and letting my bosses and clients know about it.
* Checked into new technology and researched where it can help me do my job better. I'm ready to make an investment in voice recognition because my bad elbow is seriously hampering my productivity.

So, what are you doing about your current career situation? Are you hunkered down and praying the next business or economic downturn will pass you by?

I want to know: What are you doing to UP YOUR GAME?


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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Casual Dress Gone Wrong

My colleague, Stephanie Armour at USA Today, recently wrote about business casual dress at work (http://www.usatoday.com/money/workplace/2007-07-09-business-casual-attire_N.htm?csp=34).

After reading the story, I remembered an interview I once had about the same subject with an employer who was clearly frustrated with the situation.

One day, the manager said, an employee showed up for work in his pajamas – flannel pants and a worn T-shirt. On his feet: black dress shoes.

The boss took the employee aside to tell him his attire was not appropriate for the workplace, even if the attire was casual.

“Why not?” he questioned. “You said no flip-flops, right?”

Gives new meaning to the word “clueless,” doesn’t it?

For the record, here are a few standards for casual wear that apply to most workplaces:
• No faded or torn denim. In fact, it’s just as well to avoid denim, and stick with khaki pants or skirt.
• Nothing tight, see-through, glow-in-the-dark or revealing in any way. If you can go clubbing in it, forget it.
• No T-shirts with sayings on them. One employer told me of a pregnant employee who wore a “sleeps well with others” shirt to work. When men wear “saying” shirts they look like they should be at the frat house, and the women wearing them look like they should be visiting that frat house for a Jello shooter contest.
• No VPL (visible panty lines.) Work is also not the place for bared midriffs, mini skirts, shorts or camisole tops.
• Neatness counts. Sweatshirts always look sloppy, so leave them for the weekend. Same with tennis shoes, flip flops, frayed pants or shirts, any kind of flannel and any piece of clothing comfortable enough to sleep in. Make sure even your casual clothes are clean and neatly pressed (yes, you have to iron the front and back).

The thing to remember about casual work wear is that you don’t want what you wear to undo all the hard work you’ve put in to establish yourself as a professional, mature and valued member of the team.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Be Cautious About Revealing Personal Details

A Wall Street Journal article today noted that it might be a problem when co-workers or bosses wanted to be your "friend" in an online social networking site like MySpace or Facebook. The problem, it seems, is that many of you are uncomfortable with the boss or co-workers seeing photos of you at a "kegger", or nearly naked on a beach.

I'm so happy to hear that.

Why? Because lately, I've had it up to here with people feeling like they should share every intimate detail of their lives, whether we want to know it or not. They call it "transparency." But the dictionary on my desk says that transparency is being "candid, open, easily understood." Still, I see people abuse this term daily. They use the word “transparency” to be naricissitic, rude, demeaning and immature. “I’m being transparent,” they say.

Baloney.

Don’t get me wrong. I like transparency. As a journalist, I want both private and public organizations to be candid with me, to be easily understood so that I can do my job. But I think we’re doing ourselves a real disservice to claim that our bad judgment is not just that, but is instead our being “transparent.”

Those responding to the WSJ article (http://forums.wsj.com/viewtopic.php?t=615) said that it was a matter of maturity -- anyone over the age of 24 shouldn't be doing Facebook or MySpace, anyway. Very good point. And, anyone who has a job must seriously consider how “transparent” they want to be. Another good point.

As I wrote in the blog discussion about transparency (http://meredith.wolfwater.com/wordpress/index.php/2007/07/05/the-boundaries-of-disclosure/ ) there’s no problem if you’re independently wealthy and need never be employed again. But if there’s a chance you’re going to be looking for work one day, or are currently employed, you need to tread very carefully when leaving your footprint online. It can, and will, be seen by professional colleagues somewhere, sometime.

Your willingness to be “transparent” online could very well be one of the biggest mistakes you make in your career. With so many things often out of our control – bad bosses, a tough job market, deranged co-workers – why would you hurt your future success simply because you couldn't keep from blabbing about matters best left private?

If you feel the need to be “transparent,” do so with close friends and family at a face-to-face gathering – or with your therapist. Tell your stylist about your personal problems, share with your best friend the story of how your boyfriend dumped you. Show your brother the photos of you doing kamikazes at a local bar with your partner. But, please, I beg you -- just don’t do it in an arena where professional contacts can see it.

Let’s add “common sense” to our definition of transparency.

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Job sharing challenges

In covering the workplace for more than 15 years, I've heard plenty of companies talk about how they have a "family friendly" environment and programs in place to help employees achieve "work/life" balance.
I've also read lots of nice feature stories in various publications that have named employers to their "best" lists regarding companies that support employees in achieving this balance between their personal and professional lives.
Unfortunately, I don't think we're hearing the whole story.
Too many employees have told me that while their companies have these programs on the books, in reality they feel little support for achieving a work/life balance. Their managers, they tell me, still pressure them to put their personal lives behind their professional dutues, regardless of the circumstances. These workers believe that if they don't sacrifice their personal lives, then they will be hurt professionally, losing out on pay upgrades, promotions or top projects.
In my interview with Kelly Watson of Career Partners, she told me that her company recruits executive women who want to job share. She says that by acting as a sort of traffic cop, her company makes sure these job sharing arrangements can work by supporting women (and men) throughout the process. As she notes: "Bosses feel that if you're serious, you stay at your desk."
Job sharing is an arrangement that appeals to a lot of employees. Workers who have aging parents, baby boomers who are nearing retirment and want to cut back and parents who need to juggle child and work needs are attracted to the idea.
And while Watson's company may be a solid step toward helping employers and employees achieve a work/life balance, the sad reality is that many workers who need that support the most-- lower income or single wage earners -- continue to struggle to cope with increasing work and family demands in this 24/7 environment.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Bully at Work

I remember being the target of a bully when I was in elementary school. I remember everything about the girl...her name, how she used to catch me on the playground when I was jumping rope and make her nasty comments to me.

I can recall with equal clarity the time I was bullied on the job. I remember the continual stress of facing the man every day, the pitying looks from co-workers, the fact that I eventually left the job because I couldn't stand it any more.

Pamela Lutgen-Sandvick, an assistant professor of communication at the University of New Mexico and an expert on workplace bullying, says my recollections and feelings about being bullied are typical of others who have had similar experiences.
"It can remain really fresh in a person's mind for a long, long time," she says. "It's something you don't forget."

Further, she notes that workplace bullying is difficult to cope with "because our identities are inextricably linked to what we do," and bullies are striking at the heart of who we believe ourselves to be.

In her study of workplace bullying, Lutgen-Sandvick found that while bullying can take place anywhere, certain professions seem to have more incidents of the behavior. Included: government/public administration, health care and high-end restaurants.

According to research, both men and women can be bullies. “Bullying is a silent epidemic that affects one in six workers,” says Gary Namie, a workplace-bullying expert. “It is witnessed by nearly 80 percent of workers who don’t do anything about it. It’s a dirty little secret.”

Who is most likely to become the target of a bully? Namie says targets often have a strong sense of equity, justice and integrity and a very strong belief in what they believe to be right and wrong. Bullies are the opposite – they feel inadequate even though they strut around like peacocks. They are secretly intimidated by the target’s intelligence, creativity and confidence. In order to deal with what they perceive to be a threat, bullies begin spreading rumors and innuendo about the target and may try to sabotage work.

As Namie says, bullies often target the most talented in the workplace because “the dolts don’t threaten anybody.”

That’s why if you’re talented and creative and have been bullied once, chances are good it could happen again.

“The targets of bullies often are people who are strong and independent and talented and believe they can tough it out,” Namie says. “But once the bullying starts, most can only stay 16.5 months because it costs them their health.”

What are some behaviors that may prompt a bully to make you a target? Research shows that making statements where you put yourself down such as, “I’m bad with computers – I’m so dumb,” or “You guys should just go on without me because I’m no help and I’ll just slow you down,” put a bully on alert. At the same time, behaviors that may betray a lack of confidence such as talking too slow, (which allows a bully to interrupt) or too fast (betraying nervousness), also attract a bully’s notice.

The non-verbal cues also play a role: Bullies look for those who don’t walk confidently with head held high, or those who fail to use gestures to emphasize a point as if they’re afraid to call attention to themselves. Bullies also will test you by invading your personal space and seeing whether you put them back in their place.

Namie adds that bullies also are lazy and look for easy marks. That’s why they often will try their intimidation on new employees because they know the vulnerabilities that go along with being the new kid on the block. Still, research shows that some 75 percent of the workforce does not tolerate being controlled by another person, and a bully will back off when resistance is shown – even if it’s a new employee.

If you become the target of a bully, Namie says you should:
• Stop listening to the bully’s lies and verbal assaults. You did nothing wrong and don’t need to feel ashamed.
• Break through your fears. Even if you do it for only one week, it’s better to confront your worst fear and stand up to the bully. Procrastination only makes the problem worse.
• Assert your right to be treated with respect regardless of who you are and where you rank.
• Demand respect directly from the bully whenever you interact. You owe it to yourself.
• Document the bully’s misconduct. Report him/her to anyone who will listen. Break the silence.
• Rally witnesses and co-workers to help defend you, to shame the cowardly bully-tyrant.

Bullying – whether it happens when we’re kids or when we’re adults – can be very difficult. If you need help coping, don’t hesitate to ask for professional help. Your company’s employee assistance program (EAP) can offer resources, as well as community mental health organizations. Also, check out www.bullybusters.org for more strategies and information.

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