The Calculated Risk of a Cold Email

In a job search, some unsolicited requests for information over email are much more effective than others. Robert D. Pearson gives advice on how to make yours one of them.

December 12, 2016
 
 
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Sending an unsolicited request for information over email, or what’s called a cold email, to a hiring manager is an effective way for Ph.D.s to be proactive in the job search and get an edge for a job they really want. Making personal contact with a hiring manager increases the chances that your application will carefully considered when you apply for a position. That personal contact also grows your network in an organization for which you want to work.

But some cold emails are much more effective than others. Before I applied for my current position working with graduate students at University of Texas at Arlington, I looked up my current boss and sent her an email to indicate my interest in the position. She never responded, but I was interviewed and hired about a month later. I assumed that my cold email must have worked. Fast-forward six months: while preparing materials for a workshop on networking, I decided to ask my boss if she recalled my email and whether it helped me land the job. In fact, she hardly remembered receiving the email, but she pulled it out of her saved mailbox and looked it over in front of me.

“Oh yeah, I remember receiving this,” she said.

Awkward pause.

“To be honest, I felt a little bit annoyed. I marked it as important, but I never looked at it again. Maybe if you had emailed me again, I might have responded.”

I was surprised. My email was short, focused, undemanding and earnest. I followed good advice for writing an introductory email. What went wrong? The conversation that followed was instructive. I overwhelmed her with too much information about myself and too many questions about the job. More important, she explained, I reached her during a very busy time of the day and year, when she just didn’t have the time to respond. There is no way I could have anticipated my bad timing, I thought. It boils down to luck.

Or does it?

Writing a cold email is an act of vulnerability for which there are no guarantees. You cannot direct how the recipient will feel or respond. Instead, it is best to approach the cold email as a calculated risk. The most a letter writer can do is maximize the chances for a positive impact and minimize the chances for a negative one. Here are some things to consider before sending that cold email about a job you really want.

Learn About the Organization’s Structure

The hiring process works differently in every organization. Applicants who are accustomed to applying for academic positions should note that hiring outside academe does not necessarily follow a predictable process. In some cases, a single boss is responsible for hiring the person who will report to him or her. In other circumstances, a recruiter in the human resources department may be the primary decision maker. The hiring manager may be someone who only goes through the hiring process once a year, or they may make hiring decisions all the time. Browse through the organization’s website to try to develop a big-picture view of how hiring decisions are made. This knowledge will help you to understand the kind of information you can request in your email.

It will also help you target the right person to contact. When you’re reading through a job advertisement or browsing an organization’s website, it may not be immediately obvious to whom you should direct an inquiry about a job. Your goal is to reach someone who has a role in the decision-making process or who can share some insight with you about the position. Some simple detective work may help you identify this person. For example, the hiring manager or direct supervisor may be named in the job posting. If you are unsure, use language that does not make assumptions about the organization’s structure or culture, or use your email to ask to be put in touch with the person responsible for hiring.

Send Your Email at the Right Time

In academe, emails are often sent and received at all hours of the day or night, but many other organizations follow a much more predictable workflow. Although it is impossible to anticipate the best time to write a specific hiring manager, it is a good idea to avoid the times when busy professionals are likely to be preoccupied. For example, at lunchtime, people are not likely to be at their desks. On Monday mornings, they are busy catching up on emails, and on Friday afternoons, they are wrapping up last-minute business. Aim for midmorning, midafternoon and midweek.

Another aspect of timing is important to consider: in some cases, hiring managers are free to have general conversations about an open position but not with an active applicant. Once a person has applied for a job, organizational policies may severely restrict the kinds of communication that hiring managers can have. Send your email before you apply in order to maximize the chance that you will be able to ask more probing questions about the position that the recipient will be able to answer.

Keep It Short and Limited to One Action Item

You cannot know the ebb and flow of a hiring manager’s workload, but that person is probably understaffed and therefore overworked if there is an open position. Writing a long email may trigger negative feelings for someone in this circumstance, so it is best to limit your cold email to fewer than six sentences. If you’re coming from academe, where precision is valued over brevity, this may require some practice and drastic editing.

An effective cold email asks the recipient to take no more than one simple action. Most likely you will be asking for information about the position, perhaps in the form of an informational interview. Avoid asking specifically for written advice or insight over email. If the hiring manager does not have the time to write to you, they may either become annoyed or put off writing back altogether. Moreover, some hiring managers may be uncomfortable providing anything more than the most general information in writing. Instead suggest two or three possible times for a very short conversation on the phone or in person.

Persist

Do not be discouraged if you do not receive a reply to your cold email. The person you emailed may receive many emails per day, and responding to an outside inquiry may be a low priority. In that case, you should resend your email to the same person one or two weeks later. This will serve as a gentle reminder in case the recipient intended to respond but forgot.

The benefits of reaching out to a hiring manager generally outweigh the downside of not doing so. If you decide to send a cold email, take steps to maximize the chance that it will make a positive impact.

Bio

Robert D. Pearson is a student development specialist in the Office of Graduate Studies at the University of Texas at Arlington and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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