During the fourth year of my Ph.D. training, I participated in a comprehensive boot camp on the job-search process. One thoroughly covered topic was informational interviewing, the process of learning about exciting career paths by seeking advice from professionals working in those careers.
Because the instructor sensed that some students and postdocs were hesitant to take her advice, she asked, “Who is still resistant to requesting informational interviews?” Roughly half of the students and postdocs in the audience sheepishly raised their hands. When probed to defend their resistance, one despondent graduate student protested, “We are all just lowly graduate students who have nothing to offer these professionals in return for their time and wisdom. Why would anyone who has transitioned into a successful career want to help us?”
Although that honest objection quickly let the air out of the room, it effectively summarized a main concern that trainees have with asking for advice: mainly, that students and postdocs believe that professionals working in interesting careers will only provide assistance in exchange for something in return. Moreover, since many Ph.D. students believe that they have nothing of value to offer, they avoid building relationships.
This belief is extremely damaging, because all students and postdocs will need help in transitioning to their next steps. An exchange of favors is commonly known by the popular Latin phrase quid pro quo, which translates to “this for that.” You might be surprised to learn that I also believe that successful networking requires some form of quid pro quo. However, I do not agree that students and postdocs have nothing valuable to offer. When they ask for help, students and postdocs bring at least four valuable assets to professionals in their network.
The opportunity to help someone in need. Most people aspire to help others in need. While my Judeo-Christian upbringing and values heavily influence my belief in the goodness of mankind, research also supports my conclusion. Some people have theorized that altruism provided a competitive advantage to early humans. As result, those with altruistic tendencies survived via natural selection. Others have provided evidence that helping others makes people happier. In one 2012 study, psychologists from the University of British Columbia and Harvard University found that participants who spent a small amount of money on someone else reported a greater feeling of happiness than those who spent the same amount of money on themselves. So, as weird as it might sound, you might be helping to make those in your network happier when you ask them for help.
In order for people in your network to feel elation when they help, be sure to thank them. After someone offers advice or a favor, such as reviewing your résumé or providing tips on how to find positions, be sure to send a thank-you email. If you really want to emphasize your appreciation, send a handwritten thank-you note instead. (If your handwriting is illegible, have someone else write your words. My lovely wife does this for me.) Be sure to provide updates and tangible outcomes even if the impact of their assistance does not occur immediately. It is extremely frustrating to read on LinkedIn that one of my mentees finally landed a new job rather than hearing from them directly.
A sense of importance. In How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie emphasized the significance of making others feel important. Even though this book was first published in 1936, the desire to feel important is even more apparent today. For instance, our culture’s infatuation with LinkedIn posts, Facebook likes and Twitter retweets is largely driven by a desire for relevance. By asking someone for advice, you are recognizing that they have value and wisdom that other people do not possess.
However, you must take some steps to ensure that the person who is helping you feels genuine appreciation. First, conduct research on professionals to understand their area of expertise. That will help you to ask specific questions. It will also allow you to provide sincere appreciation for their assistance, as opposed to sycophantic praise.
Second, if you ask for guidance, listen to the advice that they provide. If your interaction with these professionals revolves around only your interests and needs, they are not likely to believe that you value their time. When training yourself to listen, remember this wonderful quote from Maya Angelou: “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Finally, promote the wisdom of these professionals to others. This ranges from liking and commenting on their professional social media posts to writing a LinkedIn recommendation. You could even invite them to your campus to talk about their career path to a larger audience. Check out Adam Grant’s LinkedIn post “6 Ways to Get Me to Email You Back” to learn more about how to ask for help.
The opportunity to pay it forward. Most successful professionals can point to at least one instance when they received assistance in their careers. Maybe someone passed their résumé on to a hiring manager, provided tips on how to transition into a particular career or offered guidance on how to find and interview for positions. As a result of receiving assistance, many are committed to helping students and postdocs.
The concept of paying it forward has allowed me to regularly recruit alumni of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) to sit on career panels and attend roundtable networking events. Those who accept my invitations always mention a story of how someone helped them during their training at MSK. During my transition, dozens of professionals working in exciting careers provided invaluable advice. Now, I always end career presentations by offering to provide individual career advice and feedback. The only thing that I ask for in return is for the students to pay the favor forward once they become established in their careers.
Your own ideas and experiences. When expanding your network, be confident that you have your own distinct ideas and experiences to bring to professional relationships. Many of you are conducting innovative research or teaching interesting courses. You also routinely interact with some of the most intelligent people in the world. Because academic research can be a humbling experience, we often downplay the value of our ideas and experiences.
But many professionals will agree to meet with you simply because they like interacting with other smart people. If you see an interesting article that you believe a professional in your network might enjoy or think of an idea that might help one of their projects, send it to them. When you meet an interesting person your connection might benefit from meeting, make an introduction.
Obviously, a minority of professionals will not be inclined to help you with your career. They might be too busy. Some will even fail to the see the value of the assets that I have listed here. However, fear of encountering those unwilling or unable to help should not deter you from seeking advice and assistance from others.
Understand Your Value
People who are successful at building strong professional relationships have a solid understanding of the value they bring to others. As a Ph.D. student and postdoc, it might seem like you have nothing to offer professionals who have transitioned into exciting careers. If you feel this way, understand that by asking for advice, you are offering a professional in your network the opportunity to help someone else, a feeling of importance and chance to a pay a favor forward. You also bring your own ideas and experiences to this relationship. Such assets are invaluable.