Finding the Information You Need

When you ask people you don’t know for career help, you may be surprised by how generous they can be, writes Victoria McGovern, who gives some suggestions on how best to reach out.

June 18, 2018
 
 
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Whether your personal trajectory is leading you toward a career in academe or beyond, much of the advice that people will give you has one common theme. “Network,” they will tell you. “Reach out more.” “Do some informational interviews.” “Have someone teach you how.”

So much connecting! It’s enough to make some of us want to take out our notebook and good pen, find a quiet and well-lit table -- preferably on another continent -- and in precise, practiced longhand write, “Stop!”

Few people find it easy to make new connections with complete strangers. Look up “cold-calling,” and you’ll find a comprehensive library of formal and informal literature focused on helping salespeople, who have voluntarily chosen a profession that is all about striking up relationships with strangers, learn the art of building a new connection from the ground up.

It is rare that graduate students or postdocs make true cold calls without already having some kind of connection to the person they are calling. Even when you have no plausible personal connection to build on, the scholarly literature provides an entrée for introducing yourself. As a scholar, when you make a call, you will usually be asking for a person’s time, help and ideas. Those three things are highly valuable, but people are often willing to give them to you for free. When you start getting in touch with people you don’t know to seek help or advice, you may be surprised by how generous they can be. I was.

When I decided to look beyond academic careers, I was easily able to support myself as a freelance writer. But I knew that it would take a regular job to bring me some of the things I needed after years as a grad student and postdoc: enough income to save up a bigger emergency fund; access to health insurance, retirement savings and other benefits; and the credit advantages that come with steady work.

Most of all, whether I worked for myself or for someone else, I knew that to be happy, I needed a role that was challenging, creative and impactful. I wanted to find out what opportunities outside academic science could combine the joy of having time disappear while you master an idea or build a model; the energy of playing as hard and as well as you can; the satisfaction of doing things that make a better world and the pleasure of being around hardworking, hard-thinking people. It was tough to imagine where I would start reading to find out about those other jobs. The easiest way forward wasn’t to read but to ask.

Information Wrapped Up in a Person

“The best way to send information,” Robert Oppenheimer quipped, “is wrapped up in a person.” Having a conversation is a fast way to learn about something you currently know nothing about. Conversations are where you begin to uncover tacit knowledge and discover the questions you didn’t know you should ask.

Since I didn’t know enough about the range of career possibilities in front of me, I decided to have some conversations. A lot of conversations.

I am an introvert and a relatively self-contained person. Left to my own devices, I can go days without speaking to anyone. When I left the lab to freelance, I was worried that I would become too alone. I resolved that each week I’d make a point of talking to a set number of strangers. It was easy to combine that aim with my need to learn more about jobs. Whenever I managed to strike up a substantial conversation, I’d ask, “What’s the most interesting real job you know about, and what makes it so cool?”

At the same time, I read classic career books like What Color Is Your Parachute? to try to get a better sense of what putative experts said were good careers for someone like me. For the first time, I took the exercises in career books seriously and used them to identify some other things that I wanted out of life and work. That process helped me develop some new ideas about the types of work I might enjoy. After doing all those things for a couple of months, I had a list of possible jobs and industries in which I could imagine working. The next step was to learn about them.

It had been easy enough to include my job question in low-stakes conversations with strangers I would probably never meet again. The next step was bigger: I needed to find and talk with people working in the roles and industries I had identified. I sent an email listing the job titles, industries and dominant companies I was interested in to my friends and family, along with a request to introduce me by email to anyone they knew who could help me learn more about them. And then I whistled up my sheep dog and fled for the weekend to the Blue Ridge Mountains, where email couldn’t reach me.

Why Is Reaching Out So Hard?

What makes talking by phone to one’s friends’ relatives and relatives’ friends more dreadful than talking with complete strangers? The stakes are higher. What if I stutter or forget my words? What if I ask the wrong question? What if my friend is embarrassed of me? What if no one answers at all?

These feelings aren’t rational. My communications skills are substantial. People who don’t spend much time with me don’t spot my inner introvert. I know all these things, yet pressing the send button to ask 30 people for a favor was, and remains, uncomfortable enough to make me twitchy with dread.

When I got home Sunday night, I had more than 100 responses to my 30 emails. Seeing the responses made me giddy. The dog, sensing something had happened, dared me to a rambunctious game of chase up and down my town house. When all the potted plants had been demolished, we lay on the floor and stared at the ceiling and grinned. Then I got up and emailed everyone who had offered to help.

Later that night, I sat down and put together a script that would help me make the most of these connections. First, I would break the ice with a brief exchange about the person who had introduced me. Then I would ask about their career path. As this substantial group of people told me about their career paths, I was able to get a better sense of who they were and what their own drivers were. Most of the people were different from me, but I found common ground with almost all of them over some interest, driver or concern.

Finally, I asked them about their own industry, workplace and role. In this third part of the discussion, I was able to ask questions that would help me find even more people to talk with. For example: “It seems like this is a skill that would be useful all over the place. Is there work like yours in other industries?” Or, “How does data from people in your role get pulled together to forecast future trends?”

Many People Like to Help

The same approach can be helpful in other situations. You might try it when you’re thinking about whom to choose as a Ph.D. adviser or postdoc boss. Develop a list of a few researchers whose interests and published work align with your own, then email a couple of past advisees of each. Some of them may be taken aback by your note, but others will probably tell you about their experiences. Your shared interest in topics related to the adviser gives you some common ground, so they may point out other investigators whose work will also interest you.

You can use a similar strategy to make some connections in a new city. Ask your friends, family and fellow students to introduce you to people they may know, and you’ll soon have some contacts to ask about where to find safe and affordable housing or which elementary schools are the best. Don’t stop there: ask your dentist, your car mechanic or your yoga instructor if they can recommend peers in your new town.

Discovering the genuine helpfulness of near strangers is something that can change your life. Once you’ve experienced it, you may find that it makes you reach out more often to be more helpful yourself.

Bio

Victoria McGovern is a senior program officer at the Burroughs Wellcome Fund 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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