cold-emailing strangers to ask for career advice

A reader writes:

I’m a recent college graduate currently trying to explore my options on what career I want to pursue. I’d love to talk to people who are actually working in those areas and get a real perspective about what it’s like—and what it would take to get there. Many of the ideas I’m considering would be very small fields, and it’s unlikely that my few contacts at my alma mater would be able to help me.

If I can find people online working in those areas, would it be considered rude or strange for me to email them for advice? How should I approach writing these emails? Should I ask the majority of my questions in the initial letter or ask if they would be willing to talk to me first?

No, it’s definitely not rude! Some people will be glad to help you and others won’t have the time or interest, but it’s absolutely not a rude thing for you to reach out and ask.

Here are some things that you can do that will make people more likely to want to help you:

* Explain why you’re reaching out to them in particular. Whether it’s because they’re doing the type of work you want to do, you admire a particular project they worked on, they went to your school, or whatever it is, explain that to give them some context for your request. If you can genuinely say something flattering about their work or their career, that’s good to do too.

* Include some of your questions in the initial email (but not an overwhelming number — probably two to four), so that they get a solid understanding of what you’re asking for help with. That will help them better assess whether they can be helpful, but — importantly — it will also demonstrate that you’ve thought this through and aren’t asking them to commit time before you’ve figured out how best to use that time. This matters because a lot of people ask for informational interviews and that kind of thing without putting any planning into how to use the time, and then end up saying things like, “So, uh, I guess tell me about this field.” It’s annoying to be on the receiving end of that. But if you have specific, thoughtful questions already prepared, people will be much more enthusiastic about helping you and will have a better understanding of what you’re asking them to say yes to.

* Similarly, make sure that the questions you’re asking aren’t ones that you could find the answer to yourself with a bit of research. You don’t want to ask someone to spend time answering questions that you could just google the answer to. Here are some examples of the kind of questions that you could ask.

* Offer to make it as easy for them as possible. For example: “I’d love to jump on the phone with you, but if it’s easier to answer over email, that’s fine too! Also, I’ve listed some of the questions below that I’m interested in, but if it’s too many or you’d just rather not answer some, please feel free to answer only as many as interest you. I’d be grateful for any help you’re willing to provide, even if it’s just a couple of these questions.”

* Thank them, in a real way. You’d be surprised by how often people asking for this kind of help don’t respond back with sincere appreciation once they get it. That means more than just a perfunctory one-sentence thank-you email — it means expressing real appreciation, such as by telling them specifically how their advice was helpful or how you think you’ll be able to apply it.

Ideally, it could also mean circling back to them down the road at some point in the future to let them know how things are going for you. People who take the time to give career advice to strangers are doing it because it feels good to know they’re helping someone else — so complete that circle for them by letting them know that they did help, and later letting them know how it worked out.

Readers, what stories do you have of cold requests for career help that were done well or done badly?

{ 82 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. SophieChotek

    I reached out to someone that is in the type of job via my alma mater’s LinkedIn network. (My job’s duties continue to expand in areas for which I was not trained, nor expected when I was hired, but with little actual explanation of how to complete these new tasks). Hence, I’ve been reaching out to people who actually do these tasks/jobs. One person with whom I met with was very gracious and spent about an hour with me, as well as suggesting a few other people I might want to try to talk to. I think it’s definitely worth trying; one cannot lose for asking, even if those it’s sort can seem a bit nerve-wracking to put oneself out there. It’s still too recent for me to say if these informational meetings have been “helpful” in a direct causational way (i.e. “Thanks to Jane’s advice, I implemented X and secured account Y”), but I do feel the informational meeting (re)affirmed some ideas/directions I was going were the correct ones, as well as offering more ideas to try.

    Reply
  2. Katie the Fed

    Ugh on the thanks – I would have been happy with a 1- sentence thanks. I’ve been thanked maybe once or twice if the 5-6 times I’ve sent detailed and thorough responses to college students or grads. It really annoys me.

    Reply
    1. Bend & Snap

      THIS. If I’m giving you my time and expertise, acknowledge it please. I’ve been not thanked so many times that I’m not really willing to do this kind of thing anymore.

      Reply
    2. NavyLT

      Yeah, that’s generally been my experience, too. I’ve gotten questions several times from current students/recent grads, and almost never hear back. The exceptions have been the handful who did end up in the Navy; they all at least thanked me, and some have stayed in touch. It’s important to follow up even if you decide that field isn’t for you. You might not be burning bridges for yourself, but you’re burning them for other people who might be interested in getting some information.

      Reply
    3. Misty

      Same here, except I probably get 2 – 4 of these per month. A follow-up “thank you” is exceedingly rare. Unfortunately, I’ve had the same experience when interviewing applicants for a position. The last time I did it, 2 out of the 5 applicants actually sent a follow-up thank you note. (And yes, I did hire one of those two.) Why do so few people understand that a small measure of courtesy goes a very long way?

      Reply
    4. Winter is Coming

      I’m happy to say I had the opposite experience with some high school students. I spent an afternoon working with some high school sophomores on their interviewing skills, and each one sent me a gracious thank you note with how they felt I had specifically helped them. Great training from the teacher! It makes me happy to go back every year to help.

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    5. Adam

      It kind of amazes me that this happens so often. When I was a kid I lost my allowance once for not sending thank you notes for birthday gifts . It cemented in my head to always send a word of thanks if the situation even remotely might call for it. I was further surprised to find how rarely it is that people send thank you greetings after job interviews. The last hiring panel I was a part of we interviewed four candidates and only one sent any thanks that I’m aware of. I’m not saying it’s specifically rude not to in that case, but it surprised me as EVERY job search article I ever read said it’s good form to send a thank you message to your interviewers. Nowadays with email it takes less than five minutes to quickly send a brief word of thanks off!

      Reply
    6. Tammy

      It boggles my mind too how few people send thank you notes. I’ve adopted the rule a friend of mine proposed in an essay he wrote:

      “Whenever someone spends more effort helping you than it would take to write a thank-you note, send a note.”

      This rule has served me extremely well in my personal and professional life, including being one of the factors that led me to my first job in my current organization.

      The essay is here for the curious:

      Reply
      1. Tammy

        OK, so apparently hyperlinks don’t work in comments. Understandable, given the spam issue. You can find it by Googling “harley hahn the secret of my success”. It’s the first link that comes up.

        Reply
  3. Amber T

    This is where LinkedIn can be helpful but also annoying.

    I listed some volunteer work I had done with one organization (not at all what I do for my job, but it was a significant project I took on in college). A few years after graduation, a fellow student who was a year or two above me (who I may have met once or twice but honestly don’t remember – my alma mater is small enough that most of just connected) messaged me out of the blue, only saying he had a friend who wanted to apply for a paid position and to send him who my contacts were (no asking, no fluff, no nothing). Now I don’t particularly like too much fluff in my emails anyway, but it was literally two lines of telling me to do something. I forget how I responded, but I don’t think I was very helpful.

    So lessons I learned from this – don’t necessarily trust someone to make introductions for you. I would have happily answered a LinkedIn message saying “Hi, my name is John Doe, we’re both connected with Jane Smith. I see that you volunteered for Teapots International….” Also, a little fluff, at least in the introductory email, doesn’t hurt. And don’t just tell someone to do something. Ick.

    Reply
    1. Anonymous Educator

      I think it’s less about the fluff and more about the attitude. Sounds as if the person was just making demands. The attitude really has to be “If you can help, I’d really appreciate it; otherwise, sorry to bother you.”

      Reply
      1. hermit crab

        Sure, but the fluff is the generally accepted way of conveying the attitude. I think it’s especially important when you’re contacting a stranger for the first time.

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      2. Amber T

        Yeah, the ideal email would have included “I’m interested in X and see that you have experience there, I’d really appreciate it if you could help.” By fluff I mean “I’ve been interested in X since I was a little girl, when I first saw a teapot…”

        Reply
  4. Jen

    I work in the marketing office of a college campus so I frequently get students coming to me for informational interviews/advice. I think sometimes these things are given as a class assignment and students who can’t commute give me a call. I am always happy to meet with them. I prefer it when they glance at my Linkedin and get an idea of my experiences before talking to me. Questions like “Did you major in marketing?” can get a little annoying when I list my major and my non-marketing jobs on my Linkedin.

    And then stay in touch. I met with one student a few years ago and she has kept in touch with me through twitter and linkedin and is now working in the industry so she’s become a career contact for me as much as I am for her.

    Reply
  5. MM

    I answered a cold email about our small gov’t agency recently – someone was wondering if a particular certificate would be helpful to them in a career in our office. I’m happy to answer these if I have the time – and also if it’s very obvious that they are a real person and it’s not spam-y or anything.

    Reply
  6. literateliz

    Love this advice!

    I get this kind of request from time to time (I work in publishing), usually from friends of friends who work in a different field. I love to talk about my job, but some of these people end up leaving kind of a bad impression. The one I remember most favorably was friendly, asked specific questions, thanked me, and followed up to let me know when she landed a job (yay!). The one that made me cranky… It’s hard to explain, it’s not that she wasn’t polite, but she basically did just say “So tell me about the field.” I responded with a longish email and explicitly said “I’m sort of just throwing stuff out there because I don’t know what your interests are, but please feel free to ask specific questions if anything I’ve said piques your interest!” She said thanks, but never did ask any questions, other than whether my company had any openings in a particular city – one where we don’t have an office. (That’s where Google could have helped.)

    Reply
  7. K

    When sending these emails, be sure to include something about their name / position in the email to make it clear you took time to personalize this to them. You may think it’s obvious that you personalized it, but it might not be clear to them. This goes a long way to make people more likely to help.

    Reply
    1. Cat

      Yes – people really do send form emails to every single person in an office, which we know because we compare notes on them. You don’t need people assuming that’s what you’re doing.

      Reply
    2. myswtghst

      This is a great point! I think clearly personalizing can go a long way in making sure I actually read your email (which is not something I always do for things which come through LinkedIn, I’ll be honest).

      Reply
  8. neverjaunty

    I would find this weird if it came from a complete stranger with no connection to me. If it were ‘so-and-so recommended I reach out to you’ or ‘I am also a member of the Teapot Litigation Group’, I could understand it, but otherwise it would feel intrusive and a little like a sales call, frankly.

    Reply
    1. Christina

      Yeah, I’d suggest doing as much as possible to make it not look like spam/sales. I delete SO MANY emails like this that end with “and I’d be happy to help you increase your SEO!” and would feel bad to realize someone actually emailed me looking for help.

      Reply
    2. get some perspective

      Your opinion is a good data point for people in the OP’s position to be aware of – sometimes cold outreach won’t work or people find it weird.

      That said, for those of us on the receiving end of these kinds of contacts, I’d urge being a bit more open-minded to strangers and not just resist someone because they don’t have a connection.

      If we don’t have time to do it, fine. Say no. But be open to strangers coming at your honestly if you have the time.

      I’m the same with cold sales calls. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as the seller is honest, clearly value my time by getting to the point quickly, and stop if I say I’m not interested. People have to sell, just as they have might want to promote themselves. We can say no. I don’t believe hold the fact that someone doesn’t have a connection to us against them.

      Reply
      1. neverjaunty

        I’m not sure that sales was the comparison you wanted to make here. After all, not many people reply to every single promotional email they get just because ‘people have to sell’.

        Successful promotion means showing WHY the other person should listen to you. “Because I’m here and I want something from you” are not really good reasons that, of the myriad of things competing for my time, I should pay attention to this one.

        Reply
        1. get some perspective

          “Because I’m here and I want something from you” are not really good reasons that, of the myriad of things competing for my time,

          It’s fine for someone to ask. Not everyone can offer me something or have a connection to you. I’ll help if I can. If I’m too busy I won’t. If you’re always too busy, don’t help ever. That’s fair.

          But I think it’s pretty cold to say you won’t help simply because someone does not have a connection to you.

          Reply
        2. get some perspective

          And to be clear – I’m not saying your ideas about how to best make a pitch for help are wrong. They’re spot on.

          I’m saying that those of us on the receiving end should be altruistic if we can be.

          Reply
  9. Lily in NYC

    I would first check with your alumni association to see if there are people working in those fields who’d be willing to chat (my university has a program where you can opt in to receive these types of requests). I used to get constant requests to “pick my brain” when I worked at a “desirable” job. And people rarely thanked me! I got burned out and sent a “thanks but I’m too busy” email after a while. Now that I’m an EA I don’t get them often. But my poor boss is hounded by people asking for informational interviews. He absolutely hates it but doesn’t say no all that often. He never gets cold-emailed, though. The people who reach out always have some sort of connection, even though it can be tenuous.

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    1. Lia

      This is a really good idea. My alma mater, and my partner’s as well, maintain these lists, and both of us have been contacted by alumni in the past. They mask our emails in the system, so we can reply directly to the requestor without giving out contact info, and it is 100% opt-in so no one gets spammed unwillingly.

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    2. Blue_eyes

      I second using your college’s alumni association. My alma mater has an online directory where you can search for people by location, job title, job field, etc. Even though it’s a fairly small college, that ends up being thousands of alumni. I know that I personally would feel much more charitable towards a fellow alumni who emailed me than a random person who I had no connection to.

      Reply
      1. LW Here

        Checking my school’s alumni association was a good idea! Unfortunately, I just did and it looks like they don’t keep a similar list. They have a system in place where you can contact them to ask if they have an address on file and then give *them* the letter to send but only if you know the name of the person you’re looking for. I’ll check LinkedIn next.

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    3. hermit crab

      Yes, definitely! OP, don’t limit yourself to your existing contacts from your alma mater!

      Also, if there really isn’t anyone relevant in your school’s alumni network, consider reaching out to professors in departments that are related to the fields you’re interested in. The chair of the XYZ department might know someone good for you to talk to, even if it’s outside the university, or she might know of some alumni in the field who don’t keep their directory information up to date, etc.

      Reply
    4. College Career Counselor

      The alumni association, the alma mater (or perhaps academic departmental) LinkedIn page, and even your college’s career service* can be helpful in connecting you with alumni in your area of interests. What everyone says above: be polite, sincere, and as SPECIFIC as possible about what you want (which means you did research ahead of time) will pre-dispose someone to respond helpfully. Thanking the alumni contacts will encourage them to respond to you (and others from your school) in the future.

      I do a LOT of work with students about how to engage with alumni in various ways, and the three biggest complaints I hear from alumni about students are:

      1) unfocused/unresearched inquiry (“I’m interested in EVERYTHING! Please help!”)
      2) Radio Silence/lack of follow-through after the initial contact/conversation/meeting
      3) Lack of effort in/understanding of professional business correspondence norms (“Fellow Mascot–yo! We went to the same school–would lik to chat w/ u rgrdng career optinos.”)

      *Unless of course yours is a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad career service office.

      Reply
      1. myswtghst

        I think the examples of how not to do it are very helpful. :)

        While I don’t often get these types of requests via LinkedIn, we do get them from employees who work in the teams my team supports, and one of the things we tend to remember is how prepared they are. The ones who come in prepared and professional for informational interviews (i.e. dressed up a bit and with well-thought-out questions) definitely are the ones we remember positively and look to when jobs or special projects open up. Plus, the ones who come in with good questions usually are the ones who get the most out of their time with us, since they get more than a general overview schpiel.

        Reply
    5. Green

      If you don’t have your own network, I also second your alma mater’s list for informational interviews. I get a number of these requests and always respond. In fact, I’ve gotten one person doing an informational interview a job. He sent me his resume and came in dressed up for a mock interview with me that we organized at his request. He was exactly the kind of person we’d hire as an entry-level attorney at my old firm, so I walked him down to the hiring partner’s office and the hiring coordinator. They called him back in for a more detailed second interview, offered him the summer associate position (before summer associate interviews had even started), and he was the first one in his class with a job lined up.

      Oh, one big tip: if you’re reaching out, don’t flake out and no-show or fail to call at the appointed time. This happens a lot (and students are students). However, it would be much better if you’re planning on moving in my professional circles if you hadn’t contacted me at all than to waste my time while I’m trying to be helpful.

      Reply
  10. Temperance

    I would HIGHLY recommend that you reach out to alumni of your undergrad institution with these requests! Candidly, I will do whatever I can for other alums from my undergrad or law school, and am more likely to make time in my schedule for students and recent grads that share that connection with me.

    Reply
  11. Laura

    I’ve had several people contact me for these type of informational interview requests. I find them easier to do by phone or in person than by e-mail, so I’ve let people know that. One person just kept e-mailing with questions after I’d said I’d be happy to talk but didn’t have time to answer lengthy e-mails–never even tried to set up a phone time. Another scheduled a meeting with me, I reserved the time for him, and he never called. I got an e-mail a few hours later basically saying he’d decided it wasn’t really worth his time to talk to me. (And we were actively for an entry-level position at the time!)

    I can’t tell you how much I would love to answer questions about my field of work, from someone who was conscientious and made it easy for me. I think most people feel the same. So please, job seekers and career planners–call us! E-mail us! But help us have good experiences with this when you do.

    Reply
  12. GeekChic

    I’m on a couple of professional mailing lists, which isn’t quite the same dynamic as one-on-one interactions, but I think there’d be overlap in what does and doesn’t work to open a conversation. The requests for help on those that get tend to get the most engagement are

    * Asking focused questions. Not necessarily *narrow* questions with right/wrong answers, but questions that it’s easy for a reader to relate to: “what will give me the biggest leg up in [area i’m weak on] in the 8 weeks before I start my new job in [industry]?”.
    * Tell a bit of your story, and people are more likely to respond with a bit of theirs: the time I reached out with an appeal to the wisdom of the mailing list, it was because I was starting a big project with colleagues on the other side of the world, 8 hours time difference away, and I put in a bit of context about how I got there and what I was looking forward to and what seemed scary. I got a really cool range of peoples’ experiences doing similar things, and it was fun and useful to hear other perspectives on this kind of project.
    * Thanks. Showing some apprecation goes a long way. If someone takes the time out of their day to read and reply to your email, they’re choosing to prioritise doing a favour over, y’know, another cup of tea or getting a headstart on something of their own. Say thanks!

    Reply
  13. Crissy from HR

    Ugh, I’ve had this happen too many times to count. My job in the Army Reserves is pretty niche, not too many people in the Army or military in general have a grasp of what we do unless we’re deployed together. I love answering those questions about training, job opportunities and transferable skills because there aren’t a lot of people in the field to answer those questions. I wish I would have been able to talk to someone about what I’d be doing before I signed up for 6 years of doing it– thankfully I love my job but enough of my comrades don’t and could’ve used some advice from someone senior level in the field.

    I’ve given nuanced career advice/answers about my experience to strangers. Out of the 10 or so people I’ve responded to, only 3 thanked me or kept in touch. All three were Veterans, one was an alumni of my college. Maybe people are more inclined to respond if you have some sort of professional/personal connection? Either way, I’d be happy with a quick thank you and it’d knock my socks off if they kept in touch.

    I don’t know if this is limited to people working in HR, but I get the thinly veiled “I’d love to learn more about you!” emails which really just “I’m interested in a job at your company and need an in. You seem to work in HR/Talent, so after two emails/LinkedIn messages I will ask you, a complete stranger who has no idea of the quality of work I produce, to give me a glowing personal referral so I can work at your company.” If you’re interested in my org, I’m happy to tell you about our application process, but trying to befriend someone just to ask a favor is a bit… gross to me.

    Reply
    1. AnotherHRPro

      I agree that as someone who works in HR, the requests are typically no-so-veiled requests to help them get a job at my company. I’m happy to help someone professionally, but no (complete stranger) I can’t get you a job!

      Reply
    2. AnotherFed

      That is not limited to people working in HR. I’m in engineering, and I get plenty of very thinly veiled “I’m just interested in a gov’t job, any gov’t job, and will completely ignore anything you tell me about your small corner of the feds in favor of begging for a gov’t job.” It’s particularly terrible because the government application process means I have zero ability to help in all but a few rare cases.

      Reply
  14. Not Karen

    The only (two) times I’ve tried to reach out to someone for an informational interview, they didn’t even bother e-mailing me back.

    Reply
    1. fposte

      And if you don’t know the person you’re asking, that’s going to be a pretty frequent (non)response. A cold email is just like a cold call in that respect. Your best chance of asking for stuff is always going to be when there’s a connection, whether alma mater or human. Sure, plenty of people are really nice and willing to be helpful, but a favor request out of the blue is always going to be a crap shoot.

      Reply
      1. katamia

        Yeah. I’ve never gotten any emails like this because my name/job title isn’t really out there online, but I generally don’t open emails from names I don’t recognize. I assume they’re spam most of the time.

        Reply
          1. fposte

            That’s pretty close to some of my academic spam, actually.

            But basically, I thought you sound pretty disheartened and maybe somewhat offended by the lack of response, and I would recommend staying as philosophical as when you do any kind of asking favors of strangers. Most of them just aren’t going to respond.

            Reply
      2. Nom d' Pixel

        The content of the emails makes all the difference as to whether or not I will respond. If it has poor grammar, or worse, text speak complete with winky faces, I don’t respond. If it is terse and demanding, I don’t respond. Also, if it screams, “fix my life!” I don’t respond. I remember one cold email from someone moving to the area and looking for a job in my field. If he had simply introduced himself, asked that I take a look at his resume, or even requested a phone call, it would have been good. Instead, he started talking about relocation expenses asked about our benefits (I am not in HR) and his partner was still in school and would need to finish school and then find a job here and could I help his partner find a job and what about these family obligations and he wasn’t completely sure what he wanted to do with his life and…. It was a worse-case scenario, but don’t do that.

        The request has to be friendly and not look like it will be a big time-suck for me to respond.

        Reply
  15. Soupspoon McGee

    Please ask specific questions, do some research first, and thank people for their time! I got lots of cold emails from people asking how to get into grantwriting. I always took time to answer thoughtfully, and I never got a thank-you. I also got cold emails from people claiming to have taken a class or written a grant once and asking to be hired or offering to fix problems we didn’t have. And I got several requests for help from community organizations. Again, I gave thoughtful answers and pointed them to helpful resources, and I think I only got one thank-you.

    Reply
  16. rhinoceranita

    How NOT to reach out to someone:

    1. Send message on linked in asking about chocolate teapots internship

    2. When prompted about your interests, do not respond with two lines saying that you are interested in “chocolate teapots internships.” (This does not help the person you are cold-emailing, you said that already.)

    3. When person responds to you with helpful links of where to find chocolate teapots internships and what resources may be helpful to you, do not follow up.

    Added bonus: Your father looked at the person’s LinkedIn and passed the info along to you to cold-email.

    Reply
  17. LoveHR

    I have many people ask me for my advice especially how to get a govt job. Most of the time they are appreciative. But other times.. not so well. A co-worker ask me to take time during my lunch to give his friend job advice. I should have known this was not going to be productive whe it took 3 months for his friend to figure out a time. Then when we met, the co-worker and friend talked about their buddies from their Coast Guard unit, the last beach party they attended and who died recently while ignoring me. After 10 min I asked if he had any questions and he said no. So I told him to apply on line and left. 3 months later, my co- worker offered to buy me lunch and meet with his friend again! I declined.

    Reply
  18. Turanga Leela

    I’d add: along with explaining why you’re reaching out to them in particular, give a very brief explanation of who you are and where you are in your career, e.g. “I graduated from State U two years ago, and I’m currently interning at a local newspaper, but I’m hoping to go to law school in the next couple of years.” That will help the person frame his/her response.

    I get this kind of email maybe once a year, sometimes from personal connections (distant cousins, former neighbor’s little sister, etc.) and occasionally through alumni associations. I never mind answering them and wouldn’t think the OP was rude for sending a cold email.

    Reply
  19. Skye

    I always say yes to these types of requests, always hoping the people who request them will be prepared. The last two I have talked to were very strange. Quick summary: keep these meetings to 30 minutes, don’t bring several pages of questions, ask questions appropriate to the person you are talking to, consider talking to practitioners which is likely where you will start your career rather than meeting with directors, and do as much research as possible in advance!

    More details: One guy showed up with several pages of questions with room for lots of note taking–I noticed he only wrote down the occasional word- and the meeting went for over an hour, so I had to leave to get to another meeting. My director and I were both part of the meeting, and the guy was asking questions about management style that didn’t relate to me, and questions of me that didn’t relate to my boss, and other very specific questions about budgets that meant very little out of context. It was a little awkward for my boss to explain his management style and how he motivates employees. My boss and I get along great most of the time, but I had just started the job! I was of course interested in my boss’s answer :-)
    Another one wanted to talk about some very specific aspects of my specific job. She was a graduate of the university where I work and starting an online program, so she knew something about the field. She also used to work in the department I am a part of. After we begun figuring out when to meet, she asked me what my position title was (which she knew already from my email signature if nothing else.) It turned out she wanted to meet directly with the head of the department and she phrased it as needing to talk to someone “higher up.” I put her in touch with my boss who wasn’t thrilled at her choice of phrasing and who admitted he probably couldn’t answer her specific questions about my day to day work. I also don’t understand how she could not figure out who the director was in the first place since she worked here and that information is very, very easy to find! It was very odd–if she wanted the name of the director in the first place, why not ask instead of try to schedule a meeting with me?

    I have also met with high school students who were very engaged, but really had no idea what to ask. I don’t mind that as much–I can ask them questions to find out what their interests truly are.

    Reply
  20. AvonLady Barksdale

    I did this all the time when I was job searching after grad school, and I just advised someone to do it. I have also accepted tons of informational interviews. All it really takes is asking someone for 15 minutes of their time to talk about their industry, their job and their career trajectory. I have connected hiring managers with candidates this way, and I got my own first job in my field through alumni networking.

    My biggest DON’T– do not send me your resume unless I ask for it. This isn’t a job interview, it’s a conversation. I may ask you to send your resume to me, but don’t include it on your initial email.

    And always, always thank someone for their time. Even just a quick, “Thank you so much for meeting with me! I learned a ton about teapot design, and I appreciate you taking the time out of your busy day.”

    Reply
    1. CV

      Question – why don’t you want to see the resume in advance? Is it just that too many people who do that try to turn it into a job interview? Sometimes having a quick read helps me anticipate the direction the questions will go, or provide some specific feedback.

      Reply
  21. Terra

    If you end up meeting for coffee offer to pay for their drink. This is in the category of thanks and goes double or triple so if you’re the one to suggest meeting in person. I had someone ask me to meet and then only leave enough money for their drink when they left. So when they later applied to a company I suggest using my name I made sure to mention it and a few other questionable things to the hiring manager.

    Reply
    1. Hiding on the Internet Today

      I don’t think this is hard and fast – I have a personal thing about not letting college students (for instance) or people who are currently unemployed pay for my coffee. I know how much I make, I can guess how much they make, and a Starbucks run is a much smaller dent in my budget.

      If I were doing several of these chats a day, I might change my position, and its always nice for the inviter to offer to pay, but gratitude doesn’t have to be in cash.

      Reply
      1. Charityb

        It’s probably cool to offer and just let the other person say that it’s fine. I totally get where you’re coming from though and that would be my position as well if I was invited out by someone like that.

        Reply
      2. neverjaunty

        Gratitude certainly doesn’t have to be in cash, and I share your view on picking up the coffee tab, but it’s really the principle of the thing.

        Reply
        1. fposte

          Here’s how I like it to go: the invitee prepares to pay for both, and the senior person says, “Oh, no, it’s on me.” I like that an invitee offers to pay in recognition of the fact that she’s the one asking for the favor, and I like the senior person to pay because it’s her karmic turn to do so.

          Reply
    2. Honeybee

      Ehh, I think it is going to vary a lot from person to person. It’s probably always nice to ask just in case – but I have a policy of not letting students pay for my anything. It’s always sweet when they offer, but they’re students. I was there once.

      Reply
  22. Jeanne

    I got an email from someone who emailed everyone who graduated from our college in our field. (A friend got an identical email.) It basically said I’m looking for a job can you give me one. No other info, no resume. I emailed back saying there had been lay offs and people I actually knew and respected were looking; why should I give him a job. I got a really defensive reply. He needed a job too and why was I being so mean. Great strategy.

    Reply
  23. sam

    I’ve been most receptive to this sort of stuff when I’ve been contacted by someone I actually know on behalf of someone else – so see if you have a LinkedIn contact “in common” that can connect you with someone. This gives you a little bit of cred that you might not otherwise have. I’ve spent time, including going out for coffee/informational interviews with people who are interested in what I do (and in particular interested in what it’s like working for one of my former employers, an “alternative” legal services firm), with contacts-of-contacts that I’ve only ever met at networking events and that I only know a little, but it’s one step above a complete stranger.

    On the flip side, whatever you do, do not lie or fib about how you got someone’s contact information. Just last week, I got a random email from someone who claimed to have gotten my contact email specifically from the Wharton alumni office and was trying to pitch me on some business startup idea – the email was replete with reminiscences about “our time” at Wharton, etc. etc… First, their business was completely irrelevant to my life, and second, I didn’t go to Wharton (!). I did, however, have an issue years ago with Wharton accidentally connecting my contact info from Penn’s *law school* alumni directory to one of their long-dead alumni with a similar name, so this sent me down a really annoying rabbit hole of assuming some over-zealous intern had done it again, and (anticipating another spate of non-stop fundraising solicitations and invitations to reunions for the class of 1955 (I was born in 1974. also, not male. or dead.)) actually called the Wharton alumni office to straighten them out, again. It turns out that the emailer had gotten my info out of the general alumni directory, which clearly identifies me as a law school grad, so I basically spent my morning being annoyed at the wrong people.

    Reply
  24. L McD

    Definitely seconding the specific questions thing. There’s nothing more maddening than those emails that make it sound like somebody just wants you to recount your entire career memoir; ain’t nobody got time for that! Specific questions show that you’ve done your research already and aren’t looking for someone to hold your hand.

    In the nature of my business, a lot of what I do is public. Anyone could do half an hour of research on me, and basically know my exact career trajectory. I talk a lot about my homemade chocolate teapots on social media, my inventory is available online, hell, I’ve even got a FAQ on my website that addresses a lot of the things potential mentees would want to know about me. Still, I get questions from people like “so, do you make your own teapots or outsource to a factory? How many teapots have you made? When did you start making teapots?” when all of this information is readily available online. When somebody starts a conversation that way, it shows me that they don’t really know much about me other than “well, she seems successful, guess I’ll bombard her with questions!” Plus, if they can’t gather tips just from watching others, in my industry, they’re not going to get very far. No amount of my mentoring will fix that.

    Lest I sound like an egomaniac, I don’t expect people to know every little thing before contacting me. For instance – I design my own teapot packaging. While I do talk about it, it’s an easy fact to miss, especially because my packaging appears professionally done. If someone asks me who I recommend for professional teapot design, I just explain to them that I do my own, but other teapot-makers I know like to use X, Y, and Z companies.

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but nothing sets my teeth on edge like being blatantly asked “hey, will you be my mentor?” For me, it’s a bit like asking “hey, will you be my friend?” Hard to say no without sounding like a jerk, but impossible to say yes to a stranger. I personally feel like the full-fledged mentor-mentee relationship almost has to develop organically, and potential mentors should signal pretty quickly if they’re open to that kind of development.

    The worst requests I get are from people who have absolutely no idea what they want, or what I actually do. “I have this design for a teapot and I’m looking for someone to manufacture it for me!” “I’m looking for someone to review my teapots!” “I want to swap teapot critiques with you!” “Let’s collaborate on a teapot design even though we’ve never met and you don’t know about my style or my process!” But that sort of rolls into what I was talking about before.

    It’s not always much better with known colleagues – I’ve had people use my suggestion for teapot marketing copy word-for-word, without even saying thank you. (And that teapot design was their first breakout success, too.) I’ve had people who repeatedly ask for advice, and then never even respond to acknowledge it and thank me for my time. I’ve been copied and ripped off. When I give (solicited) advice for improvement, I’ve had people become defensive and launch into detailed explanations of why they THOUGHT their way of doing things was better. It’s not a court of law – I’m just telling you what generally works in this industry, not judging you for having done something different.

    My favorite mentoring experiences are when people actually ruminate on my advice and run with it, then come back later with interesting stories about how it worked for them. While common courtesy goes a long way, I really feel special whenever it’s obvious someone has really valued and respected my advice, and incorporated it into their workflow. Obviously this isn’t going to happen with everyone, but when it does happen, I love hearing about it.

    Reply
  25. AnonAcademic

    Another tip is to let the person you are asking for an open ended favor like career advice determine what level of commitment they can offer – do NOT ask straight away if you can spend an entire day shadowing them, or for them to set up an all day tour of their department including meetings with their bosses! I think that was a case of a young person (college aged) getting bad advice from overbearing parents, but it made me question their judgement and put them in the category of “people I am not willing to vouch for or go out of my way to help.” It was too much of an “give an inch and they take a mile” situation.

    Reply
    1. Honeybee

      Yessssssss. Start with a 15-30 minute conversation over coffee, and let me decide whether I like you enough/trust you enough to commit to the relationship.

      Also, not every job is conducive to shadowing. I’ve been asked about this before, but I can’t do it for two reasons: One, my job is actually exceedingly boring to watch most days – mostly meetings and writing or data analysis. The average student would get zero out of following me around for a day. And two, most of the things that are interesting – and many of the things that aren’t – are secret and I can’t talk about them or show them to people!

      Reply
  26. GlorifiedPlumber

    OMG YES, more networking!

    I am only recently a mid-level person (yay E4 finally) whose brain someone might want to pick, but, I recall maybe 8 months ago I got a cold email via my Linkedin from a newly graduated chemist (I am a chemical engineer, and he was also considering augmenting his chemistry degree with a chem E degree) who was new to the area and wanted to pick someone’s brain about the lay of the land regarding work, and he figured I’d be knowledgeable. He could tell from my Linkedin that he and I had some experience with the same reasonably small town, which helped him too, but that wouldn’t have stopped me.

    He offered to get me coffee, lunch, or beers, and work around whatever kind of schedule constraints I might have!

    Anyways… I was super into it! No one had ever considered me someone who might be a good network person before! Everyone likes to be valued and Mrs. Glorifiedplumber can attest that I love to talk about the art of Glorified Plumbing locally (and she was glad I was talking about it to someone who wasn’t her)! As long as it is not impactful to one’s schedule, I would imagine far more people are willing to help than are unwilling to help.

    If you want to cold email someone, 0) Reasonably professionally stalk your prey so you sound like you know what you’re talking about without being creepy. 1) Be respectful and upfront about what you’re looking for. 2) Be flexible with your time to avoid impact to their time. 3) Offer coffee, or reasonable lunch, or beers.

    I bet 80%+ of the time you get a response!

    I totally met the kid for beers, hopefully imparted some wisdom, hopefully steered him in the right direction for work, AND I bought his beers… because that is what you do for junior folk in my industry when you’re a senior person.

    Reply
    1. neverjaunty

      That kid will go far. He explained why he was contacting you and why you, in particular, and offered a small gesture to make up for the fact that you were doing him a kindness unasked.

      Reply
  27. Liz L

    I would also make use of any events held by the school’s career centre or the local public library or even bookstore talks, where like-minded people tend to gather. This means networking with other attendees plus getting a chance to meet speakers/professionals who are approachable in person and obviously like sharing advice.

    Reply
  28. Sarah

    I found this article by Mandy Stadtmiller pretty helpful during my job search. Her tone can be a bit casual for many industries (she is in lifestyle blogging/writing) but I think there is a lot of related advice to Allison’s advice and some useful examples of emails she has sent. http://www.xojane.com/relationships/7-networking-or-job-pitch-emails-i-have-actually-sent-word-for-word-that-have-gotten-me-or-colleagues-of-mine-successfully-in-the-door-steal-away

    Reply
  29. Person of Interest

    When I was job searching and having info interviews, I found it helpful to ask whether the person had recommendations of another person I should meet with – they were often very willing to connect me to another person in the field and help me expand my network. This also gave me another chance to thank them via email, e.g., “Thanks for the connection, so-and-so and I had coffee the other day and she was so helpful.”

    Reply
    1. Bee

      Agreed! When I was having informational interviews, I would look up the person I was meeting with on LinkedIn and try to identify three people in their list of contacts that I would also be interested in meeting. Then at the interview, I would ask if they would mind introducing me to the people on the list, and if there was anyone else they could think of that I could benefit from talking to. This led me to some of my most useful interviews!

      Reply
  30. Pokebunny

    I’ve had successes with these sort of requests. I follow most of Alison’s advice, but I find that the ones I talked to prefer to either talk on the phone or talk face-to-face. They weren’t interested in typing out a long email to respond to my questions, so the emails that were successful were more brief.

    My emails usually read something like this:

    Dear Ms. X,

    My name is Pokebunny, and I’m a student at Y studying Z. . I’m exploring career options and I was wondering if I could have 15-20 minutes of your time to speak with you about what is it like to work in industry Z. Specifically I’d love to know if this is a career I can see myself in, and what it takes to excel in the field.

    Please let me know if this works for you. Thank you so very much.

    I had only one person who straight-up declined. Everyone else was willing to talk to me. They can decide how they want to meet — phone call, meet up, or email responses, although so far I haven’t met someone who said “sure, email me your questions”.

    More tips:
    * Treat this like an interview. It IS an interview, just that you’re now the interviewer. That means punctuality, nicely dressed, etc.
    * Keep it to 15-20 minutes. Don’t show up with 200 questions. Pick and choose questions that are meaningful and the ones you genuinely want to know the answer to. If they want to extend the time, that’s their call, not yours.
    * Once you introduce yourself, if you’re meeting face-to-face, ask if you can take notes (or record the conversation, although I doubt many people are comfortable with recordings). Most, if not all, won’t mind you taking notes, and asking them first allows them to adjust their speech accordingly. Also makes you look attentive.
    * Say thank you! Say thank you after the meeting, send a thank you note later in the day. Courtesy is always nice! Remember that they are doing you a huge favor. You don’t need to grovel, but don’t be a dick.

    Reply
    1. Pokebunny

      Huh, not sure why that didn’t show up, but in the start of my sample email, one sentence about how you found them; mutual contact, browsing company website, etc.

      Reply
  31. TL17

    I have a couple of ugh experiences.

    1. Student contacted me by phone. I spoke to him for a few minutes and then he asked if I knew of any career opportunities. I said, “I know X Organization should be hiring 4 or 5 people soon.” His response was, “yeah, I didn’t call you for you to tell me to apply for job openings.” Huh?

    2. Student’s dad contacted me, explaining that student was away but would soon be in my area. I asked him to have her get in touch. He never had her contact me, and instead kept pestering me until finally I just ignored him. Obviously she didn’t much care if he was doing it all for her.

    I’m sure I’ve had good experiences, but these were definitely 2 of the, “you’re doing it wrong” variety.

    Reply
  32. Honeybee

    I’ve gotten cold requests a lot – when I was in graduate school it was about getting in and what it was like to be a doctoral student. Now that I work in industry I get them about working in my field/position and how I got here. I’m the kind of person who loves helping students and new grads and will gladly send a long email, hop on Skype or the phone or grab coffee with someone local for an hour to chat about stuff.

    -The most annoying thing you can do, though – even to someone who really wants to help you – is to be vague. “Can you tell me what it’s like to do X?” or “Can you just give me some information about X?” is hard to answer, because I don’t know what you want to know. So either I’m going to waste a lot of time telling you things you already know or I’m going to be terse and not give you what you want. It’s far better to come up with specific questions about the nature of the work and how to get into it.

    -Before I started doing informational interviews on the interviewee end, I never understood why advice was always not to ask the person about getting a job with their company – whether you could help them get a job or if you could help refer them or something. Now that I’m on the other end, I know. It turns the relationship from a helping one into a transactional one, and it puts me (your interviewee) in an awkward position. At that point, I don’t even know you, so I can’t in good faith refer you. Plus, I might not have any control over that. So don’t ask that! I think the most you can do is, in a follow-up email – if you had a good rapport – just maybe ask the person to keep you updated on any positions they come across that might look interesting.

    -On the flip side, although you shouldn’t ask the person for a job, you should STILL treat it a little bit like an informal job interview. You never know when that person MIGHT have an opening or be in a position to refer or hire you if you apply. So be polite and professional.

    -This might sound obvious but I say it from experience: Don’t disparage parts of a person’s job or the work that they do. I had a recent informational interview in which I mentioned I worked on a pretty public-facing product and the person interviewing me exclaimed about how much they disliked a part of the product I worked on. It leaves a bad impression, and you never know – the person you’re talking to might have worked on that thing, or that attribute might be their favorite part of the job. Stay focused on the positives.

    -Similarly, don’t make it awkward by disparaging your current job, talking about how desperately you want to get out of your current position or city, trashing your coworkers, or expounding on your difficulties on the job market. There’s really nothing an informational interviewee can do about those things but it introduces a lot of negativity into the discussion. I know this seems obvious, but sometimes it’s not – sometimes people will mention small negative things about their current job that they dislike as a reason they are leaving. While a little bit of that might be okay, it’s better to stay focused on the positives of the field you do want.

    Reply
  33. Sodapop

    I’m early/mid-career trying to break into an adjacent field (international development) and have sent several targeted cold emails to people in the field e.g. people who went to my alma mater or had a similar career before they also transitioned into the field. Have to say I’ve had very limited success so far in terms of any response at all but I think that’s to be expected. It was much easier for me in other industries however so I must be doing something right, sometimes! Alison gave great advice. What works for me I think is that in the emails I 1) articulate why I’m contacting them specifically 2) express my awareness that they are probably extremely busy and don’t owe me anything 3) give them an idea of what kind of research I’ve done and why I’m seeking to talk to them, to fill in the gaps that online research can’t fill.

    Reply
  34. Minister of Snark

    I reached a significant level of success in a niche field and frequently get emails of this nature. There’s a fine line between a professional, appropriate message and the kind of email that sets my teeth on edge. Unfortunately, a lot of it boils down to tone, which I know is difficult sometimes in email format.

    If I could offer advice it would be to read over your email, and avoid the following traps:

    – Don’t ask me for information you could easily Google. As PPs said, do some research and reading before you contact someone in your chosen field. Demonstrate that you’ve put some effort into this before asking me to hand you all the information you need.

    -No, I don’t want to see your portfolio. I have deadlines and obligations I must meet. Giving tips to you and the other people who contact me for career advice this week, that’s about all of the time and effort I have to spare. Frankly, in my field, it’s dangerous for me to look at other people’s ideas in their infancy, because that person could later claim that I plagiarized some element of that idea. I’m not willing to risk that for a stranger.

    – The “Solidarity Debt.” I don’t owe you my time or attention just because we happen to come from the same small town or graduated from the same college. Yes, I would like to support you, but acting like I am obligated to do so, is not going to endear you to me.

    -No, I don’t want to meet you in person. When I say no, accept my no. Don’t try to argue your way around my no. This is not a case of “have gumption, don’t take no for an answer.” I don’t trust people who don’t accept my no. It does not make me feel safe meeting you. And DEFINITELY, don’t try to track me down at my home office so you can force a meeting.

    Seriously.

    Reply
    1. Greg

      Agree on the last point. My rule when I’m reaching out is to generally suggest a meeting (unless it’s clearly impractical, like we live in different cities), but gladly accept whatever the person suggests. Don’t brand yourself as difficult right off the bat.

      Incidentally, when I’ve been on the other side, I’ve often suggested meeting in-person for lunch because it was easier to schedule — I didn’t have to carve extra time out of my day, since I was already planning on taking time off for lunch.

      Reply
  35. Greg

    I tried this approach when I moved to a new city. I’ve actually done email prospecting for my job, so I approached it similarly, including sending a couple follow-ups. I found that alums were *far* more responsive than when I just emailed people who worked in the same field. Overall, I emailed about 50-60 people and probably got about a 25% response rate, and had a few useful informationals out of it. I only had one negative response, and that was my fault: I originally emailed the person mentioning the undergrad school that we had in common, but when I followed up, I got confused and put my grad school instead, which made him think I was running some kind of scam.

    My recommendation is to stick to alumni if you can. Go on LinkedIn and filter by your school and whatever relevant keywords you can think of. You can use tools like EmailHunter.co or Rapportive to figure out their email address. As with any kind of networking, be respectful of their time and be upfront about your intentions — don’t pretend you just want to do an informational and then try to wheedle your way into an interview at their company. Ideally, you’ll build the relationship before you see any job openings, which will make it much easier to ask for help down the road. And always end the meeting by asking if they can think of anyone else it would be helpful to speak with.

    Reply
  36. LW Here

    Thank you everyone for all of your wonderful advice! I’m already working out a list of people that I could contact and I can’t wait to get started. :) Unfortunately, I can’t see the profiles of quite a few of the people on my school’s alumni LinkedIn page, but it’s definitely a good starting point.

    Reply

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