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?