how to handle requests to “pick your brain” from new grads

A reader writes:

A few years ago, I appeared in a series of videos about “how I got my job.” My job is pretty niche and there really isn’t a ton of institutional information about it yet, so it got a lot of attention. Since then, I’ve consistently gotten two to three LinkedIn messages per week from new grads and people looking to break into my field.

About 20% are just saying that they found the videos inspiring (which I love to hear!), 30% are just asking to connect, and the remainder are asking for more career advice — but in a very general way. Think “I’d love to get your thoughts on how to break into the industry/get hired at your company.”

I’m of two minds: I really want to help, but the volume of requests I get is much too high to respond to every single one. (I am working on a template email with generic info.) Also, maybe I’m being a bit of a Grinch here, but I bristle at how general the requests are. They make me feel like the person writing hasn’t actually done any of their own research (which, incidentally, is a huge part of this job). There even seems to be a trend now of people asking to grab 30 minutes for a phone call in their opening email! So, it’s probably not my place, but part of me wants to say “hey, this is not how to do it.”

Any advice for how (if at all) to respond to the more labor-intensive requests?

Yeah, what they’re doing is not a great approach. They’re asking you to do all of the labor of figuring out what would be useful to them, rather than doing that work themselves and then coming to you with more focused requests for help. And anyone who has agreed to take these phone calls has learned that once you get on the phone, it’s often more of the same: the person often still isn’t prepared with questions to ask and instead hopes you’ll deliver a monologue about your field, complete with helpful job leads.

I’m pretty sure this is because so many people absorb the message that they should network but don’t get much good guidance about exactly how to do it. And there is a lot of very general “contact people in your target field and ask for help” advice out there.

Anyway, if you only get a couple of these requests a year, it’s not that hard to agree to jump on the phone and see how you can help. But when you get a lot of requests, that quickly becomes impossible — and so people end up ignoring them altogether or only responding to people with a specific connection in their network (like their uncle’s friend’s son, or so forth), which often has the effect of giving disproportionate access and assistance to people who already have some amount of privilege.

So your idea to write a template email with general info is a great one, and always is when you’re getting a lot of similar questions on a topic. You could say, “I hear from a lot of new grads trying to break into the field, so I’ve written up some general information that addresses a lot of initial questions. I hope this helps!” In fact, you can adapt that basic language for a few different situations:

* If you want to signal that you’re not available for more help than this, you can tweak it to: “I hear from a lot of new grads trying to break into the field, and I’m happy to try to help. Because my schedule keeps me pretty busy, I don’t have much time for informational calls, but I’ve written up some info that addresses a lot of initial questions. I hope this helps!”

* If you’re open to talking more if they get more specific about what they’re looking for, you can tweak it to: “I hear from a lot of new grads trying to break into the field, so I’ve written up some info that addresses a lot of initial questions. After reading this, if there’s anything more focused you’re wondering about, please email me any more specific questions and I’ll see if I can help further.”

And before you have that template created (or for people who never create one), it’s also okay to say, “I’d be glad to help but since my schedule is busy, could you write back with the two to three specific questions that would be most useful to you?” A lot of people won’t even bother to respond once you do this, and the ones who do are a better investment of your time.

There’s a second question in your email too, around whether you can point out that the approach these networkers are using isn’t a great one. To people who are paying attention and can pick up on cues, the language above will signal that. You’ll be able to tell who is getting the message and adjusting their thinking by how they respond — people who write back to thank you or who read through the info you provide and then follow up with a couple of much narrower, well-thought-out questions have probably picked up on your hint. And the fact that they needed the hint in the first place isn’t necessarily damning, since these are new grads who are figuring out this stuff as they go along.

But it’s also okay to say more explicitly — to everyone, but especially to anyone who seems particularly demanding or oblivious — “If I can suggest something that will help, you’ll often get better answers from people (and probably find more people willing to help) if you can narrow down what questions you’re interested in. It can be hard to give a general overview, not knowing what you might already know or what you’re interested in, but people often have an easier time responding to very specific questions.”

{ 106 comments… read them below }

  1. Casey*

    Question from the other side: if I already have my two or three specific questions, should I jump straight into them in my initial contact? Sometimes I say something (over email, usually) like “I have a couple questions I’d love to get your input on, if you have time to answer!” and let them say yes/no/not respond before actually asking. It feels a little rude to get straight into it without at least seeing if they have the bandwidth, but it also feels rude to take up more of their time with pleasantries instead of getting to the point. Thoughts?

    1. Super Anon*

      I like to see the questions in the initial email, because then I can judge how quickly or answerable they are. I can’t really answer if I have time until I see what the questions are that are being posed. I may not even be the right person to provide input, but I may be able to refer to you to someone else who can. Or I may not have time to answer your question at all, or I might feel that a phone conversation would be more efficient.

      I think you could include them and just indicate that you’ve put your questions below as a reference.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yes, totally agree — I know it might feel presumptuous, but it’s actually a courtesy so the person can judge the time commitment involved, etc.

        1. Janey-Jane*

          Interesting. What about networking via LinkedIn, when there’s only a limited amount of space on the initial contact?

          1. NotAnotherManager!*

            Be very succinct in your questions or summarize the topics at a high-level. Maybe you don’t have enough room to ask about the specifics of which sticker brand and top coat are least toxic and most effective in the field of llama toenail art, but you could at least get in that you are interested in a career in llama toenail art and would love to ask a few specific questions about it.

        2. Keymaster of Gozer*

          What’s that thing journalists say? About burying the point of something in the text instead of at the beginning?

          I’m actually really relieved that my habit of putting the questions first, then ‘further information if required’ below is a good thing! Thank you :)

            1. NotAnotherManager!*

              Mine, too, and it’s a part of initial communications training for my entry-level folks (as in, don’t do it – your first sentence after any greetings/pleasantries should be why you’re contacting someone and what you want/need from them).

      2. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

        I love it when people put in their questions… or at least a description of their goals.

        I am an employment counselor for a public career center, so making appointments with career seekers is my job.

        However, to do my job well, I like to prepare in advance, maybe find some resources or pull out a few good tools. I can’t tell you how lonely it is to make an appointment in the blind, have no advance info (not even a resume) and then discover that “I’d like to talk to you about my job search ” means “I have been avoiding this for too long and now I’m getting anxious and I need a quick fix, and I heard that sometimes people get jobs through random conversations.”
        And if that person can’t pull some sort of motivation or focus out during our meeting, why would I use my social capital to connect them with some sort of potential dream job? Can I trust that they’ll pull it together for the job interview?

        So luckily my job gets to have “snap out of it” moments with folks I meet with. But I “bless their hearts” for the shortcut takers, for they shall be wandering for ages.

    2. Lygeia*

      I would put your questions in the initial reach out (or at least a quick summary if it’s too involved for a couple sentences). It’s letting them know what they’d be saying yes to if they decide to help. And, as the LW mentions, it signals that you’ve done your homework.

      1. jotpe*

        Yep. If you don’t put the questions in then the exchange, at best, goes:
        You: can I ask a question
        Me: sure
        You: [question]
        Me: [answer]
        = four emails

        You: Hi, can I ask, [question]
        Me: Sure, [answer]
        = two emails

        Just a much easier transaction for everyone really. And eliminates the guesswork of “what will this question be, and will it be a PITA” from the get-go.

        1. Eukomos*

          The person trying to network with you doesn’t necessarily want a short transaction, though. An easy one, yes, but if it’s short you won’t remember them, and they need you to remember them and become part of their network as much as they need the information you can give them.

          1. jotpe*

            But I doubt they want to be remembered as someone whose emails were viewed with trepidation :)

    3. Mimmy*

      I was about to ask this very question. I too thought it’d be disrespectful to the reader’s time to immediately include the questions. This is helpful, thank you!

      1. Elitist Semicolon*

        I’m generally a bigger fan of knowing the content/context of the questions first so I can decide if I want to engage with their specifics. Something like, “Would you be available to talk about your current position, the previous experiences that were most relevant to your work, and strategies for entering the workforce in the field?” will sit better with me than an email that opens with a standard pleasantry and then shifts to, “Could you answer the following questions for me?” and then lists them.

    4. Brooks Brothers Stan*

      Pretend you’re Inigo Montoya when sending an email. Greeting, who you are, purpose, done. Best practices for emails is for your first line to get right to the point of what the email is about. So for example, “Dear Dr. Llamawrangler, I’m reaching out because of your experience in wrangling llamas as a recent grad student entering llama wrangling. I have a few specific questions if you have the time to answer them. My questions are [this], [that], and [the third thing]. Thank you for your time, any help would be appreciated! Sincerely, Hopeful Llamawrangler.”

      Keep your queries as concise as possible, and as pointed as possible. If the bandwidth is available for more, the person you are reaching out to will provide it to you!

    5. Guacamole Bob*

      If you don’t put your specific questions, make sure it’s clear that you’re organized and have a meaningful reason for contacting this person and that you aren’t just vaguely throwing darts at a contact list in the hopes a job will materialize.

      I’m fine with getting an email without specific questions that has a clear purpose or topic other than “advice on breaking into the field”, like:
      – “I’m currently working in llama consulting and hoping to make the switch to working at a llama government agency. Since government hiring can be opaque, could I ask you some questions from your perspective as someone already working at an agency?”
      – “I’m a new grad and I’ll be moving to your city, and I was hoping to ask you a few questions about the organizations and companies in our field there.”
      – “I saw that you used to work at Rice Sculptures United. I have an offer from them and I’ve got some questions about the company I think you could help with.”
      – “I saw your presentation at the Beverage Conference on manufacturing constraints on teapot spout shapes. My undergrad thesis was on how the lip shape on teapots contributes to spills and how new shapes could reduce scalding. Do you have a preprint of your paper I could read? Based on the presentation I was curious how you handled the curvature ratio in your analysis?” (i.e. “I am your same very specific brand of nerdy. Let’s nerd out together!”)

      1. Guacamole Bob*

        A key to this is that none of these topics (in my field, at least) are things that could be easily or fully researched without talking to people. Someone writing something like the above has done their research and gotten as far as they could with Google and their school career center and Glassdoor and professional associations and whatnot. They aren’t looking for me to hold their hand, but to provide information that is hard to get any other way.

      2. Spencer Hastings*

        Yeah, somehow this makes a lot more sense to me. Sending someone detailed questions before they have a chance to consent to answer any just seems strange.

    6. merp*

      Wow, Casey, thank you for asking this, I have also had this dilemma and worried that putting my questions in first was presumptuous. I will keep this thread and the replies in mind in the future!

  2. Hornswoggler*

    Without wishing to sound like a complete *rse, I think I’d be tempted to run an online presentation/question-and-answer session and charge people five quid to join.

    1. boop the first*

      I get that a lot of the issue is about not wanting to spend precious free time on stuff, but this is the kind of thing that makes people start blogs/youtube channels/write books. If OP is already writing a FAQ, they can stretch it out a little into a nice little ebook and get a few dollars a week forever instead of answering calls and emails.

      I think I bought an ebook from AAM when it was a reply to a quick question, and I’m not much of an online class buyer. This stuff does work!

    2. TooTiredToThink*

      I was thinking along the same lines – like, maybe not actually charging people, but if I *really* felt like I wanted to/could help – I would create the template; and then set up a monthly 1 hour meeting on something like Zoom where you could answer any questions you’ve received and be really strict about it being a 1 hr meeting.

      I do know that with some of these folks they probably just don’t even know what questions to ask.

    3. Anon for this*

      I know a very successful freelance writer who offers a coaching session ($50 for 1/2hr) in pitching, finding leads on work, portfolio guidance – basically a starter guide to freelance writing. Not sure this approach is right for the OP, but I found it interesting. And, what I find most interesting is she’s started offering the session for free to BIPOC writers, in order to try to level out the privilege in the playing field.

  3. Jaybeetee*

    I remember doing some cringey stuff along these lines in my early 20s – including with a couple of relatives, agh! And I can attest that in addition to me just having terrible interpersonal skills, I had also heard a lot of bad advice about “networking” and “contacting people in your target field” and “informational interviews.” In hindsight, my university at the time really didn’t provide a ton of guidance for arts students, and there weren’t any co-ops or anything else available to me. So it was just my 20-year-old self and Google circa 2007.

    Frankly, you would be doing them a favour pointing out where they’re going wrong. They may he getting ignored a lot, but not sure what to change.

  4. Cheesesteak in Paradise*

    Not the same context but a faculty supervisor of mine in a training program called it the “baby bird” approach – help seekers want to be fed information like a chick gets pre-digested worms from its mama. As a faculty member myself now, I only have so many monologues of learning I can think of off the top of my head. So it’s annoying when I ask “what do you want to learn today?” to my trainees and get back some variant of “anything” or “whatever you want.”

    1. MayLou*

      Ha, I am in a snarky mood clearly because my mental response to that was “Okay, well today you’re going to learn about the importance of having a clear agenda for your training session and how frustrating it is to have your time wasted” and then walk out.

    2. That Girl from Quinn's House*

      Yes, but how many people in entry-level or novice positions have gotten scolded for doing the same thing you are prescribing? How DARE they ask for three bits of information instead of just doing whatever I feel like telling them, the insubordinate lout.

      Of course someone who’s new is going to be a little cautious. Someone who’s not new might even be cautious, depending on where they’ve worked in the past.

    3. Me*

      I don’t understand this. If I’m going to a training, I expect the person leading the training to have a plan, not be asking the attendees from the jump what they want to know. Isn’t the point of training to be sharing information on a subject and perhaps some how to? Maybe I’m missing something.

      1. we're basically gods*

        And if you’re new enough to a situation or a job, how do you even begin to know what you don’t know?

        1. Spencer Hastings*

          Or what it’s appropriate or beneficial for you to be trained on. Once I brought up to my supervisor that I was interested in starting to learn the “next tier up” tasks, and gave (let’s say) vicuña grooming as an example. Based on her knowledge of my llama and alpaca grooming work, though, she told me I might enjoy guanaco grooming more and find it more intellectually stimulating and in line with the interests I was already developing. And that suited me fine — I hadn’t known about those characteristics. If I’d asked because I had a huge passion for working with vicuñas rather than guanacos, though, I’d have said that.

      2. Cheesesteak in Paradise*

        Maybe I should specify the field. These are medical residents that are at least 1 year into their speciality training that I am assigned to work with on a day by day basis. I want to include educational discussions with them during the day but would like to do so on a topic of interest or something that naturally comes up via the patient. For example (initiated by me), “Your patient Mr. X has aortic valve disease. What can we discuss about the different types of heart valve diseases?” Or initiated by them, “Can we go over heart arrhythmias on the monitor today?”

        Otherwise, I could just leave them to put in orders and fill out paperwork but I’d rather we both came up with something useful to talk about.

        1. AnonoDoc*

          You just illustrated perfectly what you want :) This is what on-service teaching should (mostly) be. “How did you distinguish Mr. Smith’s murmur” (or more likely, “if you didn’t already have the echo information, what clues are there on the physical exam….”) and then lead naturally into conversation about different valvular abnormalities, prognosis and potential treatments for each, etc.

          And then when I am caught completely flat-footed by some bizarre diagnosis, “I don’t know either, where would you start looking for information beyond UpToDate”

  5. cncx*

    I really like what AAM said about the potential to only respond to people with a connection and how that already implies access and privilege. I agree that random time requests aren’t the approach but sometimes people don’t know the approach so it’s worth keeping in mind that class and exposure inform a lot of our soft skills and that the earlier in the career someone is, the differences in social class can be wide. Or if someone from a priviledged class has no social skills but a “name” that can tide them over until they make it. i grew up blue collar and had a distant relative not got me an internship in college…it’s funny how one thing can change a life. And not everyone has people recommending them for internships.

    Anyway, that’s the cool part about the template- if OP sends the template with this and one of the vague question-askers sends a more detailed follow up, then i really think they could be worth the time and that bypasses the initial lack of soft skills, because someone who wants the easy way out of the picking the brain will drop it there.

    1. Smithy*

      Agree with this 100%.

      As it turns out, I have a networking call with a new grad this week who is my mom’s friend’s cousin’s child etc. Certainly happy to do this, but it is a good reminder of how a lot of these meetings do end up happening and the advantages that offers – especially if we work in fields that have a tendency towards bias.

  6. HR Exec Popping In*

    I can relate to the LW. I probably receive 10+ requests each week. While I am happy to help someone that is very hard to do when they just want general advice on how to get into my field or join my company. I really like the idea of a template response and will be implementing that technique. Thanks!

  7. ThePear8*

    I really appreciate this because I feel like I’ve gotten a lot of vague networking advice. A lot of emphasis on how networking is so important and we should network, but less advice on what good networking actually looks like. Always thankful for your insights Alison!

    1. nnn*

      Exactly what I came to post! I’ve had a lot of people advise me to “network” or to request “informational interviews”, and no one ever said anything about what that actually looks like!

      Then, about a decade in my career, a student whose internship I’d supervised requested an informational interview, I begrudgingly accepted (I didn’t want to do it, but I recognized that it was “normal”), and it turned out she was good at it!

      She had a list of specific, practical questions, she accepted the scope of answers I was able to give (which was quite often “I don’t have any information that I haven’t already told you”), and she wrapped up the interview herself when she’d gone through her list. I was like “So *that’s* how you’re supposed to do it!”

  8. Heidi*

    I really feel for some of these people who are new to the field. Throughout school, you’re safely ushered from one step to the next, and then you’re thrown into a world where you only get jobs by knowing people, but you don’t know people because you don’t have any experience in the field. It’s tough to figure out how to get a foot in the door without resorting to weird outreaches like this. Plus, I think for a lot of people, the first step into a field was something not anyone could replicate. I remember my first internship came about because my boss was a judge for an essay contest I entered in high school and he liked my essay. I can’t tell anyone else to do that.

    1. Dan*

      Yeah about the background… I have a rather unique background that took years to establish and get me where I am. That won’t get repeated overnight by someone with no experience.

      That said, the most actionable advice (pre-COVID anyway) that I can give to people is GO TO CONFERENCES. Coming out of grad school, I had done pretty well getting interviews with blind submissions on the website, but the two offers I got were via people I met at a conference. I don’t do conferences much professionally, but after the last one I went to, I was asked to do some advising for a couple of different working groups, one is government sponsored, and the other is university lead.

      The university one is a fun one because it’s super hard to do my field well, even the professionals struggle with it.

      I don’t know what conferences are going to look like post-COVID, But zoom ain’t it.

      1. Anonymous Conferencer*

        GO TO CONFERENCES is really good advice, especially for academia and academia-adjacent fields. I wish it wasn’t though- it really privileges people with expendable income, limited family obligations, etc., etc. etc.

        1. Dan*

          The sad thing is, if someone wants to “network” with me, e.g., “that was an interesting talk. Do you want to go down to the hotel bar and chat about it a bit more? I’m really curious about…” people are going to be a heck of a lot more willing to do that at the conference than outside it. At the conference, I’ll probably give it a “heck yeah” without too much thought. Afterward, when I’m back in the office with a million other things to do? Not so much. I’ve emailed a few people about their papers, and usually I get no response… and I actually want to talk about the paper, not backdoor hit them up for a job.

        2. Eukomos*

          Not to mention people who can move for jobs, since frequently the people you meet at conferences who could refer you for a job work on the other side of the continent. Last conference I went to in my target field had a ton of people who were hiring…on the East Coast. I’m trying to move further west to be closer to family. I met a ton of lovely, friendly people, and I’m sure many of them would help me job search if they could, but unless I want to move to Massachusetts there’s not much they can do. It was a bit dispiriting.

    2. Nanani*

      This, plus in school sometimes you are actively penalized for skipping steps or thinking outside the box. Or at least it feels that way when you don’t have a clear understanding of why the curriculum/syllabus/program is the way it is!

      And if your career goals aren’t the one thing your school or program is good at, you’re even more likely to flail wildly.

  9. Pigeon*

    Speaking as an autistic person, I wholeheartedly agree that there should be more guidance on HOW to network and not just continual emphasis on the importance of networking. (I’ve been in my field over ten years and to be honest, I still don’t have a good grasp on how to do it and it feels actively painful to try. If I had a concrete process to follow, “explain like I’m five” fashion, I feel like it could help immensely. But even the guidance that does exist makes some broad assumptions about its audience that don’t hold true for me. For example, that forming friendships is a natural part of work and doesn’t need to be explained.)

    For similar reasons I truly believe we need to eliminate the stigma around providing direct feedback. If someone requests help in a very tone-deaf way or with an approach that doesn’t leave any practical avenue for providing that help, they deserve to hear that.

    1. The Magic Rat*

      I am not autistic but I strongly agree that the world would be a better place if people felt freer to give direct feedback in the workplace. As it is, it’s so hard to know if people are being honest or just being polite, and it makes it seem impossible to ever constructively develop where I need to.

    2. Guacamole Bob*

      The advice to “network” in general terms is so damaging. As I’ve gotten further into my career, I’ve found that networking comes much more naturally, because I generally have specific reasons for reaching out.

      – I was thinking of going to grad school and wanted to talk to someone who’s currently working in the field about their career path and which programs they’d recommend.
      – Wanting to talk to someone at a company outside the hiring chain before I took a job there, so I used my alumni network to reach out. Same with asking about the good organizations to work for in City X before I moved there and started a job search.
      – Catching up with classmates from grad school, or from professional development programs, or consultants who worked on past projects for us, etc. It’s not maintaining friendships, though it may bear a certain resemblance, but maintaining professional relationships so that when someone is looking for a job or advice or whatever they have people to go to.
      – Having a call or meeting with someone who did a presentation at a conference that was specifically related to something I’m working on, or published a paper I found interesting. Sometimes it’s a detailed “can you share your code?” type discussion.
      – I work in a government teapot agency in city A, and we contact people we know at the teapot agencies in other cities all the time to find out how they’re handling specific issues, and they contact us as well.

      But also, I don’t think everyone necessarily needs to network! Depends on your field and your desired career path.

      1. Washi*

        Totally agree! I think there are a small handful of extremely outgoing go getters who network as a standalone activity. For for me though, I just…stay in touch with people I like, particularly from jobs and school, and ask them things if they would be helpful.

        Basically, if you excel at your jobs and do your best to maintain contact with your social circle, that’s often plenty. “Network” was unhelpful advice to me as a new grad partly because I didn’t know what to do, but mainly because my network was 90% peers jobhunting just like me! I got my job by applying on the internet, so it’s not like it’s all hopeless if you don’t have 5 strong contacts in every industry.

        1. Guacamole Bob*

          Yes. “Network” makes it sounds like you should pounce on the chance when your college roommate suggests that you talk to their uncle who once worked in accounting for a soda company and that’s kind of related to the fact that you’re going into teapots because they’re both beverages, even though your degree is in marketing with a teapot specialty and you know nothing about accounting. And that doesn’t really serve anyone.

        2. Eukomos*

          Networking when you’re in a career already is much, much easier than when you’re just starting out. In general it’s easier to get a job once you have a job. Which is tough on people who are new to the workforce or trying to move to a new field. And there’s a lot of luck involved in getting a job by applying online to entry-level positions, even once your materials are utterly top-notch, especially in an economy like this one. Sometimes awkward cold-emails are the best thing option, even if they’re not a great one. There aren’t all that many great options when you’re just starting out.

    3. Dust Bunny*

      Dear god I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks this. I’ve been at my job for 15 years but because I’m sub-professional, which means I only do the low-profile stuff, I have zero networking in the field, and no idea how to go about remedying that. (I’m also on the spectrum, which doesn’t help.)

    4. Spearmint*

      As another person on the spectrum, I second the desire for a super detailed, “explain like I’m five” beginner’s guide to networking.

      I’m three years post-college, in my second professional job, and I don’t really have much a professional network at all. I have this vague sense that I should be networking, especially as I’m not sure I want to stay in my particular niche subindustry for the rest of my career, but I don’t know how. I’m on good terms with my boss and coworkers, but I rarely interact with people outside my small department, and it has very low turnover to boot (these things were true in my last job as well).

    5. Colette*

      I don’t think there is necessarily a stigma against providing direct feedback. People don’t do it because it takes time on their end, and the probability of getting a nasty/entitled reply is high enough to dissuade them.

      My rules for initiating networking:
      – go in with specific questions – when it’s someone I know, I might ask them to give me feedback on my resume, or how they found the transition from a big company to a small one, or what skills they recommend I develop, or where they think my strengths are
      – be flexible about when/where/how – that’s up to the person doing the favour, not the person receiving the favour
      – put the cell phone away during the meeting
      – be genuinely interested in what they have to say, and ask follow-up questions that show I understand/was paying attention
      – keep to the timeframe we discussed, and let them know when we’ve reached the end even if we’re still talking. (“It’s been half an hour, I don’t want to keep you if you need to get back”)
      – thank them for their time

      Obviously, some of this is different via email.

      1. Colette*

        Some more unsolicited advice.

        Networking is about making a connection. You don’t have to become friends, but you do want to make a positive impression as a person. This means being polite, undemanding, and grateful for the help (even if it’s not what you’re hoping for). Say thank you – and mean it. Networking is optional, so when someone helps you, you should show that you appreciate it.

        Don’t start by asking if they’re hiring. If they are, you’ll be sent to the website; if not, the conversation is over.

        Ask broad questions, not yes-no questions. It should be a conversation, not a checkmark on a to-do list.

    6. Ginger Baker*

      Re forming friendships (work-wise or otherwise), Captain Awkward’s blog has some really good step-by-step stuff (I think usually under “how to reset this problematic relationship” but I am pretty sure at least one or two about making new friends generally, like after a move to a new city). If you’re looking for something to break down into concrete steps what just seems to “happen organically” for a lot of folks (i.e. they don’t actually explain how), I would recommend looking through the CA blog for those posts.

    7. Rez123*

      Yes. How to network?! I can do it if it’s a specific event but I’m but I’m gonna culture where communicating with people you don’t know (hello northern Europe) is not a thing but you are still expected to network!

      I accidentally networked once. I was going to a lecture and sat to a random table. After being 15min in silence the person in the table started to small talk (to my horror). Turn out she was the chief of procurememt for the largest employer in the area and at the time I was procurement assistant in the second biggest employer. I was very pleased with my accidental networking.

      1. allathian*

        I hear you. I’m also in northern Europe and literally the only time I network is at the annual conference in my field. I missed it last year because of a conflict with a professional certificate I’m taking and the same thing will happen this year. The last seminar of my certificate course was postponed from May to September because of COVID.

        At the two-day conference, I’m more than happy to network and I make a point of always taking at least one lunch with a person I haven’t talked with before. Now I actually enjoy going there to catch up with people I know from before. The first few times were less enjoyable, but I’m glad I powered through it.

    8. WhatAMaroon*

      I don’t know if this approach will work for everyone but I thought I would offer up how my thought process goes around networking.

      1. I try to focus on networking with people who I can genuinely find something in their lives I’m interested in – sometimes it’s a weird niche things they do, sometimes it’s work related, sometimes it’s music, books, where they’ve traveled lately, at conferences I might even ask what they’ve enjoyed at the conference or why they signed up for it. I give myself a time limit to have the awkward conversation and if I don’t feel it get less awkward I gracefully (not always that graceful) exit the conversation. Networking can sometimes be awkward so I try to push through it for a little to decide if it’s just normal awkward or for some reason we’re not clicking.

      2. I try to think about when I connect with someone what I can offer to the conversation; sometimes it’s being able to connect to them someone else, sometimes it’s a good book that I recently enjoyed, sometimes it’s mentally filing away something they mentioned and reaching back out when I have something useful for them. To me that is a big part of networking I think, is coming in with the mindset that I should see if while they’re helping me there’s something I can help them with as all. I’ve found building networking relationships that are two-way have tended to be the most enduring for me.

      3. As many people mentioned below once I’ve done initial meeting I try to reach out with a purpose when I do reach out; some people eventually turn into more of acquaintances/friends and those I might reach out to without a purpose because I want to genuinely know how they’re doing. One original network connection that’s now turned into a friend I send weird bird facts to every once in a while because I know he’ll find them funny.

      Fundamentally the way I think about networking is that when you’re trying to get work done, much like in your actual life, it’s helpful to be able to say “oh that thing? I know a guy[person]” (a la, you’re looking for a mechanic, I know a guy) and so the point of building a network is to be someone’s “i know a guy [person],” to connect people to good “i know a guy[person]”s , or to find your new “i know a guy[person]” for something you think you might need.

      I apologize if this isn’t that clear, let me know if I can clarify anything.

  10. Keymaster of Gozer*

    I’ve had luck with putting up an extensive FAQ on the net, then there’s a simple series of fields at the bottom where it’s stated if you can’t find anything that matches your query please fill in your questions here, your email address here and the submit button sends it to an email address I hold separate to my main one.

    Yep, I pretty much lifted the entire idea off every tech support request form I’ve ever seen/coded/written. ;)

    Maintaining the FAQ doesn’t take much, Writing it however did, so I’m more inclined toward Alison’s idea of a standard text in this case.

    (The most frustrating ones I got were of the ‘but I don’t want to do any of that, how do I get your position without all these tedious steps/changes?’. I’ve long since stopped providing the support, but If anyone with a better grasp of politeness and good grammar wants to have a crack at drafting an answer to those kind of queries I’ll definitely appreciate it!

    I’m not a good writer!)

      1. Elitist Semicolon*

        This is more or less what my friend, who is a upper-middle-level administrator at a large university, says. She gets so many emails from people with new graduate degrees asking how to get a job like hers, and her response is typically a variant of, “I had 15 years of experience in administrative settings before I was hired into this position.” Her exact phrasing and tone depend on how polite the writer is to begin with and how obvious they are about assuming they can step out of a Ph.D. program and immediately step into her job. The folks who ask, “how can I prepare for this kind of position?” or “How did you get started?” get more thoughtful answers than the folks who clearly think that attending a university means they know how to run one.

  11. The Magic Rat*

    Another reason people don’t ask specific questions when they’re trying to network (speaking from personal experience) is that deep down they don’t have much of a connection with the job/career per se – they don’t have an actual particular interest in a career in teapot handle alignment, but that’s the career path they’re on for whatever reason and they’re trying to figure out how to make it work, so they’re floundering around hoping someone will tell them how to do it. I’ve had many of these conversations over the years, and they’ve always been a way for me to realize that a particular career path is one I’m probably not going to do great at.

    1. Guacamole Bob*

      Yeah, networking got way easier when I found a career path I was happy to be on. Now it’s not “networking” it’s “talking to people I think are interesting about their work.”

    2. Smithy*

      I think for those in undergrad or grad school – it’s often very much so that the topics that interest them, either for study or hobbies, haven’t yet solidified into a specific job. I say this as a proud social science grad, but knowing the topics I liked studying and that the idea of working for a nonprofit was appealing didn’t exactly translate into a job or career trajectory.

      I now do nonprofit fundraising – a job that many people have and one where I’ve never met anyone talk about how it’s a career they aspire to. Mostly, this gives me a lot of sympathy to young people uncertain with what they like, what they’re good at, and what that might mean as a job.

    3. Dan*

      I don’t blame college kids for being clueless, because I was one. The work I do is split between household-name employers (there’s only a handful, but everybody knows them), the federal government, and government contractors. What’s really hard is that my field goes by so many different names that you can’t just pop one or two key words into a search engine and call it a day. Even on the government side, most people (I think anyway) with my background are employed by government contractors, and TBH, there’s no way you’re going to know those names if you’re outside the field (e.g., still in school.)

      By the time I got out of grad school, I had a pretty solid career plan, and the background to back it up. (I spent a few years working before hitting grad school.) Even then, I don’t come from a well connected family, so landing that first job was a crap shoot. I got mine at a conference, where I went up to a presenter and said, “I understand the work you do, I have a background in it, and I’m trying to find a job, but I don’t really know where to start.” Her response was, “*this* was my PhD dissertation, but my company values backgrounds like yours, so send me your resume.” I started that job two months later.

      But crud. I remember navigating my way to that first job, and I fault nobody for not having a clue. Maybe it’s a bit easier to find “breaking into the field” information on the web or whatever in other industries so more prep is expected from the students/graduates, but mine’s tough.

    4. LW*

      LW here — yes, I also work for a “cool” company so I suspect a lot of these are actually veiled “are you hiring/can you refer me” requests.

      Broadly, I feel it’s a bit of a red flag when people ask how to get hired at a specific company, without providing any details about what resonates to them about the mission etc. I’ve given a lot of career talks where I say “don’t try to get hired at a specific company — try to get hired in the role that’s best for you.”

      1. Dan*

        I can’t tell what kind of tone your “look for the role, not the company” talks take, but yeah, “cool company” drooling drives me nuts. The realities of working at cool company are 1) It’s still work, and 2) If your boss and/or team sucks, life is going to suck. I may not have quit Google as much as I quit my boss. (I never worked for google, that was just an illustration.) And BTW, everybody else has also heard about cool company, so getting an actual interview is like playing the lottery. If you apply to not-household name company, the competition is a lot thinner, and you can build up skills that appeal to household-name company.

        And you’re right about the role… in my immediate line of work, the household-name employers aren’t necessarily the best places to work. I’m not saying they’re bad or anything, but there is a lot of government-adjacent employment, and TBH, I probably have a better job doing that than I would if I had worked for the household-name employers I really wanted to.

        Do your career talks actually talk about the realities of cool companies? Namely that for many entry level roles, the competition is going to be STIFF, and similarly, the pay is usually not all that good? And to reiterate a point I made above, that cool companies aren’t immune from having crappy bosses?

      2. Eukomos*

        In a lot of fields it’s hard to get hired at any company without someone on the inside to vouch for you though, so unless you already know someone working in your field at that company you need to reach out to the people there specifically. Not to mention, I for one have been burned by a few too many bad office cultures to feel confident trying to get a job somewhere without some indication that the people there are happy, so I definitely research individual companies. Certainly there are people who are blinded by the star power of famous companies, and it sounds like you get more than your fair share of them, but doing focused research on the culture and hiring practices of a specific company don’t seem like a red flag to me in and of itself.

      3. Nikki*

        This is a corollary, and it might be specific to my non-profit work, but I also think it’s a red flag when people talk about how our mission resonates with them… for the wrong reasons.

        We do social justice work and I get a lot of emails along the lines of, “I want to work here because I think llamas are cool” and not, “I want to work here because I believe llama grooming is an essential right and the world will be a better place if all llamas are properly groomed.” I even get a few that say, “I’ve never worked with llamas but I saw a horse one time” ! A clumsy metaphor, but you get my drift.

    5. Taniwha Girl*

      Totally agree. “I’ve studied XYZ because I was interested in it, but now as a senior I’m hearing that I either go into academia to continue doing what I’ve studied, or I leave the field and do something totally different. Like, in an office, or something.”

      I don’t think older workers remember how little students know about the working world, especially if their parents don’t work in an office. Jobs like “receptionist” or “sales” are easy to grasp, but what about “project manager” or “accounts payable” or “network administrator” or “business analyst”? They all look like they type on a computer all day, and it’s not clear what exactly they do or what would be fun about it.

  12. Tea-Rex*

    I don’t know how much of this point applies here, but on LinkedIn, you might not be able to send a message to a person outside of your circles (I am not sure how many degrees out, but there’s definitely people I can’t message unless I pay for a Premium subscription). There is a workaround to connecting with people and sending personalised invites. That comes with a character limit though, and might not allow for me to be specific in my initial reaching-out message. This is not the OP’s job to solve, of course, and I definitely don’t think you’re obligated to answer general queries (or even specific ones!) But it’s something to keep in mind as to why initial contact might be very general.

    No excuse for not being specific in follow-up or non-LinkedIn connection messages (e.g. email), though.

  13. OrigCassandra*

    I was overjoyed at a contact from a new grad in my field where the ask was “I know you’re active in Llama Grooming International — how can I contribute?”

    It took me almost no time to connect the new grad with a satisfactory committee position. Win-win-win — the new grad got to network, the committee got a new member, and I got to do the committee chair and the new grad a favor!

    Lots of committees in professional organizations need members, even officers — secretary and treasurer are particularly hard to recruit for, in my experience, and secretary honestly isn’t all that time-consuming for many committees. (I’ve done lots of stints as committee secretary. It’s my preferred committee role.)

    I acknowledge that professional organizations relying on volunteer labor is ethically suspect. Still, set time spent on service against time spent cold-networking. I think service often wins such a comparison.

  14. Kimmy Schmidt*

    OP, if you do make a standard email template or FAQ, I think it’d be really helpful to have some examples of “these are the types of questions that are valuable and specific and more likely to be answered”.

    I’m an academic librarian and I hear from so many students that the library is great and they want to get help, but they don’t even know what they don’t know and they have no idea what questions to ask. Not the same thing, but I think specific examples can be so helpful for young grads.

    1. LW*

      This is a great idea! I know when you’re starting out there are so many “unknown unknowns” and even as someone with a decade of experience, I’m constantly learning new questions to ask about peoples’ roles and career paths.

  15. AGD*

    I am a faculty member and I reliably get 8-10 emails every month from prospective students asking to do a graduate degree with me. It’s not obvious that my position doesn’t allow me to supervise Ph.D. students; but either way, this is definitely not how to apply to our graduate programs, and our website is clear about that. I don’t blame anyone for trying to recruit a potential supervisor first, because things absolutely do work that way in some fields and/or some parts of the world, and I suspect undergrads in some places are being taught to do this. However, it’s a request I’ve started using a form email to respond to most of the time, because the inquiries are almost all heavily generic. If I see evidence that someone has reached out to me in a way that is personalized (rather than something probably sent to my whole department) and/or has a specific question that I’m well-positioned to answer, I’ll tailor an answer, but probably not otherwise.

    1. Dan*

      Interesting. My field is of the “masters required, Ph.D is a plus” variety. When I went to grad school (MS, I don’t have a PhD) I was shooting in the dark in terms of schools and programs, much like the people we’re talking about overall in this thread. I knew *what* I wanted to do (and had the employment and undergraduate background to back it up) but I didn’t know what the academic disciplines were that would support what I needed. I looked around the internet, found a couple of things that were promising, and emailed the program director. I was pretty much like, “this is my background, this is what I want to do professionally, but I don’t know much about the academic space. Can you help me?” He let me into the program, and I’m now doing precisely the work I set out to do.

      I know a lot more about the academic side of my field now than I did then, but I sensed no shame whatsoever in just emailing the program director blind. It probably helps that I wasn’t trying to get into a top 10 PhD, MBA, or law program where everybody is always getting an email about something.

    2. Pescadero*

      I work for a major research university in engineering.

      If you don’t have an advisor before you apply:

      1) If you’re a masters student – you’ll be paying… which is highly, highly unusual. No one here pays for grad school.
      2) If you’re a PhD student… you’re not getting accepted.

      1. Nikki*

        Seconding. I got my undergrad degree at an Ivy League university and we were required to take a “research methods / senior essay” class where we learned about norms of professional academia. Several students were harshly criticized for trying to submit PhD applications without having an advisor identified. We were explicitly told to have an advisor and ideally a course of study / dissertation topic ready to go.

        It’s terrible that prospective students are emailing you and wasting your time and theirs, but this kind of “secret rules” system of applications does exist in academia!

    3. Eukomos*

      Yeah, just because the website says not to doesn’t mean you aren’t actually required to in many fields, I don’t blame your applicants for not trusting that and reaching out anyway. Academia is rife with unspoken rules and spoken ones that are expected to be broken or bent in the right situations by the right people; talking to people is a much more reliable way to navigate than following the supposed official process.

  16. kristinyc*

    When I get requests like this, I like to reply with, “I’m very busy the next few weeks and can’t [get coffee/do a call], but if you’d like to email me your specific questions, I’d be happy to answer them when I can.”

    They usually never even reply.

    I used to do the random coffee meetings, but every single one, I felt like I was on a job interview, telling them my career history when they asked “How did you get started in ___”. I don’t know how that’s particularly helpful for them (because the short answer is, “I was a copywriter, then this other marketing channel got dumped on my plate, and I discovered I liked it more than writing.”).

    1. LW*

      Once I had an intern “interview” me about my career path — it felt very like “I am in highschool writing a paper about this career” in terms of the scope of questions. A lot of things like “what industry material do you read?” (nothing) and “what’s your five year plan?” (I don’t have one). This is not to say that I’ve been unintentional in my career, but I think I freaked him out because I basically just said “look, I worked hard but a lot of this was luck and I couldn’t have predicted where I am now 5 years ago, and I guarantee you can’t either.” (more gently)

      Probably not the most helpful career talk but he caught me on a particularly nihilistic day.

  17. Lauren*

    I got one last week, and I offered him a video chat. HE DECLINED! Claimed he didn’t want to waste my time. So I spewed some advice his way on LinkedIn and he didn’t respond for 3 days. By then all I got back was ‘Thanks, that makes sense.’

    I wish it was a woman and not a guy I gave my awesome 15 years of career advice / knowledge to. It felt like he was barely interested in hearing anything I had to say. Why message me then? He didn’t even ask about open jobs. I’m very confused by it all, and may ignore the next one that comes through. I feel like I’m back in the 90’s being asked for my business card without even speaking to me or applying, but just to claim to the unemployment office to keep benefits going.

  18. Buttons*

    The generic form letter type email is what I use. I get contacted a lot from articles I write, conferences I attend and speak at, and LinkedIn postings. I have a form letter that covers educational paths, certifications, and professional organizations that can help a person better define their goals.
    I am sympathetic to them because I know that their parents and the career councilors at their schools do not have practical or up to date information to help direct them, they feel so lost. I fumbled my way through a few missteps finally landing in this career if someone had just told me when I was 21 about this job I would have gotten here and been happier in my career much sooner. At the same time, its a lot.

  19. calonkat*

    I’ll pile onto the “please just include the questions”. I get so many emails just saying “please call me about llama grooming” (I work in funding for llama groomers, so it’s my job to help people), and when I finally get in contact with them (2 games of phone tag), it’s a question that is answered in a document I could have sent them the link to originally.

    Tips for sending emails to people you don’t know (I’m assuming being polite is a default)
    #1, be brief
    #2, be complete (while still being brief)
    #3, provide your contact info if they’d prefer to contact you in a different manner and specify any restrictions

    “Hi, I was looking at the website about Llama grooming funding, and was wondering if a license was required for being an assistant llama groomer? I’m getting conflicting information from my boss and the school. My contact information is below, email is fine, or if a call would be easier, I’m generally available by phone weekdays after 2pm.”

    This tells me how they found me, what their question is, why they are asking (which means I’ll definitely provide them a link as evidence, but also point out that it’s not REQUIRED, but their boss is free to require it if he feels it’s important), and that they’ll see the email response.

    1. LW*

      I am 20000% more inclined to respond to a message including the phrase “I’ve already looked up x but I have questions about y”. Just let me know that you’re invested enough to have done SOME research!

  20. Buttons*

    The few times I have agreed to meet someone, instead of me just free talking my history, I ask them their goals. What are their interests, why they contacted me. They are young and they don’t know what they don’t know, and, usually, they don’t have career councilors, profs, or parents who can help them. If I take the time to meet them in person I don’t information dump, I ask them questions. I only do this maybe once a quarter, with someone I think has exceptional potential.

  21. Dan*

    Well… I’m not sure I’d let one bad experience put you off from helping other people who may actually be more appreciative of your efforts.

    That said, I get it. My field is woefully underrepresented by BIPOC folks. I ran into a BIPOC PhD student at a conference last year, who gave a pretty bad presentation. I spent like an hour with him afterwards, and it turns out he’s actually a bright kid but with an advisor who is screwing him over pretty hard. (I checked around later, and his advisor has a pretty bad rep. It wasn’t a one-off.) I gave the kid my contact info and said I’d do whatever I could to help him. I’ve never heard from him since, which is a real shame. He was actually doing some good work, but he needed some good direction on how to polish and present it, and he wasn’t getting it.

  22. chewingle*

    I’m a fan of being more explicit, for the sake of people who might have disabilities that make it difficult to pick up hints, but who are otherwise suited for the industry.

  23. Oh Fiddlesticks*

    Write an eBook and point them to it. No joke – that’s really the best way to handle this. When the demand greatly outweighs the supply, the supplier finds ways to scale and profits from it, as they should.

  24. Amy*

    I don’t get nearly as many networking requests as this LW. But I get enough to be frustrated by them. With 70% of people, it’s clear they don’t know why they are contacting me.

    I feel like they want me to draw it out of them. But I’m not Terry Gross or Marc Maron – I’m not interested in trying to figure out what makes that person tick or identifying a previously untapped need or skill they have. There’s not enough in it for me.

    I’m happy to quickly talk about my own career trajectory and skills I think are important but please do have a reason for contacting me. “Because I feel like this is something I’m supposed to do but I’m not sure why” seems to be the an undercurrent in most of these requests in my world. At least from those outside the field.

  25. Proud Dog Mom*

    I’m sympathetic to both sides on this. I’m sure it can be frustrating to receive quite so many requests and downright infuriating when you end up wasting time on someone who proved to be really uninterested or unprepared. LW is being great by even thinking to include a template or being willing to help folks who seem especially interested.

    But I guess my comment overall is for people to remember the real stress you may have experienced trying to get a job when you were early in your career and pile on today’s tough job market too. Most of the jobs on the market are ones that are just totally unknown to college students (especially first-gen/low-income folks). When I was starting out, I had no idea how to figure out what job/field I wanted, so I just didn’t end up networking with people like I should have. Sometimes a new grad really does just want to hear about how someone chose a job, what they like/don’t like about it, what the career path looks like, etc.

    1. LW*

      Thank you! And yes, that’s why I really feel bad just not responding at all. It’s super tough out there and I also hated networking (still do tbh) so I’m definitely empathetic. Maybe I don’t resent the letters so much as I resent the reminder that I can’t help everyone as much as I wish I could :'(

  26. Anax*

    So… a little tangential, but what are some examples of GOOD questions that would be great to hear from new grads? I think new grads often don’t have good examples of “specific questions” that would actually be useful to them.

    As a software developer, these are a few I like…
    – Can you recommend any blogs or forums to read for professional development?
    – Are professional certificates worth it? Which ones are reputable?
    – Can you tell me about your specialty, and how you got into it?

    (That last one is a big thing – IT has SO many sub-specialties which are pretty opaque from the outside, and that’s worth asking about! The question I usually get instead is “what languages should I learn”, and that’s a much worse question – it depends on what you want to do and what region you’re in, and languages are a lot less important than other kinds of specialized knowledge.)

    1. LW*

      I think just any question that reflects you’ve put some thought into it already. Without getting specific about my role, here are some other ideas….

      – What can you tell me about the culture at ? What are some red and green flags when I’m searching for jobs?
      – What are the different career paths/areas of focus you can pursue once you’re in ? What are your advancement opportunities like?
      – How much education do I need? How formal should it be? What kinds of backgrounds do your coworkers have? (I mention this because I think perception of credentials varies wildly by company and specialization, at least in my industry)
      – Are there certain programs/schools that are more credible than others? (esp when it comes to bootcamps, etc)
      – What is the most rewarding part of your job? What is the most frustrating?

      .. would love to hear everyone elses’!

  27. Eukomos*

    My guess is that these people are looking to make a contact in the field as much as they are looking for more information, especially if they’re specifically asking for a phone call. In a lot of fields it’s very difficult to get hired without an internal reference at the company, and if you’re not already in the field you don’t have contacts to pull on for references and you have to create them. Just flat out asking people who don’t know you if they’ll refer you doesn’t have what you’d call a high rate of success, but it’s not uncommon for people to remember people they had good informational interviews with and help them out, so it’s common for job seekers to request informational interviews when they’re not laser-focused on answering any specific questions and just want to chat and make a good impression on you. Ideally they’d do this with people who work at companies they want to work for and have some specific questions about the companies, but since OP did this high profile interview the people who are only just starting to learn about the industry and don’t know where they want to work yet are stumbling across her before their searches have gotten more targeted.

    Honestly OP, if you don’t want to be these people’s contact I’d just turn them down. Say you get a lot of these requests and you’re unfortunately too busy, because you are. Hearing them out when you’re getting too many requests to be able to remember the people who seem like good fits and refer them later when you hear about a job is wasting their time as much as yours. If you know of good resources for people who are trying to break into your field, like a professional organization they could join or an active LinkedIn Group or even just a relevant news site, then directing them there instead would be a great kindness.

  28. Finland*

    If you’re getting that many requests on LinkedIn, it’s probably a good idea to just create a blog post that gives tips on how to network and how to reach someone like you for newly graduated college students. That saves the time of you having to repeatedly give the same information to different people, it gives people who might not know better the information they need to make an informed request of you, and also serves as a very handy response when someone does email you and it doesn’t look like they’re quite prepared. You could simply point them to your blog post about that very topic. I think it would be a win-win.

  29. raincoaster*

    I know a very senior woman who said that she no longer accepts these invitations unless there’s a lunch worth $65 or more in it for her. I don’t even know how you spend $65 on lunch.

  30. RebelwithMouseyHair*

    I wrote an account of how I got my Master’s degree based on my professional experience, on a forum that’s well-known in my profession. Eight years later I still get the occasional private message asking for more information. If there are specific questions that I can answer easily, I’ll do so. Although the rudeness of the last person rather took me aback, so I didn’t bother answering all their questions. I’ve been expecting the questions to dry up now that my info is obviously dated but it doesn’t seem to be the case.

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