(Join us later for Part II - Now What Do I Do and Following Up)
1. Networking is a great way of learning about careers and cultivating relationships.
2. You have to do it the right way.
3. You have access to more people than you think.
4. You need to do research before starting.
How do you network? For some, it can be tough, especially for introverts (you know who you are). Safe distancing in the era of COVID-19 doesn’t make it easier. Do you stand six feet apart and scream through masks? This blog covers how to find and contact people. In the next post, I will show you how to conduct a successful informational interview.
You can network in a variety of ways: social media, face-to-face, email, Zoom (or similar) or phone. It is optimal to do it in person, but you don’t have to. I will focus on INFORMATIONAL INTERVIEWS, that staple of the job-hunting toolkit.
An informational interview is a conversation in which you ask questions to get advice and information. Such interviews generally last 30 to 60 minutes. This is a forum to get the answers to questions you cannot find on your own. This is not the place to ask for a job.
But I Don’t Know Anyone
You can approach people you know or don’t know. You’d be surprised at how helpful people can be. Don’t expect everyone to help. Your request may get ignored, but inevitably someone else will step forward.
Why would a stranger help you?
1. They were once in your shoes and are playing it forward.
2. They were touched by your request.
3. A mutual acquaintance asked them to help.
Example: Suppose you dream of being an attorney who helps animals, perhaps by prosecuting animal abusers or by lobbying for legislation to protect animals (eg, by banning puppy mills or animal testing). (Feel free to substitute another career field that reflects your interests.)
Think of people who might help, who might know of someone who can help or who are employed in a job that you think you would like. You do not have to know them personally.
Create a spreadsheet and/or make a list with the person’s name, how you got his/her name (the connection), job title, employer and any contact information. Add columns for contact dates, thank you messages sent, meetings and notes.
Cast a wide net. You can include friends, parents of friends, professors, people who go to your gym, etc. Be open-minded. They do not have to be in that specific field. They, too, have neighbors and colleagues they may ask to help you. Whom do you know who knows someone or knows someone who knows someone?
In our example, a lawyer in general practice may be a good start. He or she can then refer you to someone with more specific expertise or talk about cases he or she had with animals. Martindale-Hubbell, is a free online directory of attorneys. Search for attorneys in animal law.
Add people to your list whom you don’t know but have a connection with, most notably alumni of your college or high school (colleges especially have lists of alumni who volunteer to help with career issues). Ask your career office for contacts for informational interviews. The career counselor will make you promise that you will not ask for a job.
Aim high. Is there someone you admire even if there is no connection? Add him/her to the list. No promises, but you can try.
Increase the Odds of Someone Helping
Remember that you are building relationships. Before contacting people, conduct background research.
Internet Research and Social Media
You will learn a lot by Googling search terms such as “animals, pets, law.” You will get links to sites including the Animal Legal Defense Fund. Enter “Justice” and “animals” and results will include the article “Why Justice for Animals is the Social Movement of Our Time” in Psychology Today. Peruse the links and identify contacts (Hint: Staff and board members are often listed under “About”). Enter “puppy mill laws or legislation” and any other aspect of animal law you like. Use your imagination.
You will find potential contacts and groups you can join if you enter search terms in Facebook and LinkedIn*. Keep your mind open: You might want to create laws to end puppy mills; maybe you would rather represent clients whose cats have been bitten or clawed someone? Maybe you want to be the lawyer for a zoo. Don’t narrow your search if you aren’t sure which way you want to go. Explore.
More Ways to Find People
Look up specific websites related to the career field, especially professional associations. Some sites encourage networking.
Write to the president of an organization or the head of a department asking for assistance in conducting an informational interview. He or she may help or delegate the request.
You can send queries via Facebook and LinkedIn. Ask if anyone would be willing to answer your questions. You can also send the request to the targeted groups you’ve identified and joined. When writing, be brief, be clear and include relevant information about yourself and what you are looking for. Review responses carefully—there are crazies out there.
How Do You Approach People on Your List? Thoughtfully.
You are building long-term relationships and contacts. When writing for an informational interview, show that you have thought this through, are sincere and are not going to waste his/her time. It does not mean that this will be your life’s work, but that you are interested in learning more about the field. Mention the proposed length of time for the meeting in the request.
If someone gave you the name of a contact, open with that. You might write, “Mary Smith suggested that I contact you because of my strong interest in animal law.” Then write something about your background: For example, “I have long volunteered at a shelter assisting pets that have been abused. Abusers can go unpunished. This has spurred my interest in applying the law to help the well-being of animals. I learned about you and your firm from my research and would like to know more about your work, career path and advice.” Add a timeframe: “Would you be available for 30 minutes by phone or in person?” Keep the note brief, but you can add relevant details, including about your education.
Adapt the first line if you were not given the name of a contact.
How Not to Do It
Don’t write only, “Can I talk to you about animal law?” It doesn’t tell the reader anything about you and the sincerity of the request.
Resumes are optional. Some think a resume implies that you are really looking for a job. I think you can include one if it shows a background in the area (volunteering and college papers count). I suggest omitting it if there is no obvious relevant experience.
If You Get Ignored…
Wait two weeks then try again. You can’t assume that the person was blowing you off. He or she might have put you in the “to do” pile that he/she never gets to. Do not be pushy—be understanding and appreciative. Check your original request for typos and other problems. You can even suggest a few dates/times. It is a personal decision to decide how many times to try. I tend not to do it more than twice and then I might wait at least a month and try once more. I might send another request but I wouldn’t do it for at least three weeks after the previous one. Don’t harass or stalk the person.
After the Meeting
Send a thank you note. Update your list. Plan to update contacts periodically about your progress. But I’m ahead of myself. In the next post, I’ll write how to conduct the interview and what questions to ask.
From this blog, I hope you learned how to identify and contact people who can help you with your career search. Now get started.
*If you are unaccustomed to LinkedIn, it is professional networking site and one of the easiest ways to identify people. You will at some point want to put in your own profile (to be covered in a future post), but for now, you can sign up (enter your profile later) and search for groups and people. LinkedIn has a Premium feature that you can use to directly message people you aren’t connected with. The first month is usually free. I don’t like paying for things. You could research email addresses and other contact information on Google once you find names on LinkedIn. However, If you are ready, you can opt to sign up for the one free month of Premium and then cancel (otherwise you will get charged—remember to cancel).
Dr. Phyllis Brust is an award-winning career counselor and writer and the founder of Careermutt. Her work has appeared in "The Wall Street Journal," "Careers and the MBA," "National Employment Weekly," "Resumes for Dummies" and SHRM.org. She advised students and alumni at Yale University, the University of Chicago, Thomas Jefferson University, Muhlenberg College and Haverford College. She is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania.