I don't understand networking.
April 3, 2012 9:10 PM   Subscribe

I’m a dissatisfied academic looking to enter the workforce, and I’ve been trying to use informational interviews to begin building a professional network, but it doesn’t seem to be working. What am I doing wrong?

I’ve done five informational interviews with established, mid-career professionals in four different fields. I’ve met them through my university’s career center database, volunteering, friend-of-a-friend connections, and my part-time work.

I abide by basic informational interview etiquette: I don’t ask for a job, I offer to buy lunch/coffee, I don’t take up more than 20 minutes (unless the interviewee repeatedly tells me that I may do so), I send a thank-you note afterwards, I research the industry and the interviewee beforehand, etc.

Here are some typical questions that I might ask: “How did you get this job?” “What’s a typical day like?” “What do you think the most important qualifications are?” “What kinds of entry-level opportunities should I be pursuing?”

In addition to those, I always ask something like “Can you think of three other people for me to talk to?” The answer is always “Hmmm... not really....” Sometimes, I even wind up asking this question several times in one interview, as the interviewee repeatedly brings up related fields that I might look into. And I’ll say “Great! I hadn’t thought of that. Do you know anyone in [that field] I can talk to?” And they’ll say “Hmmm... no, not really.”

I’ve also seen people on AskMe complain about informational interviewers who come in once and are never heard from again. I am guilty of this, but I don’t know how I should be keeping in touch with informational interview contacts. My job search is going quite poorly, so I don’t have any good news to share. I don’t want to be a nuisance and contact them when I have nothing substantive to say.

Of course, I’m grateful that people are willing to give me any time at all! But everyone talks about informational interviews as a great way to build up a network, and it doesn’t seem to be working for me. Am I doing something wrong? Or do I just need to keep plugging away? “Keep trying, and be more patient” is an acceptable answer to this question.
posted by The Art of Sockpuppetry to Work & Money (22 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Something that someone said recently on the green struck me as excellent advice:

When you're networking for a job, it's most helpful to pick one thing you say you're looking for. This is a much more useful spur to people's imaginations, and sticks better in their mind so they can contact you later with something they've found.

If you're saying "I'm looking to find out about a wide range of jobs", it's less actionable or something; people won't be as able to think of helpful contacts. But "I'm looking for work as a technical writer for medical software" or "I'm looking for work in grantwriting for an arts organization"... either of those is more likely to lead to concrete help.

(I know the paradox is that you're open to lots of things and don't want to close off possibilities, and I don't have good advice there. Just a suggestion to think about whether your approach so far has been very "I am qualified for lots of jobs", and if so maybe you could narrow it more toward "I want a specific kind of job".)
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:23 PM on April 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

“Can you think of three other people for me to talk to?”

Three is a lot for someone to come up with off the top of their head, or feel obligated to think of. Maybe try just asking about one.

“Great! I hadn’t thought of that. Do you know anyone in [that field] I can talk to?” And they’ll say “Hmmm... no, not really.”

This sounds fine. But, some people may not want to volunteer their contacts for an open-ended conversation with you. Their contacts could find that presumptuous. At this point though, you probably have an idea of what most of the related fields are, so maybe beforehand think of a relevant question you would ask someone in that field, and then if your contact brings up that field, you could say you've been thinking about X question, and ask them if they know anyone who might be able to answer it by email.

I don’t know how I should be keeping in touch with informational interview contacts. My job search is going quite poorly, so I don’t have any good news to share.

You could update them on how you're putting their advice into practice.
posted by cairdeas at 9:25 PM on April 3, 2012

Yeah, three is a bit too many and people don't really like giving out contacts names unsolicited - you need to take their suggestion and do your own research as to who would be good to contact.

So, you need to build your own network - you can tell the next person you talk to, I spoke with such and such, they recommended this field to me, do you know them - and do it that way, but you can't rely on the people you're interviewing to establish that network for you.

You also need to do far more than five for this to start seeing any results. And it's a long-term thing - it's going to be slow.
posted by mleigh at 9:44 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Someone coming in cold and asking me, "Can you think of three other people for me to talk to?" would feel very uncomfortable; I'll pass on your contact info, but I'm probably not going to give other people's contact info to someone I just met.

Is your school pushing informational interviews, have other people you know had good luck with them, are they common in your prospective field, etc.? Informational interviews are fairly uncommon around me, and a lot of people I work with/chat with think they're sort-of weird. (I guess informational e-mail with a thinly-veiled pretense for the contact is more common.) If it's working/has worked for people around you, great. But if it's just platitude-style generic advice for job-seekers so they feel like they're DOING something, it might not be the right strategy.

"I’ve done five informational interviews with established, mid-career professionals in four different fields. "

That's not a network, that's a scattershot. Networks interconnect. Are you focused on something in particular? (On preview, what LobsterMitten said.) You're going to have to do a looooot more to build a network of people.

"But everyone talks about informational interviews as a great way to build up a network, and it doesn’t seem to be working for me."

I think it's a mediocre way to build up a network. What other things are you trying? A blog on a topic related (even very loosely) to your area of interest, with a local focus, will build a network. Attending continuing education seminars will let you meet people and give you a commonality to discuss. GIVING continuing ed seminars ("What Building Maintenance People Need to Know About Statistics") might help. Joining young professionals organizations (or Rotary and their ilk for more mature professionals). Attending benefits (not necessarily spendy black-tie balls, but even minor-league baseball events). Just a few things I've seen people do that helped; hard to be more specific without knowing the fields you're targeting.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:47 PM on April 3, 2012 [7 favorites]

I'm just going to throw in another idea about informational interviews, although it doesn't entire answer your question (because I did not use it to get a network, I used it to learn about other potential fields and obtain feedback that helped me land the next job(s).

I also started at a similar point; academia was not making me happy, so I picked a random job that made me more miserable and started looking into other career possibilities.

Have you narrowed down potential field(s)? If you haven't done that I would start with that so that we can point you to better places to find people. Believe it or not, the "alternative careers outside the ivory tower" helped for me, but ...you may want to start there.

Once you have a field identified, here are some places that had people, although it will have to be tailored to your desired field:

-Organizations for the job (so initially I joined and posted a query on a forum for medical writers, but tailor it to your field/organization).

-LinkedIn (there are many groups by profession...post a query there/would anyone provide an info interview).

-Google ....This sounds insane but the most helpful people to me had the desired job position and had my background.So I googled (my city) + job title+ PhD and stated that I wanted to break into their field and find out if it was for me...these people were always phenomenally helpful because they did the exact same thing usually in the previous few years.I never even asked but they volunteered or even brought along other people to talk to.

IF it helps to have a script that I used or see another approach to info interviews, see here and here. Not typing everything out again.

Now for the questions (that were useful for me):
--What are other job titles to look for when searching for job X?
--What are other ways to find jobs in this field? (I found out there were recruiters, boy did that make my life easy)
-What terms do HR/people who hire look for and what do they want to see? (some pple even reviewed my cv which was really really helpful).

I will admit that I was horrible at followup with people, too. However, I've adopted a different attitude about it. I try to use a "pay it forward" approach and answer questions that people ask me --I've now done info interviews for people or pointed them to resources. It doesn't bother me if I don't hear much again, but just do it in the spirit that people helped me before, too.

Also, if I think about your question a bit more (you truly want a network vs informational interviews), then...what about volunteering at a job seeking club in your city or town? I'm sure you can offer skills/suggestions -- offer what you know freely--I'm sure that pple will try to help you out in turn.

What about volunteering an hour or two a week at organizations that do what you want to do?

posted by Wolfster at 9:48 PM on April 3, 2012 [6 favorites]

I don't even understand how this is *intended* to work. I'll gladly talk to you all day about what it's like to be in software development, but it's not going to lead to any job offers because we hire based on skills. Maybe it would lead you toward learning those skills (if you found the field interesting), so you could come back in a few years with new knowledge and ask about openings, but I really don't get what it is you're trying to accomplish here. A professional network is made up, in general, of people who can vouch for the competency of one another. If I worked with you at a previous job and you did a good job, and you asked me if I had any positions in my company open (in the same field), then I would recommend you. If I had lunch with you one time and found you to be a very pleasant person with zero experience in my field, I'm sorry, but I can't recommend you because I don't know you to be qualified. The people that I would be recommending you *to* (my managers) are not people who I want to give poor advice to, because it reflects badly on myself.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 9:58 PM on April 3, 2012 [11 favorites]

I have done a couple of career changes now, and have relied on informational interviewing to bridge the chasm.

First of all, it may be a good idea to reserve the actual informational interviews for people you know and trust, and who may be more tolerant for exploratory conversations. People like your relatives or friends can give you ideas.

A better networking technique is to go into a meeting already knowing what you want to do, and asking for information about the sector you would like to work in - who's hiring, who's not, who to talk to.

I think your questions are too abstract for most of your contacts, so they would be unwilling to inflict your questions on someone else!

But don't give up. Finding a job is never easy. The more people you talk to, the closer you will get.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:23 PM on April 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm occasionally at the receiving end of informational interviews. The more useful ones (to the extent that I can tell) are the when the person is already trying to start out in this field, maybe by taking some classes or volunteering, but wants to know where to go, what to focus on, and who to talk to. I can easily offer information like "I've heard companies X & Y are hiring," or "definitely learn skills in areas A and B," and they are enough in the field to evaluate that information for both truthfulness and applicability to their situation.

I've had a couple of people who maybe were more like you come through, and honestly I don't think it was all that great for either of us. I mean, I can answer a list of questions like yours, no problem (Here are some typical questions that I might ask: “How did you get this job?” “What’s a typical day like?” “What do you think the most important qualifications are?” “What kinds of entry-level opportunities should I be pursuing?”). But unless you have the specificity that LobsterMitten mentions, I doubt I'd be offering up anyone's name for you to talk to.

At some level, it comes down to that if you met with me, told me that you wanted a job like mine, asked what you should do, and I suggested you do X, Y, and Z, there isn't much you can do in terms of "follow up" unless you are letting me know how X, Y, and Z are working out for you. If you aren't actually entering the field, you aren't part of my network, nor am I part of yours. So what you are doing is fantastic for learning about some different fields, but it's not going to turn into a network unless you actually start embedding yourself into a field. I think this is what tylerkaraszewski is getting at, that you are at step one of a process that necessarily goes much deeper and longer, and the actual outcome part happens much further along.
posted by Forktine at 1:22 AM on April 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Academics seem to deal with first with information and second with people. Business deals first with people and second with information.

Most academics I know -- with all due respect -- are relatively shit when it comes to dealing with people. In academia, your work trumps your identity in many cases, or so it seems. In business, it's about people first and ideas second.

If the people you are meeting are refusing to help, chances are you are engaging with them as a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves. People know that and it's a bit rough.

And it's a mistake most people make when starting to network. If you get genuinely interested in the people you are meeting, I expect your result will change. Ask about their motivations. Their ambitions. Their goals. How what they're doing relates to their goals. Where they see the problem areas in their field. Etc.
posted by nickrussell at 1:56 AM on April 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

What I think is wrong is that you haven't mentioned that you're actually applying for jobs.

Contrary to modern popular wisdom, that's how you get jobs. An informational interview is at a point so far distantly removed from the point where applying for a job is located, they seem as specks to one another.

I would use them to find out what kind of job I might consider applying for, but thinking I can use informational interviews to get jobs would be like trying to use a teaspoon to tunnel out of my house through the basement when I could just as well walk out the door.
posted by tel3path at 3:33 AM on April 4, 2012

FWIW, I've gotten burned on sharing contacts before and I no longer do it unless I have actually seen the person's work. (And even then, what happens is that I write to my contact and say "Hey, I know of someone doing X that's looking for Y, are you looking for anyone like that?" and if they say no, the original asker wouldn't ever know.)

I think a more productive route would be asking what companies/cities/subdivisions specialize in a particular thing you're interested in. That way, you have a starting point towards doing your own work, and it also gives them an opening to offer a contact *if they want to*.
posted by tchemgrrl at 5:05 AM on April 4, 2012

Are you looking to have interesting discussions, or are you looking for a job?

The majority of your informational interviews should be at places where you want to work. They should not be just general conversations with interesting people, looking for leads elsewhere.

Your priorities should be: (1) Find out about the business; (2) Find out about open positions; (3) Find out how to get hired. If at any point in this process you feel things aren't a good fit, then move on to asking for contacts in other fields/organizations.

Once you refocus your interviews, then re-examine your interview questions. On your list of questions, you don't seem to be asking "What do you look for in a potential employee?" or "Do you have any open positions right now that I might be a fit for?" or similar.

You will not get a job without applying for one.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 5:25 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've attended a number of career workshops at my current university and they very clearly differentiate between informational interviews and networking - informational interviews are to gain more information about an industry sector or job, networking is what you do at conferences, professional associations, friends of friends, etc. One doesn't do informational interviews for the purpose of building a professional network. No wonder informational interviews are not working out for you if your goal is to build a professional network. (I am kind of curious where this bit of received wisdom came from, "everyone talks about informational interviews as a great way to build up a network")

One goal of informational interviews, as presented in the workshops, is to gain more of the "insider" type knowledge as described by Wolfster above. So questions should get fairly specific, in the sense of you asking more specific questions about the field or jobs based on the answers your interviewee is giving you. As you get deeper into the topic your interviewee may offer up contacts without you having to explicitly ask for them. I wonder if in your interviews you come across as somebody fishing for contacts, and that is why people shut down.

So I think there are two things going on here:
1) Informational interviews are not the right tool to build up a professional network
2) Your informational interview technique may need work. If you haven't done so already, try doing one with your current set of questions with a friend or career center person, and have them critique it. They may point out where certain sequences of questions felt awkward, or where instead of listening to their answer you rushed to get on to your next question.
posted by research monkey at 6:16 AM on April 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

You've had a lot of good advice upthread; let me just add a nuance for you.

As a PhD in the working world, I've seen both academe and the business side of things. Most business people can't get their head around academics and what they do. They are either intimidated by the PhD, or fall back on stereotypes of forgetful professors with pipes in tweed sports jackets with leather patches on the elbows. Either way, you are fighting a perception of "fit" every time you talk with someone.

One way to combat this problem is to dress up - suit and tie, or nice dress, nylons, high heels and jewelry. Match their dress code. Another is to be more strategic in your questions, as others have said above. Still another is to be friendly and engaging, also mentioned above. Cultivate the art of small talk, no more than 5 minutes of chit-chat before getting down to business - you want to be businesslike, not transactional. Try to put yourself in their shoes, if your question would make you or a colleague feel uncomfortable, it will likely make them uncomfortable. Follow up the conversation with a thank-you.

Honestly, though, the easiest way I know of to help people get over their prejudices is for them to see you in action. Why not propose a joint project of some kind, of benefit to both the university and the industry you're interested in?
posted by LN at 6:24 AM on April 4, 2012

I like Nick Russell's comment: If the people you are meeting are refusing to help, chances are you are engaging with them as a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves.

I've done informational interviews. Generally people come in, they go on their way, and they send a thank you saying, "Thanks for meeting with me." OK, fine, I don't have any real connection with that person and I never think of them again.

More successful contacts are ones where our personalities click, they are genuinely interested in something I have to offer, and we either get together again in a less formal setting, or maybe we keep in touch because after that initial thank you, they send me an article I might be interested in, or invite me to an event, and we start corresponding. But these are rare.

I think informational interviews where you come in cold and don't necessarily care to maintain a relationship with the person are only useful if you have a specific goal in mind, like to walk out understanding how to break into industry X.
posted by chickenmagazine at 6:34 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm regularly asked to give informational interviews because some professors in my field assign them to their students. I'm most likely to be willing to talk with someone if their initial request:

- Comes through regular email, not as LinkedIn or Skype contact requests
- Has no more than 3 short paragraphs
- Makes clear that they're familiar with my approach to the field and they haven't just grabbed the first widget wiggler they found
- Briefly describes their background and why they're interested in doing what I do, e.g., "I've studied basket weaving for years and am intrigued by the parallels between weaving principles and the widget wiggling that you do."
- Includes a few of the questions that they're planning to ask
- Gives me a reasonable amount of time in which to respond

The questions that I'm more interested in answering are like the ones nickrussell listed: "Ask about their motivations. Their ambitions. Their goals. How what they're doing relates to their goals. Where they see the problem areas in their field."

Questions like "What's a typical day like?" or "What qualifications do I need?" could suggest that the interviewer hasn't researched the field very much. People might be more willing to give similar information if you made the questions more personal or asked for opinions, like, "What's your favorite aspect of your job? What would you change if you could? What skills does the field need most? When you hire people, what do you look for?"

That last question is very useful to ask, because many people coming from academia think that their CV is the most important thing, while for a lot of people in my industry, realistic work examples trump everything else. We glance at the resume and then want to see samples and lots of them.

I agree with researchmonkey and others that informational interviews aren't networking. They could turn into networking if you're able to connect with the person and you follow up with something useful to that person. For example, if the interviewee reveals a curiosity about Albanian approaches to widget wiggling and later you notice a news item related to that, you could send it to them with a quick note.
posted by ceiba at 6:53 AM on April 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

I am a mid-career professional who recently had lunch with a dissatisfied academic looking for a career change. She found me through a university career database. I was happy to speak with her, but really didn't feel like I helped much because there wasn't much overlap between her experience and interest and my work. She discussed her background, and I mentioned a few companies that seemed to be a good fit and asked if she had contacted them; she hadn't.

In contrast, I've gotten a few calls from complete strangers who were just interested specifically in my work. First, I found that a lot more flattering than being contacted by people who found me through the university database. And discussions with them were much more interesting and productive.

Which is all a lead in to this advice: Instead of asking for interviews with people you know or have some personal connection to, contract strangers whose WORK interests you. Yes, not all of them will respond, but generally people like to talk to people who act interested and impressed with their work.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 7:44 AM on April 4, 2012

Posting one more thing that you may not have thought about OP if your goal is to truly network. Also assuming that by dissatisfied academic,you mean faculty, but this can still apply if you are a postdoc, etc.

Does your university (or neighboring universities) offer full-day events that include panels and speakers who have transitioned out of academia and into other professional fields? This type of activity would mainly be for PhD students and postdocs. I'd google to see if you can find some great ones along with ones in your area (and if your department doesn't do this, do other departments do it?)

If you find one at your uni,volunteer to be part of it. Alternatively, volunteer to help start one for your current population of grad students (I guarantee some would want this....).

Anyway, if you participate as an organizer, you can reach out to speakers, email/correspond, participate in a subsequent happy hour ....but you will have many interactions and can ask questions "for the students" or be honest and say that it is for yourself.

I've seen (and even participated) in some of these programs and I really think that this would be a viable way to 1) identify careers that may be appropriate or relevant to your training, 2) answer questions about the field/build up contacts, and 3) truly start networking with people who are in the field that you want to work in.

If you happen to be in a biological field, feel free to memail me because I can point to some great programs to give you some ideas or as to what you could search for.Good luck.
posted by Wolfster at 7:59 AM on April 4, 2012

I don't think "networking" works the way you are doing it. As tylerkaraszewski pointed out, networking is knowing someone well enough that you can vouch for them, and that is not happening with one-time "informational interviews." You need repeated contact, or at least excuses to see someone regularly, for them to get to know you, become a friend, and thus a "network."

I know I don't get anywhere with anyone unless there's a regular/repeating reason for me to be seeing them in person for awhile. One time contacts don't stick.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:00 AM on April 4, 2012

I've had some luck with this -- but I have never used the term "informational interview," because, like others have said, I think it sounds weird. And people don't want to hire people that seem weird.

Find a reason to connect with someone: "We're both interested in such-and-such-a-thing, would love to get your perspective on x/y/z, also I happen to be on the job market, any leads/thoughts?"

The alternative: "Hi, I'm here for my informational interview," sounds a lot like, "Hi, I'm going to ask you a bunch of questions and you're definitely not going to want to hire me."
posted by TurkishGolds at 11:08 AM on April 4, 2012

Coming from someone in the non mainstream world, my viewpoint might not be relevant, but as a layperson, it is just reading to me that you are meeting semi-strangers and asking them for a huge (their rep at risk) favor.

If I were meeting these people, I would never ask them for 3 names. I would find out what your common interests are, develop a real friendship and network from there. Offer something first that develops a real connection.

For example, the friend of a friend contact. That was a perfect opportunity to expand your circle of friends to include him. Next time you have an event or are doing something interesting, maybe invite both your friend and the friend of a friend. That is what developing a network is about (to me, at least).

Or, coming from a bit of a different angle, develop a friendship and see if any one of these people would be interested in playing the part of a mentor.
posted by Vaike at 12:43 PM on April 4, 2012

I've volunteered as a career mentor for a number of years at our local university.

An informational interview is strictly that - a way of finding out what's it like to work in a particular field, learn of trends and developments and see if your skills and interests are aligned with it. That's it. If someone were to ask me to introduce them to three of my contacts out of the blue, I would immediately say no, because this is a violation of the spirit of the interview. You have to leave it up to the interviewer to offer further contacts by him or herself.

Informational interviews have little to do with effective networking.

There's a misconception that networking means increasing the number of people you know in the hope that someone will magically offer you what you're looking for. Whoever said to you that an informational interview would help you network may have had this erroneous belief. It's the reason perhaps why job-seekers think they're achieving something by collecting as many business cards as they can when they go to conferences or job fairs.

This misconception is unfortunately embodied in a popular job-seeking quote: "It's not what you know, it's who you know" More job-seekers have been messed up by these nine words than I can imagine.

The key to a good network is the opposite. It is not who *you* know, it's *who* knows you. And what they know you for.

Are you known for being an expert in your field? Are you known for being a good, reliable worker? Are you known for being able to work effectively with others?

Building a network means making these answers obvious to the people who are hiring. That's why your network begins with the folks you have worked for and with. To extend the network you have to demonstrate your skills, talents and aptitudes through whatever means available. A presence online is one idea. Volunteering is another. But whatever ways you choose, they should all have one thing in common - you are helping someone solve a problem.

A network is a reputational web, not an associative one.
posted by storybored at 10:01 PM on April 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

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