Networking is icky! …or maybe not.

Ok, for some of us, the thought of networking is just plain icky, not to mention scary. To be honest, that was how I felt, especially when I was still new to my field and did not have any work experience. I thought networking was just another word for “sucking up.” And then I realized, networking is just a means of gathering and sharing information. It doesn’t need to be icky.

As a college student, if you have questions about an assignment, about a new concept that’s been presented in class, or about an upcoming exam, I hope you feel comfortable approaching your instructor with your questions. You’d probably call or email, or you might seek out your instructor before/after class, or during his or her office hours.

Likewise, if you have questions about a particular occupation or about working for a specific organization, it makes perfect sense, and is absolutely acceptable, to seek out professionals who can answer those questions during an informational interview.  Informational interviews are a form of networking and are a great starting place, especially if you have little-to-no work experience in your field.

Are professionals willing to be interviewed? Many are willing, but be respectful of their time by asking smart questions. Let’s return to the example of asking your instructor a question about an assignment. The conversation with your instructor is usually most effective if you have specific questions in mind. If you approached your instructor with, “Can you tell me about the assignment?” they’d probably say, “What part of the assignment?” or “Weren’t you listening in class?” On the other hand, if you asked, “You mentioned we should cite at least 6 sources. May I cite blogs or should I only site academic journals?” your instructor knows what specific information to clarify for you.

Likewise, when conducting informational interviews, you want to have specific questions in mind that probe deeper than any information you might read online or in a book. “From my readings, it seems that art therapy is gaining momentum and seeing some real growth. Is that consistent with what you’ve been seeing in the field?” If you were pursuing a career in art therapy, it would be useful to know whether or not there was demand for art therapists, so a question like the one above helps you get an answer that will assist you in your decision-making.  It also gives the professional you’re interviewing a specific question to address.  Informational interviews can certainly vary in length and depth of conversation, but I suggest requesting 20-30 minutes of the professional’s time and generating 10-15 thoughtful questions to ask.  You can always ask fewer questions or add more as the conversation progresses.

Can informational interviewing get you a job? Maybe, but usually not directly. (A friend of mine was offered a job at the end of an informational interview, but that was definitely an exception, not the rule!) Let me give you another example. Let’s say that a high school student were given your name by one of the admissions counselors because they were interested in majoring in the same subject as you. The high school student dutifully emails you to set up a time to for a brief conversation. She asks for only 20 minutes of your time which you appreciate because you have a lot of other things going on. In her email, she includes a list of questions she hopes to ask you, which makes you happy because you can prepare your responses in advance of the conversation. The high school student calls you on the predetermined day and your conversation goes very well. Then, at the end of the call, she asks if you can get her into your college. “Wha????” you ask. “Of course not! That’s not my decision.” You’d probably leave the conversation scratching your head. On the other hand, if the student asked you for advice about how to be successful at your college, you’d likely be happy to share with her what classes you thought were phenomenal, what food to avoid at the cafe, and which residence halls had the best reputations. Why would you be willing to share all of that information? Because the student was respectful of your time, asked thoughtful questions, had done some research about your school, and mostly because, you’re a nice person. As nice as you are, however, you don’t have the power to get her admission to your school.
Likewise, most professionals are happy to share insights, advice, and even contacts with you. Some will bend over backwards to help you out. Why? Because they are nice people. But, they might not be in a position to offer you a job. So don’t make things awkward by asking for one. Of course, be honest and let them know you’re looking for employment, just don’t put the burden on them to find the job for you. However, if your interaction was positive, the next time they hear about a job opportunity fitting your interests, they are much more likely to reach out to you and let you know about it. Likewise, if you keep the professional connection with them active, they may feel more comfortable passing along your name to their contact who is hiring for the opportunity.

Hopefully you can see that networking (of which, informational interviewing is a legitimate form), doesn’t have to be icky.  So, get out there and start networking!

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