Sounding smart = being smart

Dr. Joseph Barber

The stepping stone approach to networking means that while the first people you meet who are relevant to your career interests might not be the best people for you to communicate with, they will probably have a much better idea of who you should be talking to (at least compared to you!). Take career fairs, for example. You might find yourself talking to a recruiter representing an organization that you are really interested in who turns out to have no information about the types of positions you want that match your experience. They might be there talking about sales positions, while you might be there looking for R&D positions. Rather than seeing this as connection fail, see it as a great opportunity to take a business card and follow up after the fair to see if that recruiter can point you in the right direction to someone more relevant to the career path you want to follow.

“Would it be OK if I reach out to you after the fair to see if you can point me towards someone at your organization who could answer some of the questions I have. It would be fantastic if you could share some of your institutional knowledge, and would definitely be of great help to me.”

There is another benefit to the stepping stone approach, and that is that if you follow the trail you will sound smarter and smarter as you progress. So, let’s say you are interested in careers in science communication. Through a close friend of yours, you set up an information interview with someone (contact#1) who works at a medical communications company. Before you meet you read up all you can about the field of medical communications, you jot down some of the questions you have, and you practice talking about yourself, and why you are potentially interested in this field. Here are some good informational interviewing questions you might use:

“I know that your position title is XXX, and I have been reading up about your role, but I would love to hear more about what you do on a day-to-day basis”

“Can you tell me a little about your career path and how it led you here?”

“What skills would you say are most valuable in your role, and which one do you rely on the most?”

“This position sounds really interesting, and from what I have heard, people really enjoy the process of translating complex science to the different audiences you mentioned. What are some of the most challenging aspects of your role?”

These questions give you insights into the position that are hard to find on a website. What’s more, you get to hear the language contact#1 uses to describe their role – language that you might one day need to use to describe your experiences if you apply for these types of positions. You also get to hear what skills are most valuable. These should be the skills you focus on in your application materials and in the answers to interview questions you might be asked. The “challenges” question can be a useful one, as you’ll see below. You don’t want to spend too much time focusing on negative experiences, because the more your contact talks about negative experiences, the greater the chance that they begin to associate the negative feelings they are having talking about these negative experiences with you in their mind. Challenges don’t have to be negative, though, and so this is certainly a much better way to phrase the question than asking: “what don’t you like about your job”!

The very final question you should ask can be a variation of this one:

“This has been a very helpful meeting, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me. I was particularly interested in hearing about the XXX position you mentioned. Do you know anyone in this role that I might reach out to for more information on this?”

The answer is usually “yes”. You can ask contact#1 if they could introduce you, or if you could use their name when you reach out to their suggested contact. Using this approach you should be able to reach out and set up a time to meet with the new contact (contact#2). In this meeting, one of the questions you might ask is something like:

“I know that some of the challenges you face in roles similar to yours are X, Y and Z [information you are parroting back from your previous informational interview], are these the same challenges that you face in your role?”

As contact#2 is listening to you, they are thinking to themselves “Oh my…, this person knows what they are talking about, they have done their homework here”. That’s not a bad thing to have circulating in their brain while you are talking. Of course, when you eventually ask contact#2 for the names of people they think you should talk to in order to gain additional insight into something they mentioned, you can take the information shared by contact#1 and contact#2 and integrate this into your questions for contact#3, who will also think to themselves that you sound awfully smart. And you know what…, you don’t just sound smarter at this point, you are smarter!


Author: Joseph

Joseph Barber is a Senior Associate Director at Career Services serving graduate students and postdocs. He has a PhD in animal behaviour and animal welfare, and continues to teach these subjects as an adjunct professor at Hunter College (CUNY).