Coffee in 2002, a Job Offer in 2004

January 20, 2005

Whenever I speak to graduate students about building a career outside academe, I stress the importance of networking. It's often a tough sell. After all, most academics find the idea of getting a job based on a personal connection distasteful and shrink from the level of extroversion and optimism that networking seems to require. Many graduate students tell me that they have given up on networking, since they have made dozens of calls and written dozens of letters with no visible result beyond a fruitless meeting or two.

To counter those arguments, I point out that networking is a long-term effort and that the benefits are almost always deferred and indirect, but no less crucial to your success in a finding a job. Learning more about a field and developing a connection with someone who works in it is never a waste of time, I say. I also emphasize that networking is a two-way street -- people who have been helped in the past are usually willing to help others.

Happily, my own career has recently provided me with new evidence to support my belief in the power of networking. A cup of coffee in 2002 led directly, albeit not speedily, to a dream job in 2004. What follows is the story of how I got my new position in higher-education consulting as told in turns by myself and by Risa Nystrom McDonell, the person with whom I had coffee in 2002.

Susan: After being laid off in November 2001 from The Motley Fool, an Internet start-up, I was in a funk. The job that I loved -- Web content producer -- simply didn't exist after the dot-com bust. I began thinking hard about what else I'd like to do. I had earned a Ph.D. in English from Princeton University, and while I knew that I did not want to teach or be a faculty member, I decided that I did want to be involved in the work of universities. Not knowing exactly what I wanted to do, I set up a number of networking interviews with people in a variety of quasi-academic fields.

One day in the winter of 2002, I read an interview with a Ph.D. in English who worked for the Art & Science Group, a higher-education consulting company in Baltimore. I liked what I read about the business and thought it would be a great fit for me. I e-mailed the English Ph.D. and asked if we might meet for coffee in Baltimore. I said that I was interested in learning more about her company and about educational consulting in general. I didn't ask about specific job openings at her company. I didn't want to put her in an awkward position, even though I was eager to find a job.

Risa: Successful networking requires only two things -- recognizing when someone else has information that can benefit you and taking the initiative to ask that person for help. Sue did both. Her e-mail expressed her interest in my field, summarized her own background succinctly, asked if I'd be willing to advise her on how best to seek opportunities in educational consulting, and, most important, made it clear that she didn't expect a job to materialize from our encounter.

Far from feeling inconvenienced, I was impressed with her initiative and happily agreed to meet. It was that simple.

At our meeting, Sue made it easy for me to want to help her. She arrived promptly, dressed professionally, and brought a copy of her résumé so I had a basis for helping her connect her own experience to the needs of employers in my field. She asked good questions, demonstrating that she had done her homework. She also listened well, resisting the urge to get defensive when I outlined some of the trade-offs that academics may find difficult in this line of work.

If it were up to me I would have offered her a job on the spot, but unfortunately we were a small firm with no open positions -- unless I wanted to give her mine. I did, however, offer to show her résumé to the company's partners on the off chance that something might become available.

Susan: Risa was easy to talk to and clearly understood what sort of information would be helpful to me. Her company didn't have any openings, but she also gave me thumbnail sketches of Art & Science Group's competitors, which was enormously helpful. Knowing that Consulting Company A made its profit by selling off-the-shelf software products and that Consulting Company B focused primarily on designing and printing admissions publications helped me understand the field and how to position myself to apply at various companies.

Meeting with Risa had been well worth the drive to Baltimore from my home in Washington, but I felt depressed afterward. I'd been without a paycheck for several months by that point and I wanted a job -- any job -- quickly. I was frustrated with the slow progress of my job search and even a little jealous of Risa for having such a great job. I composed myself and sent her a thank-you note and filed away her contact information and my notes of our conversation.

About six months later, I found a full-time job at America Online and happily accepted it, thrilled to be among those with health insurance and regular paychecks once again. I quickly discovered that I was ill-suited to working for a megacorporation, however, and continued looking for jobs in higher education during the two years that I worked at AOL.

Risa: As it turns out, Sue did eventually end up with my job. Two years later, my husband got the job offer of his dreams and we were off to Chicago. With great sadness, I found myself giving notice at a company I had never planned on leaving. It took two years, but Sue's initiative finally paid off when she popped into my head as an obvious candidate for my replacement. I e-mailed to see if she might still be interested, and when she responded enthusiastically I brought her to the attention of the hiring team.

It is important to note that while Sue's networking got her in the door, it didn't give her an inside track. She still had to present a résumé and cover letter that demonstrated relevant skills and experience, and she still had to argue her case persuasively during the interview process. Because of her advance groundwork, however, she went into the process with a much clearer idea of how to make a case for herself, compared with many other candidates.

Susan: I nearly fell off my chair when I saw Risa's e-mail. It couldn't have come at a better time. I was increasingly frustrated with my job and had been seriously considering moving to a new city. Risa gave me some pointers on what her company was looking for in a candidate, but I knew that it was up to me to take advantage of the lead I'd been given. I worked hard on my résumé and cover letter and was thrilled to be called for an interview. I prepared by reading all of the material on Art & Science Group's Web site, as well as all of the articles I could find on higher-education consulting, enrollment management, and other related topics. I also looked over my notes from my talk with Risa, and was glad that I had kept them.

On the day of the interview, I was able to say truthfully, "I've been interested in this company for two years." I was offered the job and my husband and I moved to Baltimore in September. I'm thrilled with my new line of work, my new colleagues, and my new city.

Risa: Now the tables have turned and I'm the one out there looking for a job. In a twist worthy of O. Henry, Sue has been able to return the networking favor, providing me with a valuable contact in Chicago. While this connection has not yet led to any actual job leads, it has produced other interesting contacts, each of which has in turn generated further contacts. Thanks to Sue, my network has grown exponentially in a short period of time, and I'm confident that eventually the right opportunity will present itself. I just hope it doesn't take two years.

Our Joint Advice

In the course of writing this article together, Risa and I developed a list of pointers for successful networking:

  • Don't apologize. As long as you are polite and flexible, you are not inconveniencing anyone by asking for a networking interview. Most successful people have been helped along the way by someone else and are happy to return the favor.

  • Don't take rejection personally. If someone turns down a request for a meeting, remember that it most likely has nothing to do with you. For all you know, you may have caught someone in the middle of a tight deadline or a family emergency. Assume good intentions on the other person's part and move on to the next target. Or, if you sense that the person is eager to help but simply unable to do so right away, you can offer to call back in a month and see if his or her schedule has opened up by then.

  • Be creative. You never know who might make a good contact. Anyone you read about in your alumni magazine, your local newspaper, The New Yorker, or anywhere else is fair game. You can even scour the Web site of an organization that interests you and approach someone you've identified from the staff.

  • Do your homework. The more you can learn ahead of time, the more focused your meeting will be, and the richer the information you will take away from it. You will also impress your interviewer enough that he or she may be motivated to take a more-than-perfunctory interest in your career path. And always bring your résumé.

  • Focus ... but not too narrowly. You need to go into a networking interview with a clear sense of the directions you would like to explore and the ways in which a given contact might help. At the same time, your contact may know of opportunities that would never have occurred to you, and you should be open to those suggestions.

  • Keep records. Be sure to write down and file away contact information and related notes after every meeting. Even if a meeting doesn't seem immediately useful, you never how the information might come in handy down the road.
  • Be patient. Most contacts are more comfortable granting interviews when they know that you don't expect them to find you a job. Your goal is simply to get your name and your résumé in front of as many people as possible, while also gathering information that will help you hone your job search.

Networking may never feel like second nature to someone used to the academic hiring process, but it gets easier every time. If you feel shy, remember that networking is a two-way street. Even if you think that you have little to offer, you may well have information and ideas that can benefit the person you'd like to meet. Let that thought give you confidence as you set out to build your new career.

Susan Basalla May is the co-author of "So What Are You Going to Do With That?: A Guide to Career-Changing for M.A.'s and Ph.D.'s." She is a managing associate for Art & Science Group and earned her Ph.D. in English from Princeton University. Risa Nystrom McDonell earned her Ph.D. in English from Vanderbilt University and until recently worked as a managing associate for Art & Science Group. She now lives in Chicago, where she devotes her time to freelance writing and networking in search of a new position.