How to Ask for Career Advice from Professionals

Over my years teaching business students at the undergraduate and MBA levels, and in my work as a consultant, I’ve done my share of career coaching. Admittedly, it also comes up a lot when I am at networking events and on LinkedIn, with people looking to score free advice from a pro. Some have come to me with no idea about what to do with their lives, some come to discuss a career change or personal/professional hurdle, while others came to compare two job offers. From construction, to tech, to medicine, to finance, they are all trying to find their zone and to tread a path that will lead them to self-actualization.

But, they often don’t know what to ask and walk away empty-handed.

The funny thing about experts is that they spend a lot more time considering the nuances of things that are not often considered by others. They have sorted through technicalities, charted a wide variety of logic models, and thought through the connotations and meanings of a lot of different words/concepts that people tend to throw around cavalierly. As a result, you need to be careful about what you ask experts, because questions full of generic terms and broad concepts are not going to be meaningful and will not enable anyone to bring the depth of their knowledge to bear. After watching a lot of people stumble over this recently, I would like to offer up some general suggestions for how to ask experts for career advice (especially the free kind).

Search your own database before you search ours.

If you are looking for some input on your professional life, your first stop is your favorite search engine. Popular periodicals in your field (for instance, scientists can hit up http://www.sciencemag.org/) and articles on career sites (two personal favorites are themuse and HumanWorkplace) have a searchable wealth of information about career paths. If you need some general direction, head there and hit up the articles on different career paths and how to choose them. Jot down some notes and questions, and then think about them for at least 10 minutes (60 is better). While you’re at it, do a little bit of soul searching (unless you want someone to hold your hand through that process, in which case we’re happy to help, but will charge you for it). At minimum, come up with some map of your career, even if it’s where you’ve been or where you know that you don’t want to go (as long as you know why — otherwise, don’t rule something out).

Doing this basic preparation ensures that you are giving us something solid upon which to comment, inquire, and so on. If, however, you feel like you don’t even know which questions to ask, then your best bet is to browse around on career sites for at least an hour or two, organizing the information, and coming to us with the collated information you gathered and an explanation for why none of it sent you in the right direction.

Think about your question before you ask it.

I’ve actually gotten opening questions like, “How do I use my skills doing a doctorate in biochemistry to transfer to industry?” As much as I would like to answer that question, I haven’t seen anything about the person’s skillset, I don’t know which industr[y/ies] the person is considering, and I don’t have any personal information about the individual to guide my response. One might suggest that I should be offering those inquiries in response, but those are precisely the questions they can find on their own and spend some time thinking about and mapping out before they come to me. After all, it’s rather disrespectful to ask someone to do your work for you without offering to pay them properly. As much as I am happy to help folks, and to be generous with my time, I want to use that time giving people something they can’t get on their own.

(To be sure, it is certainly my job to deal with broad questions and such when working with a client, but a client doesn’t presume upon my time without paying for it, and in the initial consultation [which I and many others do for free], we answers those questions with the presumption that a good client-coach fit will yield a formal business relationship.)

Ask a specific question instead of a broad one.

Instead of asking a generic question, ask a specific one, and particularly one that reflects your having done some research. For the broad question above, for instance, it can be readily narrowed to any number of questions, including:

  • I’m interested in moving from an academic career in biochemistry to a career in [drug manufacturing/management consulting/biotech startups], and need help identifying how my skills in [specify skills, e.g., research, literature reviews, protein folding models, pipetting] can be shown as transferrable.
  • I’m trying to convert my academic CV to a resume suitable for application to a pharmaceutical company. How do I discuss my publications on the resume?
  • I have worked in biochemistry for many years and I am sick of the field. Can you suggest a few non-biomedical fields to which my skills [specify skills, if possible] might be readily transferrable?

Notice that each of these questions can be answered quickly, and in brief, with valuable information that the individual did not have previously and that would benefit from an expert’s touch.

For undergrads or MBA students, the questions may seem a bit more generic, but there are some easy ways to make them more specific. For instance, “I don’t know what to do with my life; which career path should I choose?” is easily converted to:

  • I’ve been majoring in [X] and I don’t like it for [specific reason{s}]. I know that I like [task/hobby Y] but I am not sure which fields value that. Can you offer a few suggestions for me to look up?
  • My parents insisted that I major in [Q] but my passion is really [A] — is there any way to merge the two? (You would be pleasantly surprised with what we can generate in response to this one!)
  • I finished my MBA and still don’t know which field I want to be in, but I need a job. I know that I don’t like [Fields F, G, and H], and my best skills are [N and O], can you recommend some companies or jobs that might fit those parameters?

Again, these are quick to answer, and what we tell you can guide you towards further research, clearer understandings, and better job applications. And, if you need even more help, we will know which services to offer you (or where to refer you). As an aside, please do not ask us for a reference to a company if we don’t know you well (more about networking and such here).

Respect our time, especially if you don’t plan to pay for it.

My personal policy is that anything I can answer in 20 minutes (5 if I’m at an event; with potential follow up afterwards) is free, but that is predicated upon the assumption that I can do something useful and beneficial to you in that time and that you won’t take gross advantage of the policy. Neither I nor any other advisor wants to spend 20 unpaid minutes bantering back and forth about questions that you could have spent time researching by yourself or helping you refine a question you haven’t spent your own time thinking about.

There is a time-honored tradition of exchanging free advice, and the system of goodwill in the world is surely one from which we have all drawn and to which it serves us to contribute. But, if you want to draw from our wells, we ask only that you do your best to come with a shaped vessel that we may fill, and also to give as good as you have gotten when others approach you in the future.

Self-actualization engineer who makes workplaces great places to work. PI at Quality of Life Lab (www.qllab.org). Consultant. Professor. Startup Advisor.