Cold Calling

When I got into colleges, I called a friend of mine from Mathcamp who was completing his first year at Harvard. I asked him for advice. What courses was he taking? What were his peers like? More than my experience visiting campuses, this correspondence painted a picture of collegiate life and informed my decision to attend Harvard. In addition, his recommendations about specific professors and textbooks enabled me to plan for freshman year.

When gearing up for a new experience, the first thing I often do is contact someone who has had that experience, someone who is in a position to help me prepare. For instance, if I want a job at Facebook, I will try to find someone who has worked there and who I can talk to about the company and the interview process. This is straightforward if I have a friend who worked there the summer before, but what if I don’t? Well, there’s a good chance that one of my friends knows someone who did. Or my computer science professor can put me in touch with a former student. The point is, if you can find someone’s name, you can ask for an introduction.

If no one is around to introduce you, try doing it yourself. A close friend of mine uses LinkedIn to search for people who have similar profiles, but who are one step ahead of her on the professional ladder. Then she sends them an email along the lines of “Hi, my name is Jennifer. I work at McKinsey with a specialty in health care. I noticed that you’ve moved to the NIH, and I wanted to get your opinion about transitioning there from consulting.” In these situations, don’t worry about wasting the recipient’s time or seeming presumptuous, just send the message.

This approach needn’t be restricted to job hunts. It applies whenever you need help or whenever you have a question about something. When I had trouble using a particular Python library for parallel computing, I joined the right mailing list and sent out a question. Half an hour later, my problem was solved.

Actively seek out mentorship. Even if you don’t have a specific question, cold calling is fine. Email your professors – not just the ones whose classes you’ve taken, but those with whom you have no connection at all. You’ll discover that while sometimes they’re busy and sometimes they don’t respond, frequently they’re happy to have dinner with an enthusiastic undergraduate. And you’ll get to hear about some of the most fascinating ideas and problems in contemporary research.

Wherever you are in life, there are people in a position to assist you. Reaping the benefits of their guidance requires only some initiative on your part.

So dial today.

-Robert