Q&A: How to fish for a job among friends without floundering
By Rob Walker / New York Times News Service
Q: I am about to graduate with an MFA in children’s writing from a well-regarded program. As obscure as this field may seem, there are a few jobs in my city that I am qualified to fill. The problem is that good friends and former colleagues are in them.
I don’t know the best way to ask them whether they know of any jobs that may be open in their departments. Everything I think of sounds like “Can I have your job, please?” Should I just be upfront and ask? Should I ask the directors of these organizations, at least two of whom I know from my previous incarnation as a book review editor? If I do that, should I give my friends a heads-up? Say nothing? Every alternative seems a little icky.
A: You are correct: “Can I have your job?” is a poor icebreaker. On the other hand, if you can’t talk to participants in your field in the city where you live, whom can you talk to? You basically have no choice but to set up conversations with these former colleagues and other contacts.
You should be open with everyone about this process — and in all cases emphasize that all these meetings are “informational” interviews. That is, you are not (openly) angling for any specific job; you are carrying out a routine postgraduate, transition-into-the-workplace quest for practical advice. There’s a built-in opportunity for flattery here: “I’m setting up appointments with everyone I admire, so I’ll be talking to X and Y, and of course I want to talk to you, too.”
That spirit should carry into the conversations. Instead of asking for someone’s job, ask how he or she got that job in the first place. If you already know the answer, you can reframe the inquiry to something like “I aspire to a job like yours; if you were me, what would you do?” The point is twofold: First, people generally love to talk about themselves — and to be treated as fonts of wisdom. Second, while you should approach these interviews earnestly, the real goal is to start an open conversation and see where it goes.
Instead of zeroing in on a specific position that’s occupied by a friendly contact, fish for opportunities: someone looking to leave a gig that interests you, the possibility of creating a new spot that plays to your skills, or maybe even news of a perfect position elsewhere.
If you’re doing all this honestly, there’s no reason not to be totally open with everyone. And, more to the point, there’s no reason for your contacts to think you’re on a mission to steal a job from one of them; you aren’t.
Submit questions to Rob Walker at firstname.lastname@example.org.