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How do I ask for career advice? A career advisor's guide

By Brian Fairbanks
August 20, 2021 • 5 minute read

It’s not easy to ask for advice, especially career advice. You may feel that your co-workers are competitors, or may treat you differently because of your goals and ambition. Or you may worry that your supervisor will see you as a threat, gunning for their job.

But worry not, as asking for career advice doesn’t require herculean levels of confidence. Because in the end, the kind of people in a position to give helpful career advice are often the most used to being asked for and sharing it. They may even be able and willing to do things for you that you hadn’t thought of, such as writing letters of recommendation or putting you in contact with someone in the field that can be of even greater help.

Also keep in mind that, generally, people enjoy helping other people, and that seeking help or advice can be a sort of compliment and reflection of the esteem you hold for that potential mentor.

Below are some pointers on how to seek, find and use the advice to continue planning your professional development success, and asking for the right advice and help to achieve it.

5 people to ask for career advice

The trickiest part of asking for career advice may not be how or what to ask, but who. But the approach, as well as the ask itself, should be planned.

When you need to ask someone for advice be as specific as possible. Make sure to figure out exactly who the best person might be to answer that specific question, rather than casting your net wide, and to always be gracious and thankful for any response or answers.

Consider career advice conversations as opportunities to build a relationship. Show genuine interest in the other person and listen attentively. Come prepared with some open-ended questions that will help the conversation flow smoothly, like “How did you get started in (career field)” or “What do you like most about it?”

“Once you’ve focused on them for a bit, then you can share some information about yourself,” says Steven Starks, Sr. Manager, Career Advising Programs & Operations at University of Phoenix. “Be transparent and let others know you are looking for their advice.”

  1. Employees in your desired field

There are co-workers, ex-co-workers, and people you’ve met along the way in your field who you can personally reach out to and get the lowdown from.

Contacting strangers for advice doesn’t have to be complicated. Focus on why you need advice from this specific person. According to Starks, it’s usually best to get a warm introduction from a mutual contact. Whether through email or in-person, a warm introduction establishes an implied expectation that you will be treated affably.

  1. Professional association members

He also suggests attending a local chapter meeting of professional associations within your desired field and introduce yourself. Let others know that you’re eager to meet new people and hear their perspectives. Think of these situations as an opportunity to make friends. Show genuine interest in others, listen attentively, and have some open-ended questions prepared that will help the conversation flow smoothly.

Members of professional associations may also have access to a member directory, which can be a great source of potential networking leads. You can also get great advice from the information they share in articles, reports, or webinars, some of which might be directly on the topic of careers in their respective fields.

  1. LinkedIn contacts

Another technique Starks suggests is to reach out through LinkedIn® Corporation. The general idea here is to be authentic and giving, without the expectation that you will get something in return.

When reaching out for advice, keep your message concise, but cordial and specific. Let the person know that you admire their career path, point out any shared interests or contacts, and state why you’re reaching out. “These types of ‘micro-actions’ don’t take much time,” Starks adds. “Ask for no more than 15 to 20 minutes and let the person know that their advice can have a positive impact on you.”

Whatever you choose to do, we hope you find the great advice you seek and use it to achieve your dreams. Good luck out there!

  1. Current employer

Think about colleagues you admire and respect or individuals who seem highly engaged and satisfied in their role. Start with who you know and ask if they’d be willing to grab a cup of coffee or lunch to share their thoughts on how they thrive in their career.

Ask about career roadmaps within the company and skills or training necessary for advancement. A good manager will support your quest for knowledge and help you connect with the right people to gain the insight you seek.

Build relationships with people across the organization, especially if you’re curious about pivoting into areas outside of your department. Every organization is different, but you may be able to expand your network by participating in employee resource groups, networking events, lunch and learns, collaborative projects, or by simply introducing yourself and engaging people in small talk. It may have never occurred to you, but your current employer is a network you can tap into to crowdsource career advice.

  1. Former teachers

Teachers can be an excellent source of career advice. For instance, on average, University of Phoenix faculty have more than 26 experience working in the industries in which they teach. Don’t be afraid to reach out and let them know how they’ve contributed to your learning and the career path you’re exploring. This is a perfect segue to requesting a conversation for advice or insights about your career goals.

Try not to take it personally if your request is not granted. Teachers tend to be very busy and cannot honor every request. However, if you get the opportunity to meet, take some time to get to know their career journey and build rapport. Also, in addition to thanking them once the meeting is over, consider asking if they would be willing to keep in touch, so you can provide updates on your career progress. You never know, this could be the start of a long-lasting professional relationship.

How to ask the right questions

Starks says to think about your top two to three questions. If you’d like to have a lengthier conversation, perhaps you can exchange contact information and set up a time to talk or continue participating in activities, so you can engage in several brief conversations over time.

Here are a few things to remember when asking for advice:

  • Introduce yourself and remind people where you met them if you have met before.
  • Don’t beat around the bush. Cut to the chase of why you’re emailing or messaging them.
  • Say “please” when posing your question.
  • don’t be vague (as in, “pick your brain”). Instead, ask your specific, simple question as clearly as possible.
  • Ask only one question at a time. Make the first one count.
  • Follow-up with a “thank you for your time,” regardless of if they answer your question or not.

Also, it’s understandable if you aren’t sure what to ask someone or are having trouble narrowing your options down to one solid, “perfect” question. One way to look at it may be to ask people what skills are essential to jobs in that field— if the mentor responds by mentioning several you haven’t polished, it could be just the kick in the butt you need.