How To Ask For Help

These days, we all need a little help from our friends. If you’re un- or under-employed, chances are many of your friends have been there, empathize with you, and want to help.  But you need to let them know you need help – you need to ask.

Asking for help is not something everyone does well.  In fact, several people have recently asked me for help in interesting ways*, prompting me to think about you can effectively ask for help.  I decided there are really two parts – know what to ask for, and know people of whom you can ask things.

First, and most importantly, know what your goal is, and do a reality check on it.  If you tell me you “need a job”, I may point you to the Burger King down the street that is hiring.  Conversely, if you tell me you want a new job as a medicinal chemist working on oncology targets for an international pharmaceutical company in St. Louis, I’m going to tell you those jobs don’t exist anymore.  Make sure your career goal is specific enough that others will recognize it when they see it, but also realistic.

If you don’t know exactly what kind of job you want, that’s okay.  Your first goal may be to identify some possible career paths that will let you do more teamwork and less leadership, for example.  In that case, you are not looking for a job (yet), but ideas, information, and introductions to others in those new areas.  For example, a friend recently told me she’s unhappy with her employer of 10 years, as she has been reorganized into a group she does not enjoy, and she’s realized the company is rewarding people for things she does not enjoy doing.  Her personal life has also changed over the years, and she now needs more flexibility in her work life.  We were able to come up with a few possible career paths that would take advantage of abilities she has and does enjoy using, and I was able to give her contact info for several people in each of those fields, so she can investigate further.

One thing to remember is that when she asked me to help her brainstorm, I had known her for several years, and we have worked together on several volunteer projects.  She was did not find my name on the internet and send a resume out of the blue.  You need to build your network of professional relationships BEFORE you ask for help.  Those with whom you have a previous relationship will be much more willing to help you, and to go out of their way to identify resources they have that might be of value to you.

One of the best resources they can give you is a lead on someone they know, who has information about your target field.  In this case, you are using your friend’s reputation to gain entry to someone you may not have been able to reach on your own.  Ideally, you want to get the lead’s name and contact information, then contact them yourself while mentioning the name of the person who put you in touch with each other.  That way you make sure to present yourself to your best advantage, and you can start your own professional relationship with the new person.

Building your own professional network, one person at a time, will hold you in good stead when you next need to ask for help.  And knowing what to ask for will make it easy for them to help you find it.

*  One person, whom I had never met, called my home in the evening to complain that I had not answered their email quickly enough. Another person came to a talk I gave on how to write a better resume, then afterwards told me they were looking for a job, handed me a copy of their resume, and ran out of the room.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a scientific communication consultant and author of “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press.

2 Responses to How To Ask For Help

  1. says:

    Lisa wrote “You need to build your network of professional relationships BEFORE you ask for help.” This is so true. While I’m willing to help people who contact me as an ACS career consultant, I am reluctant to spend much time helping other people I don’t know who contact me by telephone or e-mail out of the blue, especially those whose requests demand a substantial amount of time.

    Those asking for help need to recognize that the people they ask have their own responsibilities, often work rsponsibilities. When they ask for help they need to be able to briefly but clearly describe their situation and the help they need. In other words, they need to make it as easy as possible for the person they ask to actually help them.

  2. Excellent advice! I can’t tell you how many career postdocs have approached me with the complaint that nobody in this world will “help” them and that they would have to “make it on their own”. Although they didn’t realize it at the time, by “help” what they actually meant was that nobody would give them a job just because they knew them, and by “make it on their own”, that they would somehow have to successfully learn about career opportunities and apply for unfamiliar jobs with no advice from anyone (i.e., that networking was a waste of their time)! Lisa gives great advice on what networking is all about, and anyone interested in their longer-term career success would be wise to take this advice.

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