Many people “think” they know what it’s like to do a certain job on a day-to-day basis, but often they imagine something much different than the workday reality. The only way to know what a job is truly like if you don’t know someone well who does it, is to “shadow” someone (or preferably a few different people) who is in that position for a day (or two). In some cases, this is possible, and that experience is absolutely invaluable.
But in many other situations, it isn’t possible to get such an opportunity. Sometimes we don’t know anyone to ask; sometimes, companies are working with proprietary information; sometimes, in healthcare fields, HIPAA won’t allow it. There are many obstacles that could prevent the possibility to shadow someone in your chosen career. But there is another way to get the insight you need.
Most people have an innate desire to have “mentor” conversations about their work, where they can share the benefit of their experience with someone new to the field. And most people have an innate desire to “share what their career path has been like”. This is the human need to feel valued and understood.
However, most people are also incredibly busy and overscheduled, so if you want access to someone in your chosen field to gain their insight, you need to make it as easy for them as possible.
Once you have identified a few people you might want to talk to about their position, you could contact them and invite them to lunch. (The price of lunch is a small investment to learn if this is indeed the career path you imagine it to be.) But for many people, scheduling a lunch with you is more time than they can or will commit. Enter the coffee offer.
But for many people, scheduling a lunch with you is more time than they can or will commit. Enter the coffee offer.
Many people will agree to a short, time-limited conversation “over a cup of coffee” at their place of business (so it doesn’t interrupt their day too much), with the thoughtful gesture of bringing them their favorite coffee (tea, sparkling water, whatever) for the meeting. Setting the expectation at the outset that this will not take up a lot of their time will make them more likely to agree.
“I am considering becoming an architect, and I would love to hear your thoughts about being an architect. Could I meet with you for just 15 minutes? I’d happily bring you your favorite latte, tea, or whatever you’d like! I could come by your office anytime it’s convenient for you.”
Many times, you will get a yes. Try to schedule a few of these meetings with different people in the position you want so you can get a variety of perspectives and you avoid getting a “one-person biased opinion” about the work.
Once you have secured the meeting(s), it is important to have your questions prepared so you can honor your commitment to taking just a few minutes of their time and still get the maximum amount of information from them. Here are a few questions to consider asking:
- “What has surprised you the most about your work?”
- “What do you wish you had known when you decided to become a doctor, lawyer, web developer, artist, insurance salesperson, medical equipment salesperson, etc.?”
- “If you had to break down your average day into time spent doing each part of your job, what would that look like?”
- “Would you choose this career again?” “Would you want your son/daughter to pursue this career? Why or why not?”
- “What three personal qualities are most important for this career?”
- “How many hours a week do you need to work to be successful in this career?”
- “Is it difficult to balance work and family?”
- “Where do you see this career heading in the next few years?”
What you are listening for in these answers is the insight you can not find in any other kind of research you do when choosing a career. You want to know how this person spends their average workday and what it feels like to be in their position. Is that what you imagined? Let’s say you want to be a school counselor, and you imagine spending your workday counseling children one-on-one in the school setting, which is a great fit for your work personality.
But when you talk to a few school counselors, you learn they are spending a big percentage of their time doing educational testing, sitting in meetings with parents and administrators, and filling out paperwork and reports. That may or may not be a good fit for your work personality. Or perhaps you want to be a lawyer and imagine spending days arguing important cases before the court.
It is important to hear from a few trial lawyers how much of their time is actually spent in court and how much is spent doing other activities to prepare for trial and run their practice. You also want to know from an inside perspective what may be happening in your chosen career field that could impact your career path.
These types of conversations can also help you further refine precisely what position in a career field might be the best fit for you. For example, you might know you want to be a nurse. In having coffee meetings with a few nurses, you might learn that working in a hospital emergency room is not a fit for your work personality at all.
However, this does not mean you should give up on being a nurse. You might meet with a nurse who works in private practice and learn this would be an excellent fit for your work personality. And you might meet with a nurse that works in hospice care and learn that you are not sure if that would fit you or not and that you would need to learn more. Again, this is an advantage to having coffee meetings with a few different people in your field.
Ultimately, you are trying to be sure that you know as much as you can about what your life would look like if you pursued this career path. Pursuing a career path that is not a fit for your work personality, your aspirations, and your vision for your life will ultimately frustrate and disappoint you. You could spend a lot of time and energy (and years of education and school debt) only to find yourself miserable in the workplace.
The coffee meeting is just one more way to fully explore the career you are choosing to make sure it is right for you. You might learn it’s not a fit for you at all and nothing like what you imagined, which radically changes your career path. You might learn it is a fit for you only in some settings, which shapes the way you pursue your career.
You might learn this career is the perfect fit for you and just what you hoped it would be, and you become even more excited. Whatever you learn from these meetings, it will impact your career path in ways that will help shape your choices and influence your next step. And that’s a lot to gain for the price of a cup of coffee.
And P.S. As an added bonus, if you pursue this career, you have just made your first few networking connections.