From the day you arrive at MIT as a Biological Engineering undergrad, graduate student, or postdoc, you start networking, whether you realize it or not. You have to send emails, often cold emails, connecting with potential mentors and employers and reaching out to potential rotation or UROP labs. This also means that you will start having informal or formal interviews, meeting those potential mentors or PIs. While it seems pretty easy, writing an effective email and having an effective interview are challenging tasks. One main reason for this is because they happen so often and it is really hard to get actionable feedback.

Recognizing the importance or emails and interviews, Sarah Schwartz and Josh Peters set out to identify and distill best practices. Here they explain what inspired them, how they approach writing emails and preparing for interviews, and what resources are available through the Comm Lab to take your networking to the next level.

Why were you excited to write your CommKit article?

Sarah Schwartz: Emails are incredibly important, but rarely considered as a key form of communication. We send and receive so many emails that they can seem basic or boring. But each professional email offers a small opportunity to connect, clarify, or organize. The copious quantity of emails we handle offers a steady source of material to practice and improve as communicators! I was also particularly excited to tackle email issues because I’ve consistently heard colleagues, professors, and other Fellows say that receiving poorly written emails (or unhelpful email responses) is one of the most frustrating parts of their professional life.

Josh Peters: Interviews have always been challenging to me, since you never know where the conversation might lead. And in university, there’s a lot of interviews, both formally like undergraduate internships or graduate school interviews, and informally, like meeting with a professor to join their lab. To tackle all these opportunities, a resource to help prepare for interviews can help ease the uncertainty of interviewing.

What was your most memorable email interaction? What made it so memorable?

Sarah: Unfortunately, bad email exchanges stand out in particular (which is why writing good emails matters so much!). I remember one email I received asking about a potential collaboration, but the message was full of grammatical errors and incomplete. I was unable to understand the sender, and wasn’t sure if they were serious or legitimate; ultimately, our conversation just stopped (along with any possibility of collaborating). I also remember receiving an email as a board member of a student organization, wherein the sender offered to come give our group pointers about speaking. The email suggested that our group may never have considered the importance of science communication–despite the group having an effort dedicated to just that, and despite the fact that most of the  group had significant scientific and scicomm training. The message missed the mark, and served as a good reminder to consider both audience and tone when sending an email! On the bright side, I also remember some good email exchanges; one thing that stands out for me is how much more effective my own emails became when I started including numbered lists of questions. I used to have trouble getting answers to more than one question per email–usually the first one listed.. Once I included clear, enumerated lists, it became much easier for my recipients to see and address every question–and easier for me to get the responses I needed!

What about a memorable interview?

Josh: My most memorable interview was a job interview for a short stint as a tour guide at a Pittsburgh distillery. After typical questions from the HR manager, we had an unexpected visit from the grandmother of the family who owned the business. After several minutes, the HR manager left and we went on to have a wonderful conversation about Pittsburgh and the history of the distillery with more unexpected interview questions thrown in. Luckily, I had done my background research on the distillery, so I was able to keep up. Ultimately, I made a great connection with her, securing the opportunity to give tours.

What is one thing you want everyone to know about interviewing or emailing?

Josh: Like many other communicative tasks, preparation is key. For interviews, preparation includes a larger focus on what might arise: a wide range of questions and discussions.

Sarah: A little extra effort spent on concision, clarity, and tone can make a big difference in an email’s success. The downstream effects of successful emails, especially in aggregate, can help advance professional opportunities and relationships…so a little work sprucing up these commonplace communications can be more than worthwhile. 

What is one thing you always do before sending an email? 

Sarah: Especially with important professional emails, I always re-read the message before sending it–often aloud, because it can be easier to catch typos or confusing sentences in speech than in writing. I also tend to save the recipient’s address as the last entry of the email–after a few unfortunate premature “send” accidents, I’ve found it’s a good safeguard to be sure my message is complete and coherent before it ends up in an inbox! 

While there are a few steps to preparing for an interview as you discuss in your article, what is the very last thing you do before you step into the room?

 Josh: Before walking in, I do two things. Mentally, I pick myself up and get excited and energetic so that I bring a bright vibe into the room with me. Physically, I prepare my notes (typically in my daily notebook) and a writing utensil, and turn my phone off. This is to make sure the others in the room sense my investment in the conversation. 

Want to work on your email and interviewing skills? Check out our tips and resources! The Comm Lab now offers tips in our Email and Interviewing CommKit articles. Want feedback on an important email you are writing? Not sure how to prep for your upcoming interview, either formal or informal? Schedule an appointment with Sarah Schwartz, Josh Peters, or any of the other Comm Lab fellows.

Blog post written by Prerna Bhargava