Does networking sound scary to you? Ever wonder how your peers make high-quality connections in their fields of interest? Very few people begin their career path with a long list of connections. Never fear though, you can build up your network by conducting targeted and purposeful informational interviews. These interactions are more conversation than interview, and are a great way to help you figure out the range of available job opportunities, what types of jobs might suit you the best, and meet people who are already working in that career. Our step-by-step guide will walk you through everything you need to know about how to connect with professionals who are working in your area of interest.
While this guide is written with college students in mind, these tips can be applied at any stage of your career!
Step 1: Know what you want
The first step to building your network is to refine your focus. Your major as an undergraduate is probably pretty broad, so now is the time to explore what you can do with that major. Do you know what kinds of jobs are available to people with your? If you already know, skip to the next step!
For example, let’s say you’re a science major interested in an environmental career. A lot of environmental science majors become environmental consultants, researchers, and policy-makers. If you don’t know what an environmental consultant does, now is a good time to do some research into what those jobs entail and see if there is something that interests you.
Another way to figure out what you like is by keeping an eye out for opportunities to learn about potential career options. Is there a speaker or panel coming to campus that you can attend? Is there a club that sounds interesting? What about a career fair or alumni meet-and-greet? Attending these kinds of events is a great way to see how different people apply their degrees and further delve into your interests.
Step 2: Use your resources
Now that you have a better idea about what you want, you can start looking for people to network with. A great first place to look is at your college’s career center. Make an appointment with a specialist there and get their recommendations. Career center employees make it their job to know about existing and upcoming opportunities and have access to extensive alumni and employer networks. They might be able to introduce you to people with the jobs you’re interested in, or at least point you in the right direction. Come in ready to discuss your interests and skills, and don’t be afraid to ask for specific names or companies. If they know somebody personally, ask if they’d be willing to introduce you in an email. Having a middle-man is a great way to meet professionals and it’s less intimidating than reaching out to them yourself.
If you don’t have access to a career center, give LinkedIn a try. The best place to start is your college’s school page, where you can search a list of alumni by region, company, or skills. Use the membership search function to find and make relevant connections in your field. Focus on second and third connections, and see if you can have a mutual friend introduce you.
If you don’t have any mutual connections, you can reach out to those people directly by messaging them on LinkedIn. In your message, make sure you say up front that you are a student at (or graduate from) the same college, and that you’re interested in learning more about what they do. Here’s a sample of what you could say:
“Hello, I’m a current student at [school], and I’m studying [your major]. I found your profile through the [school’s] LinkedIn page, and I am interested in pursuing a similar career. I was wondering if I could speak with you further about your job in a short informational interview. I’d love to ask you a few questions about what your job is like and how you got there. My email is ___; please let me know if you’d be interested in speaking with me.”
Sometimes you might not be able to message someone directly in LinkedIn. In these situations, you have two options: you can connect with them or try to find a group they’re in that you could join. Connecting with people you don’t know is a bold move, but if you send the connection invite with an accompanying message like the one above, you are more likely to get a response. You can also use groups to send messages: LinkedIn has a feature where you can message people that are in the same group as you.
LinkedIn groups are a great way to find professionals in your field. There are groups in every industry, ranging from interests to professions. Try to find groups with active, engaged members and consider reaching out to “influencers” or “thought leaders” within those groups. To search for groups, simply enter a keyword in the search bar, and specify that you’re looking for groups:
Another great way to get connected is through professional organizations. For all you science majors, there are so many wonderful organizations that you can join and meet people in your field. Some of our favorites include the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation (CERF), and the National Association of Environmental Professionals (AEP). This website and this website let you search for professional associations by industry. Go to events hosted by the organizations, see if they have LinkedIn or Facebook groups you can join, and try to meet as many members as possible to grow your network and find jobs that interest you.
Finally, don’t be afraid to use personal connections to build your network. Ask your family, friends, classmates, professors, etc. about people they know in your field, and ask them to introduce you. Once you have a list of contacts and have reached out to people with interesting-sounding jobs, you’re ready to conduct your informational interviews.
Step 3: Ask the right questions
You’ve develop a list of people with jobs that sound interesting – now what? If someone responds to one of your messages, ask them if they’d be willing to talk with you on the phone for about 30 minutes. If you live close to the person, maybe you could grab a coffee nearby. Either way, you want to come prepared with a few questions so that the conversation runs smoothly and that you actually learn something.
First, make sure you introduce yourself and provide a brief overview of why you want to meet with them. Most people are happy to engage with students and young professionals to talk about their career path and offer suggestions, as long as you are respectful of their time and appreciative of their recommendations.
Here is a list of questions that you might ask:
- How long have you been at your company?
- What did you do before your current job?
- Are there any special skills you need to do your job?
- What was your degree in? Did you need any specific classes or trainings to get your job?
- Do you like your job? What are your favorite things about it? What are your least favorite?
- Do you feel like you’re making an impact in your job? Do you find this work fulfilling?
- What do you do to meet people in your field and stay up on trends? (publications, blogs, professional associations, etc.)
- What do you wish you had known upon graduating?
- Could you introduce me to others in your field?
You may not have time to ask all of these questions. The important thing to remember is that you’re trying to determine whether or not you could see yourself in a similar career as the person you are interviewing and, if so, what you need to get there. Don’t be afraid to ask them if they can introduce you to others with similar jobs, as those people may have different insights. The whole purpose of this exercise is to grow your network.
After you conduct your interviews, connect with those people on LinkedIn and send them a short thank-you note. Follow up with them when you’re looking for jobs and internships in the future, and keep an eye on their companies for openings. Having that personal connection could be the difference between standing out and having your resume at the bottom of the stack.
Informational interviews are a great way to learn about jobs in your field and grow your network. Using these tips, you can meet people who already have the dream job you want, and learn about the skills and training you need to get there. It might seem intimidating to reach out to strangers, but remember that everyone likes to talk about what they do, and will likely be flattered and willing to help a fellow alum.