One of the most effective ways to explore careers and gather advice is by talking to people who have been there, done that—a.k.a. networking.
If you are looking for an internship or job, networking has proved to be the #1 way to find employment in a challenging job market. Or if you aren’t sure what you want to do after college, you can explore your options with people who have already made that decision.
I often hear students say, “But I don’t have a network.” Wrong! Every student has an existing network of family and friends, current or former classmates, and their family and friends. Simply staying in touch with the folks you’ve had good relationships with in the past means you already have a network that can support you in the years to come.
Beyond your personal network, alumni from your high school or college are often the most valuable career development resources. You can take advantage of your school’s alumni network by following the tips below.
Connecting through common experiences
Alumni, regardless of their career choices, have been through similar experiences as you: they attended the same classes, performed research in the same labs, played on the same athletic teams, sang in the same a cappella groups, lived in the same dorms, and ate in the same dining halls. Those shared experiences can be the building blocks for professional connections.
Alumni can also help you see how they have applied those shared experiences to their careers. They are able to offer pertinent advice and valuable insights to help you prepare for your internship and job search.
Finding alumni and making connections
There is no shortage of ways to find and connect with alumni. Here are a few of the best:
Colleges and universities recognize the incredible value of the alumni network, and most institutions give students access to a database of alumni, their occupations, and contact information.
LinkedIn is one of my favorite networking and job search tools. If you don’t already have an account with an up-to-date profile, you should. Then you can search for alumni by employer, industry, and location. View their profiles to get a sense of possible career paths and gather ideas for prospective employers. If you want to “connect” with people, you should always include a personalized message introducing yourself and explaining why you are reaching out.
There are thousands of LinkedIn groups where people share job postings and other career-related information as well, and they can serve as a forum for asking questions of more experienced professionals. Joining the alumni group for your university is a great first step.
LinkedIn’s “Find Alumni” tool provides a helpful visual of alumni careers, employers, and professional skills from a searchable list of thousands of colleges and universities. And the “Field of Study Explorer” is a powerful resource for finding connections between majors and careers. It offers an overview of job titles and employers of LinkedIn members for any given academic major.
Twitter can be an easy and effective way to make connections and learn about careers paths and industries. By following alumni who work in your field(s) of interest, you can gather advice and catch a glimpse of their day-to-day professional lives. You can then build a relationship with them by responding to or re-tweeting their relevant professional posts.
Speakers, panels, career fairs, and other networking events
Nearly every week colleges welcome alumni back to campus to present guest lectures, serve on panels, and recruit at career fairs and employer information sessions. From talks with award-winning economists and renowned poets to career panels about the arts, finance, or health care to recruiting events, these are great learning and networking opportunities.
When attending these events, you should participate in the discussion by asking thoughtful questions, introduce yourself at the end of the event, and follow up with an e-mail to thank the alumni for their time.
Faculty and staff
Referrals from your school’s faculty and staff are a great way to find alumni who could be helpful contacts. They might be able to introduce you as well.
Once you’ve connected with alumni, an informational interview is one of the most effective ways to develop relationships with them. Ideally these take place in person, but phone and virtual meetings can also be effective.
Remember, this is not a job interview; it is a conversation with a professional in your field of interest to learn more about his or her career path, day-to-day work, industry trends, and career-related advice. (Check out the sidebar for more tips!)
Building relationships, cultivating mentors
Connecting with alumni is an investment in your future, because once a person takes the time to share their experiences and advice with you, they’re more likely to be “on your team.” If you hit it off and they are impressed by you, it could open even more doors and possibly lead to a mentoring relationship that can last well beyond your time in college.
While it is never appropriate to directly ask a networking contact for a referral or a job, if you leave a positive first impression, your alumni contact may eventually pass on a good word or even a formal referral for you. For example, I once worked with a student who, a few weeks after an informational interview, was delighted and surprised when she received an e-mail from the alumnus introducing her to the producer of a popular children’s television show looking for an entry-level production assistant. A few weeks later, the student started a new job at one of her favorite children’s shows.
Still feeling uncomfortable about reaching out to people you don’t know? I always remind students that most alumni are happy to help and feel good about giving back to their college community by offering career advice to students.
Keeping in touch
Remember, networking and mentoring are about building relationships with people who have shared interests. As you continue to grow professionally, you’ll have your own insights to share. Let these alumni know how your career progresses, and be appreciative of the influence they’ve had on your path.