Networking

Networking and Informational Interviewing

Speaking with people in your field of interest to explore career options and gather information is known as networking. It is about initiating, developing, and maintaining professional connections and relationships. As you engage in career exploration and professional development, networking will be a robust tool for compiling information and understanding how to market yourself to potential employers. It is the most effective way to meet leaders and keep abreast of major changes in a field.

Networking can take place in any environment—from a train ride to a professional conference—and may range from informal dialogues to structured exchanges. You may arrange networking meetings, the most common of which is an informational interview. Often the first step in building a professional network, informational interviewing provides an opportunity to have a qualitative exchange one-on-one with a contact. Unlike in a traditional interview, you are responsible for directing the conversation and asking the questions. These interviews are particularly useful when you have little awareness about a career field and limited work experience or are considering a career transition. The goal is to transition your informational interview contacts into job search advocates who might advance your application for a position or identify opportunities not posted online. It is important to approach networking with the genuine intention of learning and connecting, not simply obtaining a position. Your networking contact should be a source of information that you cannot find elsewhere. Be prepared for each networking experience by researching the industry and the company, reviewing your experiences, and being able to articulate your career interests and skills. You’ll then approach each exchange with greater confidence, have more memorable dialogues, and leave a positive impression. Your questions should show genuine interest and solicit information that can facilitate a well-informed career decision. Inquire about your contact’s career story and experiences in the field and industry. Ask for advice about how to prepare for a career in the field, relevant courses to take, and activities that will make you more marketable, as well as for support for your internship and job searches.

Once you understand the value of networking for your career exploration and professional development, how do you start building and engaging a network?

Video created by Career Ambassador Isabella P. | Music credit: bensound.com

STEP 1: IDENTIFY CONTACTS AND OPPORTUNITIES

Your list of contacts may include a broad range of people, both inside and outside your chosen field. Personal referrals are people in your current network, such as friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, and professors. You might expand this network by asking for names of people they know who are employed in relevant careers. Direct contacts are people you identify through professional organizations, employer-hosted events, and social networking websites. Events such as conferences, workshops, panels, and information sessions also provide opportunities for networking. They happen throughout the year at a variety of venues, both on campus and off. You could find yourself surrounded by many people with similar career interests and get great insight from the person seated next to you. Make sure you follow the appropriate protocol for participation in an event and, if necessary, make travel arrangements. If payment is required, look for a discounted rate for students.

STEP 2: INITIATE THE CONNECTION

The way you initiate contact will depend on how well you know the person. A phone call may be appropriate for someone you speak with regularly, an email for contacts with whom you are less familiar. If you are approaching someone to whom you were referred, start by introducing yourself and saying how you were referred. Then say why you are reaching out and what you hope to learn, such as information about his or her position, career field, and career story. Be direct in requesting 20 to 30 minutes for an exchange. A face-to-face meeting at the employment site is ideal, but if that’s not possible, another location or the use of Skype or the telephone may be arranged. Give your prospective contact two weeks to reply, and then send a followup email if you have not heard back. If your second attempt is unsuccessful, move on to other contacts who may be more receptive.

STEP 3: PREPARE FOR THE NETWORKING MEETING

You need to be prepared to both ask engaging questions and respond to questions. Using the many resources available, research the person’s industry and its job categories. Research will result in more targeted questions and more detailed responses. If you are attending a networking event, conduct research on the presenters and their backgrounds. Knowing what information or advice you are seeking is essential in maximizing your time with contacts. Develop a list of 10 to 15 relevant questions. The type of questions you ask may be perceived as an indicator of your preparation, professionalism, and industry knowledge. It is important to be comfortable articulating your skills, values, and career interests. Consider how your experiences and activities have influenced your career interests and plan how you will communicate this. Prepare a professional introduction—a 30-second summary including your full name (if the person doesn’t already know you); year in school and major; relevant skills, strengths, and experience; and an engaging question so that you’ll be ready to present your experiences in networking situations. 

STEP 4: CONDUCT THE NETWORKING MEETING

Regardless of the venue of your networking conversation, dress appropriately. Arrive early for face-to-face encounters. Begin with your professional introduction. You want to make a positive impression and launch a conversation. With the goal of being genuine, consider the other person, the details that are relevant to share, and the value and purpose of your inquiry. A brief introduction sounds more genuine than a long one and allows the conversation to start sooner. Let the dialogue progress naturally. Don’t feel compelled to ask every question on your list, and keep within the specified timeframe. At the end, express appreciation for your contact’s time and contribution to your learning and inquire about staying connected.

STEP 5: FOLLOW UP

Within 48 hours send a personal thank-you note highlighting the value of the meeting and mentioning any suggestion or referral the contact provided that was helpful. Sending a thank-you note opens the door to further exchanges. Because one exchange does not build a relationship, you need to consider ways to maintain the connection. A log with each contact name, date, outcome, and important notes is helpful. Aim to connect with contacts each quarter. Consider mailing seasonal greeting cards, sending email messages, forwarding interesting industry news and journal articles, and inviting them to occasional coffee breaks.