Step #1: Work your existing network

Before you begin meeting new people, take stock of your existing social and academic networks. Who do already you know? Who are you connected to on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn? Who in your academic networks—alumni from your college and your graduate program(s)—are doing interesting things out in the real world?

As you assess your existing networks, reach out to friends and family to let them know what kinds of professional opportunities you’d like to find. If you’re comfortable doing so, inform your professors, advisors, fellow graduate students, and graduate school career counselors of your goals so that they can help you think about new possibilities. The more people who are involved in your search, the more opportunities you’ll encounter.

Step #2: Research companies and organizations that interest you

As you work your existing networks, begin exploring employers that interest you. Research organizations, companies, and career profiles that sound interesting. Not all will sustain your interest, but over time you’ll develop a much stronger sense of what kinds of jobs motivate you and what you’d like your next professional step to look like. You’ll also come across the names of particular individuals with whom you would like to meet.

Step #3: Start emailing

In time, your friends and existing contacts will start introducing you to people they know. They may also give you names and email addresses of people they think you should meet. Ideally, you’ve also been creating your own list of potential new contacts with whom you would like to connect.

Sending cold emails to people you’ve never met is the most difficult aspect of networking. We associate cold emails with spam, phishing schemes, and shadiness in general, which is why it can be difficult to imagine how our own unsolicited emails requesting informational interviews will be received with anything but disgust. In most cases, however, professionals are eager to chat with up-and-comers who are just entering the field. If you think about it, who wouldn’t be flattered to receive an email that effectively says, I think you’re interesting and doing great things, and I want to learn from you and maybe one day be like you?

The emails you send to potential new contacts to request informational interviews should be fairly short. At the beginning of the email you need to identify yourself to the recipient, explain how you’re connected (if applicable), and explain that you’re exploring career paths in her field. Be polite, understanding, and accommodating when you ask if she might have time to sit down with you in the near future to talk about the state of the field and her career trajectory. It can sometimes also be helpful to briefly explain your own background in 1-2 sentences, just to give the recipient some context as to who you are. Also, don’t be offended if you don’t receive a reply right away. Lack of response usually means that the recipient is just incredibly busy, not uninterested in talking with you. If a week or two goes by without a response, send an even shorter follow-up email making the same polite request.

Step #4: Go on informational interviews

Informational interview is a very formal-sounding term that simply means grabbing coffee or lunch with a like-minded professional. Other times it may mean talking on the phone with a like-minded professional or, occasionally, meeting for 30 minutes with a like-minded professional in her office. While you’ll want to prepare ahead of time and look and act professional during the conversation, you can relax a little knowing that you’re not really in the proverbial hot seat since you haven’t actually applied for a job. Rather, you just want to take some time to get to know the other person professionally and learn more about her training, her career path, and the industry in which she works. It’s really that straightforward.

Time permitting, most people are very willing to talk with young professionals who are interested in pursuing similar career paths. Those with doctorates are often especially interested in chatting with other PhDs who are embarking on their own nonacademic or post-ac journeys. Most professionals remember what it was like to be just starting out on their career paths, which is another reason why most will be happy to talk with you. Keep in mind also that just as you seek to gain by adding experienced professionals to your network, many of those with more experience are just as eager to add energetic up-and-comers to their own networks.

In an informational interview, both you and the person whom you meet will ask questions in order to get to know each other. She will probably ask you where you went to school, why you pursued a PhD, why you’re looking for career opportunities outside of academia, and why you’re interested in her field in particular. You should ask her similar questions, such as:

  • Why she chose her field
  • How she became involved in the company or organization where she currently works
  • How she figured out which job within the field was best for her
  • What she finds most rewarding about her field and her particular job
  • What she finds least rewarding and most stressful about her job or working in her field
  • What she does on a day-to-day, week-to-week, and month-to-month basis
  • What her advice would be to young professionals thinking about beginning a career in her field
  • Where people within her field look for job opportunities
  • What skills and experiences employers in her field look for on resumes and in cover letters
  • What starting salaries typically look like for individuals within her field
  • Whether she knows of others in her field who might be willing to talk with you

Never:

  • Ask if she has a job for you
  • Ask what her salary is
Step #5: Keep track

Keep records of the conversations you have with other professionals. Take notes during the conversations, and log the dates of your meetings in a spreadsheet. Be sure to also send thank-you emails to those who take the time to talk with you. If you felt you really hit it off professionally with someone you met, invite them to connect with you on LinkedIn and/or Twitter.

Step #6: Stay in touch

This is often the most overlooked component of networking, but it is essential for maintaining active and strong connections. Stay in touch with your strongest connections by occasionally tweeting or emailing them with news or information that you think they would find professionally interesting. Feel free to occasionally ask for professional advice as well. Doing so will keep you on their radar but also let them know that you value their input. Of course, when you do land the job you want, be sure to inform them of your success.