When you’re staring at a blank page, getting started can feel daunting. This article will provide some guidance on where to start in your career search, with whom you should speak for advice, how to network for your career, and ultimately how to make those important career decisions.
Pre-graduate school internships are out there. And while it might be hard to find time for one as you’re preparing for school, you should definitely consider it. It can be a great opportunity to advance your career before you set foot on campus. It’s also a great way to get practical experience in your desired field (and see if you actually like it!). If you’re having trouble finding a pre-grad school internship, talk to the career services office at your new school. While their main focus will likely be on actively enrolled students, it never hurts to ask.
If advancing your career is an important priority for you (and it is for most), you should visit your school or department's career services office within the first month of grad school. Talking to a human being instead of Googling has distinct advantages.
First, you’ll get all the information, instead of bits and pieces. You won’t realize a year into school that you should’ve applied to that internship or taken advantage of that online resource because you’ll have all of that information up front.
Second, you’ll get a nuance of information you simply won’t find online. Career services reps can help you filter through all their resources and find the ones most worth your time. Furthermore, if it’s the department’s career services office, they’ll have some insight into which professors to take and who you should connect with.
Third, it gives you the chance to ask industry or even company-specific questions. This is especially important if you want to work in a niche field or there’s only one desired company on your list. While there probably aren’t standard resources dedicated to those topics, having an individual career services rep look out for relevant opportunities can give you a competitive edge. In general, these are the kinds of resources a career services rep will direct you to:
- Online networking and job posting portals
- Research platforms that the school partners with
- Alumni, student, and faculty directories
In addition to visiting career services, you should look into campus extracurriculars. Since grad school clubs often align with a particular career or industry, their mission and members can help guide you to new opportunities and information, both on campus and online.
LinkedIn is perhaps the top online networking platform of our time. Take advantage! Use LinkedIn to search for alums (from both your undergrad and graduate schools) who are in your desired industry and connect with them. This can be a great stepping stone to an in-person informational interview if they’re local or a phone call if they’re not.
Check out independent career sites like Vault, which offers an interface for exploring different industries, internships, and companies, as well as articles on almost any career topic you can think of.
And lastly, look into industry associations. While becoming a member alone isn’t necessarily that beneficial, attending some of the major events or conferences can be a great way to connect with other industry professionals and employers you’re interested in.
Informational interviews are one of the foundational mechanisms of a career search. It may not be the most convenient way to gather information, but it is by far the richest. Talking to people with real experience in the field you’re considering will give you an unparalleled perspective on that choice. Moreover, informational interviewing is the most straightforward way to meet the people who can get you a job.
Informational interviewing has three main goals:
- Get to know your interviewee. This is your chance to learn all about a potential employer, what it’s like to work there, what expectations there might be, and how you can make yourself more marketable to them.
- Let them get to know you. People often forget about this part. Informational interviews allow companies to perform informal pre-screenings of potential employees. So have your elevator speech ready and put on your best face.
- Get hired. The end goal of networking is, of course, to get hired. A balanced approach to this goal is key. Some people are so focused on highlighting their own assets that they end up alienating their interviewee. Disaster. But a meandering conversationalist can just as easily doom their interaction with one too many anecdotes. An example of a worthwhile detour is asking about a field or career your interviewee used to be in (if you’re considering that path as well).
These three goals will set the scene for how you approach informational interviewing. Generally, it happens in two phases: preparation and execution. In the prep phase, you’ll talk to lower stakes individuals (peers and professors) in order to gather information, make connections, and hone your skills as an interviewer. Then, in the execution phase, you’ll talk to people at your desired company with the goal of earning a place there as well as pursue long-term networking goals.
Your first stop will be second-year students in your program, followed by recent alumni. Pick students who’ve worked at the company or in the industry you’re interested in. The greatest advantage of starting here is that it’s low-risk; you can ask all the dumb, unvarnished questions that are in your heart. Also, peers within your direct community know where you’re coming from and want you to succeed. Since they’ve been through the same program as you, they’re likely to have had the same difficulties and peculiarities; dig deep on those subjects. See The Ultimate Networking Template for a list of example questions to ask your peers.
Next, talk to professors who teach in your program. This is one step up from talking to your peers; you want your professors to think highly of you, but it shouldn’t be too stressful. If your professor works or used to work in your desired industry, ask them questions about the industry at large. If they don’t have much applicable knowledge, tap into their previous students’ experiences instead (see The Ultimate Networking Template for how to do this).
With every interviewee, you have the opportunity to make additional connections and enhance your networking effort. For example, you could close an interview by asking, “Can you think of anyone else who I might want to connect with?” In this way, you can build more links to the company and increase your networking efficiency at the same time.
You’re ready to move onto the execution stage when:
- You’re confident about what the next step in your career should be.
- You have a short list of companies you’d like to work for next.
- You have a well-honed list of questions for employees at each company on your list.
- You’re confident in your ability to perform an informational interview successfully.
The first step in the execution phase is talking to people at your desired company. Ideally, these would be alumni or people that you connected with during your preparation phase. Avoid informational interviewing cold. During these interviews, you should be simultaneously pursuing all three of the goals we discussed above.
Get to know your interviewee.
For a thorough interview, you should touch on these topics:
- How did they position themselves in the past? What about now?
- What would they have done differently if they had the choice?
- How did they get the job?
- What were the steps they took and what were their strengths and weaknesses?
- What was the company looking for and how did they match up to it?
- Who has the real hiring power at this company?
Let them get to know you.
Before you go into an interview during this phase, make a list of what you’ve done in and out of school. Ask yourself how these activities might apply to this role and take notes on it, because they will too. Be ready to talk about your classes, clubs, and community service involvement, including things you did in previous jobs and during undergrad. Over time, you need to show increasingly sophisticated knowledge of the company. If you reconnect with your interviewee at a later date, or talk to someone else in the company they connected you with, you should be asking new, more detailed, and more nuanced questions. Well-thought-out questions and follow-ups show you’ve been paying attention and that you have real, genuine interest.
When it comes to getting hired, there are three last things you need to focus on:
- Find out who has the hiring power. The question of who has the real hiring power at your desired company is an important one, because you need to modify your interview strategy based on who you’re talking to and what their role is. At some companies, HR really does make the decisions that determine who’s hired and who’s turned down. But at some companies, business leaders and subject matter experts may have much more sway. In these cases, you may have an initial surface level conversation with an HR rep before being transferred to more critical decision makers. In other cases, different departments will make initial cuts of the clearly unqualified candidates, leaving HR to make key hiring decisions based on fit. In either case, those who are making the hiring decisions will ask who you’ve talked to, formally and informally. This is a great time to mention successful informational interviews you’ve had with relevant stakeholders.
- Visit the company in person. Informational interviews may start out on the phone or on campus, but ultimately you’ll want to visit your key contact at their company office. This allows you to become acquainted with the environment, demonstrates your seriousness about the opportunity, and allows you to meet even more people on staff.
- Time it right. On average, less than 10% of full-time, just-out-of-school hires are from outside a company’s own internship program. For this reason, getting an internship at your desired company is a key stepping stone to your dream job. Since internship interview invitations are sent out in December, you’ll want your resume dropped in November for the best chances. Your informational interviewing process will have multiple touch points and you should time that process to crescendo in mid- to late-November. Interviews will take place in January, with offers sent out in February.
After you’ve secured a summer internship, you should talk to other industry professionals. You might be thinking: I already have a job, so why do I need to keep doing these informational interviews? There are many reasons, but the main one is the ongoing networking benefit. If you stop networking once you get a job, you’re unlikely to get a better job in the future. Moreover, talking to other professionals outside of your company or industry will give you continuous insight into when it’s time to switch tracks (e.g., move to a higher growth industry, find a better company to work for, or choose a role that’s more suited to you).
Picking a Career
Let’s say you’ve talked to a bunch of people and you still don’t know which way to go with your career. Hopefully you’ve avoided wasting anyone’s time by delaying the execution phase of the informational interview process. Now, it’s time to make some decisions. Here are some rules of thumb to follow when all else fails:
- Try an unpaid or short-term internship. These are very low-risk options for exploring unfamiliar industries, roles, and companies. An internship might convince you to eliminate an option or solidify your top choice.
- Consider optionality. Ask yourself: which of these choices allows for the most possible future choices? If you can do option A and then option B, but not vice versa, you should start with option A.
- Do what you like. Simple, right? If you’re staring at an array of equally beneficial options, choose the one that just sounds good. You can talk to more people or take on more learning opportunities to narrow it down, but at a certain point you simply have to make the call.
Lastly, here are some guidelines that will help you make good choices and stay true to yourself at the same time:
- Listen to your instincts. Don’t base your choices on preconceived notions. If you thought you’d love it, tried it, and ended up hating it — don’t choose it!
- Trust what you hear. If everyone at a company or in a role seems unhappy — don’t work there. If someone tells you what the day-to-day is like and it sounds awful to you — don’t do it! Believe the facts you hear and trust your own preferences.
- Be honest with yourself. We all have different things that challenge and excite us (or tire and bore us). Be honest with yourself about what you like and choose those things.
- Create a plan. It’s much easier to take steps in the right direction when you know where you’re headed. It might be worth taking a worse job now, knowing it’s the perfect stepping stone to a job you’ll want in three years. Similarly, a bad job that offers a skillset you can use forever might be better than a good job that offers you no path to advancement.