Connecting with a Mentor


While networking often feels like a struggle, graduate school is actually an ideal time to learn about careers and meet new people. Use your resources to develop a career plan that aims you towards a variety of career options. Your goal for next semester? Conduct three informational interviews with individuals whose careers fascinate you. Let’s get started:

1. Find individuals with jobs that interest you. Consider starting with our Careers Outside the Academy Mentors. Also consider LinkedIn, University Alumni networks (undergrad, clubs, activities), VersatilePhD, faculty contacts, or family and friends to connect with people whose work interests you.

How you ask:

Make mentor time requests brief, but specific  (3-5 sentences), spell check and edit carefully. Say something about your connection, be specific if possible. If you have a mutual acquaintance that recommended you chat, mention the name. DO NOT go on about your research area and DO NOT ask them to tell you all they know via email. Treat mentor time with the utmost respect. View a collection of sample letters here.
Make mentor time commitments minimal – asking for 15 or 20 minutes by Skype or a quick coffee (you buy!) can usually get you what you need. Offer to go to them, if possible.

2. Prepare ahead and dress business casual. Look over these questions (this is a classic script) and think about what you want to learn. Have a notebook or tablet to take notes. Dress up a bit for meeting the person. It doesn’t need to be a suit, but dress pants or skirt and blouse or shirt/tie is nice. Try to do this for an in-person meeting or for Skype, it will make you feel professional while you chat. If you are meeting with an academic faculty member in a field where dress is very casual, you can adjust accordingly.

3. Be warm and professional during the meeting. Informational interviews are learning opportunities, but you will also be making a first impression. We encourage you to focus on projecting two qualities, warmth and expertise, to the person you meet.

4. Ask who else you should talk to. They will have ideas and this will help you learn more/network with new people who could help guide you on your path. Listen carefully to their recommendations and take good notes.

5. Connect after. Thank them on LinkedIn (or email if they are not on LinkedIn, but I recommend LinkedIn when possible). Connect with them. Follow their company (if possible), and follow them personally on social media.

6. Set goals and don’t give up! If 4 of 10 people say yes to an interview, then you are winning! People are busy, so don’t get too frustrated or think they don’t want to talk if they don’t respond. Just move on to another person and learn from them. So many surprising people will have good stuff to offer, practice being open to new possibilities.

Instead of seeing informational interviews as the perfect transactional moment, think of them as an investment that will pay off down the line.

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