Since I occupy an odd niche on this spinning bit of rock, and I am very active in the alumni network of my alma mater (Brandeis), I have the opportunity and pleasure to hear from and meet a wide variety of students who hail from all over. Across the 10+ years I have been an alum and networker, as well as a scientist and consultant, I have started to notice that students everywhere have lost the arts of networking and professionalism, so this series is a set of tips for making the most of an alumni network.
Opening the Connection
When you consider contacting alumni, there are a few things that you need to keep in mind before you even send the email.
Cold-emailing is OK, but keep it short
Unlike in other networking situations, we really are happy to get a random email from a student or fellow alum. But, please don’t send us a two-page email telling us all about yourself. Start with something very short, such as a one-line introduction and a brief explanation of why you want to network with us. If it takes more than 20 seconds to read your email, it’s too long.
Be specific about why you are getting in touch, and with us in particular
I get a lot of networking emails, but the ones that leave me scratching my head the most are the ones that don’t give me any indication of what the sender wants! People write things like, “I wanted to get in touch with you about positive psychology.” I don’t mind discussing my field with people, but what can I tell them that won’t be found more quickly and immediately on the internet? If you are going to email an alum, ask a question whose answer cannot be found in a 30-minute internet search. Otherwise, it’s a waste of our time, and we’re not going to have a high enough opinion of you to be useful to you anyway.
With that in mind, make sure we know what you want us to do. Usually, it is going to start with a chat, so provide contact information and suggest some times that you are available.
Do not ask us for a job unless you are responding to a job posting
First of all, we are rarely the hiring managers. Second, we don’t know you at all, and giving us a resume and cover letter doesn’t help anywhere near as much as you would like to believe. If you want to work for us or our company, feel free to express an interest, but your request should be for an informational interview or a casual chat about the company and how you can be a fit for it. Alternately, ask if you can confer with us about our experiences in the field and/or company. If you are impressive enough, rest assured that we will want to see you hired somewhere, and we’re likely to help out with that.
Don’t ask for an internship either, even an unpaid one
In many cases, companies have policies about interns, so we can’t just take you on even if we want to, so asking even for an internship directly is generally a bad idea. Instead, ask if there is an internship program, or find out if there is any way in which you can offer your services on a trial basis. Generally, though, this should occur during a follow up to a conversation you have had with us, or should come towards the end of a conversation where you feel there is good rapport and fit. Otherwise, confine your request to obtaining information about the company or field.
Get this straight: there is no such thing as a “casual” networking chat. No matter how informal the interaction, this is your chance to impress someone! You might get only one, and you might get only a few minutes in which to make a good impression, so make it count.
Dress the Part
Attire should be business casual for an informal meeting, a match with the standard dress code of the field when you are meeting at an office building (e.g., business formal for finance, casual for startup tech), and err towards more formal for anything else. You are always better off being overdressed than underdressed.
No matter how you present yourself, attend to basic hygiene, be neat, and make sure your clothes match. Also remember that even the little things in your presentation matter, and while you may think the difference isn’t noticeable, the attention to detail comes through loud and clear if you have it together. Otherwise, you run the risk of leaving an impression of sloppiness.
Start with formal and work your way down
Your first contact with us should be formal. Address us by a title, do not use slang, and be courteous. Not everyone really cares, but you never know in advance who will (same goes for dressing the part and other indicators of formality), so err on the side of formal.
Bring a business card, resume, and professional social media URL
Inexpensive business cards are easy to come by, and so are paper resumes. When you meet with us in person, make sure you have both. Start by providing the business card, and give the resume only if it is relevant (otherwise it looks like you are asking for a job). When you contact us electronically, make sure you include your contact information, and provide us with a link either to your webpage, or to your page on a professional networking site (e.g., LinkedIn), so that we can get a look at your background before we chat with you (check us out, too — it helps to know the person to whom you are speaking!). People should be able to download a version of your resume from social media, as well.
Any meeting in which there is no advanced planning and research is a waste of time. Here are some tips for making the most of meeting with alumni:
Plan for the meeting in advance, and do your homework
The number one thing that tries my patience when people try to network with me is not having any plan for the conversation. From my perspective, I opened my time to you, and am now discovering that you have no idea how you wish to use it. A similar pet peeve is when people expect me to spend my time explaining things that are readily found online. Either of those things is going to cause me to cut the conversation short and leave me unwilling to deal with you afterwards. Instead, come with well-thought-out questions that will actually give you the answers that only we or our equivalents can provide.
Also, and importantly, know thyself. Make sure you know something about your current direction, why you are going that way, and how you got on that path. We are likely to ask, and knowing that information can help us guide you.
Make it a conversation, not a Q&A
You may be coming in with questions, but try not to make this a question-answer session. Better is to have a regular conversation that may start with a question, and be guided by follow-up questions later, but try to have a fun and organic experience rather than something forced (this holds for interviews, too).
Get some polish from the career center first
Make sure you get some polish from the career center on your resume and interviewing skills before chatting with alumni. This goes along with not asking us for general career advice — if you have questions about how to set up your resume, or how to find your career path in general, go to the career center! Once you have done so, you will have a better set of questions to review with us, and we can be far more helpful.
ALWAYS FOLLOW UP
I consider this the #1 differentiator between successful and unsuccessful networking. I have lost track of the number of times I have been in a position to give someone a job lead, contact, or suggestion, and never got the chance because the person didn’t follow up. Similarly, I hate to think of the number of opportunities that I have blown simply because I didn’t follow up. Whenever you meet someone, exchange contact information, and have any kind of meaningful exchange, send a follow up within 48 hours, and continue to follow up as appropriate. Most of the time, people don’t follow up because they don’t know what to say, so here are several outlines (doctor them up as needed):
· Nice meeting you, enjoyed our conversation about _____, would love to chat more about _____, are you free to meet/chat [suggest a list of dates/times]?
· Thank you very much for taking the time to meet with me and discuss _____, [here’s what I am going to do with that information], may I contact you in the future about [further items related to what we discussed]? — if you meet with success following their advice, send another thank-you note and let them know that you were successful
· Thanks for chatting with me on [date/day]. Per our discussion, I wanted to follow up on ______. [Here is a follow up point, or the resume you asked for, or the contact or information you asked me to provide]
· Thank you for taking the time to meet with me on [day/date]! I appreciate your offering to ________ [offer to facilitate/help, if relevant].
· It was great meeting you on day/date! I was wondering if I could chat with you more about [topic we mentioned briefly], here’s my availability [list some dates/times] — alternative version: would you happen to know of any specific resources I should consult to find out more about _____ (this might include things like field-specific job boards, publications, or websites)?
Always make sure to follow up within 48 hours and, if you build any kind of strong connection, make sure you email your new contact at least once every 3–6 months. Even a quick note can keep a connection going!
A quick note can include items like:
Hi, it was a pleasure meeting you ___ ago, how did [thing you mentioned] work out?, here’s more about what I have been doing lately (keep that relevant to the conversation) — alternative: I’m still thinking about [thing we discussed] and [give a quick update, even if it’s that you haven’t progressed, but give a reason].
Keep the alumni network strong
Once you graduate and become a professional in your field, make sure that you open your calendar and Rolodex to current students and alumni.