Making Connections through Informational Interviews

What skills should I develop if I want to be a Data Scientist? What types of projects do marketing interns at Disney work on? What professional organizations, resources, or job boards would help me discover more about working in biotechnology? What are good internship programs if I want to work in fashion?

Making connections with current students and alumni is a fantastic way to learn more about specific fields, industries, or types of work. Whether you know exactly what you want to do or have no idea and are trying to explore what’s out there, reaching out to students or alumni gives you a chance to learn more from someone with experience in the field.

How to Find Students & Alumni

Think about the type of people you’re hoping to talk with and what you want to get out of the conversation.

For finding alumni:

  • LinkedIn – Penn’s LinkedIn alumni tab is a great way to search for potential contacts; you can keyword search certain companies, titles, or keywords & filter on their location, major, etc. (Don’t hit connect with people you don’t know on LinkedIn though, as they will most likely ignore you.)
  • CareerShift / MyPenn – both tools to let you find professional or personal email addresses for Penn alumni.

For finding current students:

  • Handshake – start on the Student tab (remember to check the “University of Pennsylvania only” filter on the left-hand side if you just want to see Penn students).

How to Reach Out

  • Keep it short – save the questions you have for those who are willing to connect with you. Not everyone will have time or be responsive. If they aren’t, don’t send frequent follow-up emails; instead move on to other potential contacts.
  • Why them – what made you reach out to them? If they were in the same club, on the same sports team, had the same unique double major, the same niche hobby, etc. make sure to mention it and any connections you may share!
  • Be specific – don’t ask to “pick their brain” or “connect”. Ask questions with a clear yes/no answer like; “would you be willing to answer a few questions about your role over email?” or “do you have 15-20 minutes to talk about the work you do?”
  • Thank them – one of the easiest ways to increase the chance that someone will respond is to show gratitude for their time. Tell them how much you appreciate it or thank them in advance for any time they have.

What to Ask

Once you find someone who’s willing to connect with you, make sure you don’t ask obvious questions that you could answer by Googling or searching the company website. (Asking someone “Can you tell me about your career path?” when you’ve already looked at their LinkedIn is going to waste both your time.) Do some research on the industry, field, or company up front.

Spend some time really thinking about what you genuinely want to know from this person who has experience in the field. What are you curious about? What insights could they have that would be valuable to you? Some starting questions to consider:

  • What skills or experiences should I focus on to help prepare me for working in _____ field?
  • What qualities help people succeed in _____ industry?
  • What’s the company culture like at _____?
  • Who do you think are some exciting/interesting/niche employers in _____ field?

While some generic questions like these that can be helpful across the board, don’t ask things simply because they’re on a list. Ask the questions that you sincerely want answered.

If you need help with the process remember you can make an appointment, stop by for walk-ins, or attend one of our making contacts labs.

By Emily Barrale
Emily Barrale Associate Director for Data Visualization, Analysis & Reporting