PhD Questions of the Month: January 2021

Welcome to the sixth installment of our blog series, PhD Questions of the Month, where the Grad Student/Postdoc Team at Career Services answers the top 3 questions that we have been asked in our individual PhD career advising appointments. This month, we’ve gotten more questions about networking strategies and informational interviews in particular. If you have any questions about how to get started networking or how to improve your current networking skills, make an appointment to meet with a Career Advisor on Handshake!

Here are the top 3 questions we have been asked by PhD students and postdocs this month:

What are some tips on crafting an outreach email to someone I’d like to do an informational interview with?

It can be a little nerve-wracking to write an email to someone asking for an informational interview if you don’t already know them. If you have someone who can make an introduction for you, that would be great! But what if you don’t have an introduction, how should you write an email that can get you connected with a professional you want to speak with? Start by acknowledging the current situation (pandemic) and be empathetic when you reach out. A simple “I hope you are doing as well as possible in these circumstances” can be a good way to start your message. Then make clear who you are, why you are reaching out to that person specifically, what you have in common (the fact that they’re a Penn alum, for example), and what your “ask” is. Are you interested in a 20 minute conversation to learn more about their career trajectory? Or would you like to hear about their transition from graduate school to working in their organization? If you’d like to ask for a conversation, you can write, “Would you be willing to speak with me by phone or video for 20 minutes or so about your career path?” Posing a question makes it very clear that you’d like to get a response. You can then end your email by expressing your gratitude for the opportunity to connect. If you don’t get a reply, don’t take it personally! Feel free to follow up a week or two later.

How do I stay in touch with someone I just conducted an informational interview with?

In addition to sending a thank you note and connecting with a professional on LinkedIn after the informational interview, you can continue to build the relationship and stay in touch in different ways. LinkedIn, for example, is a good way to stay connected. If the person you’ve spoken with has written a blog, shared an article, or been promoted into a new role, for example, you can post a comment or ask a question. Try to find other ways to “see” that person again if possible, like at a virtual conference or event. If there aren’t natural opportunities to meet up again, feel free to reach out during the holidays or the New Year to reconnect. Send an update when you have news to share—like when you’ve completed a project, published a paper, or started a new role. You can also share an article that reminds you of the conversation you had. Another way to stay in touch is to send a second thank you note when the advice given is relevant again. If the professional gave you advice in your initial conversation that you are now able to implement, feel free to email them to say thank you again. It’s always nice for people to receive these positive emails out of the blue! Remember that building relationships takes time and effort, so don’t rush it or put too much pressure on it.

I’m actively applying for jobs now, but I didn’t have time to start networking earlier. Should I still network and do informational interviews?

Absolutely! Although its very helpful to begin networking and building relationships with professionals in your field long before you need a job, we encourage you to continue (or if you haven’t done it yet, start) networking while actively job hunting. Networking during this time can mean that you focus strategically on connecting with people at organizations and companies you’d like to work for. You can let the professionals you’re speaking with know that you are currently exploring opportunities and share this information in a way that doesn’t put unnecessary pressure on them in your conversation. This means not asking for a job or a referral! However, you can share if you’re interested in applying to a role that’s advertised at their organization. Make sure you ask the kinds of questions that you want answers to and that you’re curious about. Would you like to know what their company culture is like? Are you curious to know what their responsibilities are in their specific positions? Or would you want to hear more about their experience with the application and interview process? Since you have a more immediate goal to achieve, which is to land a job offer, be strategic in getting the information you need to help you with your job search.

For more about informational interviews, check out our Informational Interviewing Career Guide for Graduate Students & Postdocs. If you have more career-related questions, or if you’d like to chat with us about your career plans or job search, feel free to make an appointment with us. We look forward to working with you!

By Helen Pho
Helen Pho Associate Director, Graduate Students & Postdocs