Career Networking Online: Tips for Planning Students and Job Seekers

Networking and preparing for informational interviews are two of the most important job-search techniques to develop. Here are some tips for career networking online; this is especially for students navigating the job hustle and career flow. You can also download a summary of the eight tips, Tip sheet #2 for quick reference.

1. Do your research.

Research your potential connections by focusing on shared interests. Networking is about building relationships and sustaining connection rather than pitching yourself for a specific job. Figuring out how to navigate differences in cultural experience, power differentials, and even the technical language of your industry or sector should be considered too. Researching someone and their organization is different from creeping them. You want to make sure that you have a sense of what they and their organization are about so that you can create some educated questions to ask during an informational interview.

If the people that you are trying to reach are part of a particular academic society, a business network like LinkedIn, or a professional association like the provincial and territorial planning institutes and association, pay attention to what they post on blogs and discussion groups.

2. Be prepared.

To prepare to network in the current online environment, create or update your profile on a business-to-business network like LinkedIn or another professional network. Prioritize the connections that you have into primary and secondary networks. Your primary network consists of the people who you know directly and who know other people to connect you to. Your primary contacts may be your professors, mentors, or work colleagues; they are, ideally, the business professional equivalent to the social butterfly. Your secondary network includes contacts that may have a mutual connection to you (e.g., someone in your primary network); this puts you in a good position to make a request for an informational interview. Finally, there are the ‘cold contacts,’ people you know only by reputation, and so you will need to develop an understanding of them based on what they have written, done, or said. They may not know you, but you can show how you have come to know their work and find common ground.

If you are currently employed, especially if you are on contract, it may be no surprise to your employer that you are networking with other professionals to find work. You might have also chosen to indicate this on your LinkedIn profile. You may have even told your employer that you are on a job search because your contract is coming to its end. However, if you are stable in your current job and are doing informational interviews to simply connect or to stay on top of trends, remember that it is a small world, and we’re in a volatile economy, so you might be asked about what made you reach out. A simple answer is that you are seeking opportunities to expand your professional network in this virtual world during a global pandemic. It is up to you to decide what information is on a need-to-know basis.

3. Request an informational interview, making your intentions clear.

Informational interviews can assist in providing you with information about the career path that you are on and details about the sector or industry that you would like to enter. An informational interview enables you to dig deeper into finding common ground with other professionals, to identify new opportunities, and to stay on top of trends. You can invite a contact through LinkedIn or by their email address, if you have it, and draw from your research (see Tip#1) to connect your interests with theirs. For e-mails, make sure that the subject line of your message clearly reflects your objective. Some examples for an e-mail subject line are:

  • Planning student seeking your advice and input on trends in [insert topic];
  • Mid-career planner seeking career transition advice; or
  • Student of [insert name of mutual connection or name of university and program if writing to an alumnus] seeking your career advice.

The email function on LinkedIn doesn’t require you to put a subject line.

4. Sequence your questions and go with the flow in the informational interview.

Use your qualitative research skills to sequence your questions from a general icebreaker question like, “Can you tell me a bit more about your journey to [insert where they are now or their current position]?” or “As a student, I am curious about how you came to become a planner; can you share a bit about your entry into the profession?” and a quick follow up, “What is the best thing about your current job?”. Then consider moving on to content-oriented questions about their job and asking them for insights into current trends in planning in general or in their specialization.

A bit of awkwardness is normal if you don’t have a lot of practice doing interviews, but don’t be afraid to go with the flow. It’s not a formal interview and it definitely shouldn’t be an interrogation, but it may feel intimidating to talk to someone you don’t know at first or whose work you respect, so having some questions at the ready and that could allow for a 20-to-30-minute conversation is a good start. You can modify how many questions you get to ask based on the amount of time they give you.

Remember to end the interview with a statement of gratitude for their time. Don’t be afraid to ask for assistance to connect with others in your contact’s network. A question like “Based on what we talked about, is there anyone else you think I could benefit from talking to?” is fair game. Follow up right after the informational interview with a thank you email that is brief and courteous.

5. Don’t ask for a job or peddle your resumé; however, be prepared if the contact takes the conversation in that direction.

There are differing opinions about this, but I do not think it is appropriate to ask for a job during your initial connection or informational interview with a new contact. Your focus should be on investigating, being curious about possibilities, sense of fit, interest, and in the best-case-scenario, building a relationship rather than pouncing on a job prospect. Some contacts may pre-emptively state that while they are willing to talk to you, they want you to know that they are not hiring. Do not cancel a meeting just because there is no job prospect overtly there; remember this is about building your career network. Also, the hidden job market is huge, and word-of-mouth may work in your favour. You may get a lead on a job with a different person at another employer.

6. Draw from the expertise and support of your mentors.

If you are already enrolled in a mentorship program or have a professor or experienced professional in your life, I encourage you to test your informational interview questions and do a dry run interview with one of them. Get their feedback. See how long the interview takes. What do you learn about yourself in those sorts of contrived interactions?

7. Videoconference or not; do what feels best.

Don’t feel pressured to conduct an informational interview by videoconference. Having a conversation over the phone works too. In the past, I kept all informational interviews to telephone conversations, but COVID changed everything so that videoconferencing has quickly become a norm. Do what feels best. Power differentials, the human condition of unconscious bias, and gendered dynamics affect our experiences in meeting people, especially for the first time, and this feeds into the dynamic of online networking, and to being seen on-screen. It’s also hard sometimes to ignore the contrived nature of networking online. That’s why setting out a clear professional intention when requesting an informational interview and being prepared with questions offers some structure so that you can take control in making a connection and doing your best at building your professional network virtually.

8. Give yourself time to reflect and recharge before you move on to your next interview.

Know that you will get better at engaging in an informational interview, the more experience you get. Each conversation is a new conversation. You may benefit from going a bit outside of your comfort zone, and yet, do pay attention to the extent to which your vulnerability is tested. While some informational interviews will leave you feeling informed and energized, others may leave you feeling about the same that you did before the interview, and hopefully, not worse. Don’t give up! Give yourself the time to reflect on what you learned after each informational interview and to recharge before the next one. Practice self-care. Manage your energy, not just your time; this is especially the case for introverts!

Artwork: By Leela Viswanathan