Leaving your degree and finding a job is one of the toughest transitions in a person’s life, and many students struggle to make the leap.
While we could point to important career foundations like personal branding and networking, one often overlooked resource is your school’s alumni network. An alumni network gives you access to a community of those who have gone before, who are often willing to help.
In this post, I interview Dr. Maria Gallo about her new book, The Alumni Way: Building Lifelong Value from Your University Investment, and she gives us some tricks and tips to unlock the power of your alumni network for career building.
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What is an alumni network?
Your alumni network is powerful and often misunderstood. It’s misunderstood, because it’s often seen as linear—your connection with your former classmates so you can get together every 5 years for a reunion. It’s so much more. Your alumni network connects every single graduate before and (eventually) after you.
Your alumni network is also the entire university ecosystem – your lifelong connection to the other people you have met through the university—professors, lecturers, TAs, university administrators, classmates, lab partners, sports coaches- this list is longer than you think!
You have a shared experience with these people. And don’t forget the connection you also have to interesting research projects, outreach initiatives, programs and so much more within your university- and the people that are involved in these initiatives too.
2. Why is it powerful for career building?
An alumni network is powerful for career building because there is so much to explore! When you are sitting in your room, finishing an assignment, or attending an online lecture, it’s easy to feel alone. It’s important to break free of this mindset and remind yourself of this alumni ecosystem you have now as a student and even after you graduate- it’s a connection you have for life.
Your alumni network is powerful because of its sheer size and breadth of experiences people have after graduation. So many people have come before you and completed the same course as you, then ventured into the work of work. What are they doing? If you’re curious, you can find the answer.
You might be familiar with that common mantra: it’s who you know that helps you get a job. I am of the belief—and others agree—that it’s not who you know, but who knows you. You want to be on the radar of others when they have opportunities—including career opportunities—available to ensure you are the someone that might be recommended. This is described in detail in my book with my interview with Ryan Catherwood, then the Assistant Vice President of Alumni and Career Services at Longwood University. He talks about the university presenting the Hiring Manager’s Story to illustrate the importance of the who knows you idea. Imagine: if you’re a hiring manager, you want to get the best candidate for the advertised job, minimizing the risk of hiring the wrong person. The solution? The hiring manager casts the net out to internal staff to seek referrals for the position. You want to be on the mind –the radar—of the right people who might see a job that is just right for you.
As you build your ‘who knows you’ network, it’s a chance in a low stakes, low commitment way to explore so many careers and sectors, with so many people you are already connected through the university- it take some sleuthing, but it’s worth the effort.
3. Why do students not use their alumni network?
I believe the problem isn’t so much they don’t use their alumni network, it’s that they do use their networks. They take it for granted, they think it’s something to their disposal, a tool to help them find a job. This is a mistake. With this mindset what often happens is they find people aren’t responding to their needs (I want a job!). They get crickets- no response at all. They give up.
There is a better way: rethinking your alumni network as something your build, cultivate, and nurture. Networking is relationship building exercise first and foremost. To be part of a network means there is give and take.
Sometimes I hear students say they have nothing to give back if they do reach out to their alumni network. Again, this is false! When you ask a member of your alumni community, maybe 10 years into their career, about their career journey, it’s so valuable. It’s valuable for the individual alum to reflect on how they got where they are today. Plus, they are likely very curious too- what the university is like today, perhaps even interested in better understanding the student demographic that might be important to their work.
You might be thinking, but what can I give back? You never know unless you ask! I have mentored a few students recently and did all those typical things of talking about my career, even reviewing their CVs (resumes). I then reached out to them when I needed a student perspective for my book. this was extremely valuable to me— I haven’t been a student for many years!
Students have also reported to me that they have also acted as an informal student recruitment officer during mentorship meetings. Alumni have asked them about their student experience because their own son/daughter was thinking about also attending university there. You have more to give than you think!
Another reason students don’t reach out to their alumni network is they feel intimidated, especially by those in senior leadership roles. It’s important to remember: they were in your position once upon a time! They can empathize with your life as a student!
Finally, I always think students think alumni networks are for after graduation, or, they aren’t aware of them at all. The best time to start building your alumni network and start your career exploration is while you’re a student.
5. How to find an alumni network?
To be able to start the career exploration, first, you need to ask yourself: who do I want to contact in my alumni network? There are often hundreds or even thousands of alumni (and connections!) within your network. It’s good to start by mapping out who you know already.
This might include friends, friends of friends, neighbors, family members or even recommendations from your wider alumni network, including professors, lecturers, grad students, university administrators or even coaches.
Starting with who you know is a safe, easy place to begin asking those career questions. If the alumni you know aren’t in your career industry of choice, ask them for a recommendation from their own network.
Next, consider casting the net wide. LinkedIn is a great resource to find people who graduate from your university! Use the search and filter features to look for alumni from the same degree as you or possibly with a job title or industry of interest. You may also find this useful to start with the official LinkedIn group from your university (and join this group too!).
Make some notes on some key members of your alumni network you want to start with – don’t reach out just yet!
4. How can I involve my alumni network for career building?
There are several ways to involve alumni in career building activities. First and perhaps the easiest place to start is asking for an informational interview. This is much more than a casual cup of coffee. This involves your advanced planning and include some key informational interview questions to build your curiosity on a certain career path. An informational interview is usually about a 20-minute conversation where you invite someone to discuss their career stories. What’s a career story? It’s not the factual stuff you can find about an alumni contact on LinkedIn. It’s those questions that go deeper. Find out the journey of how they got from graduation to their career – achievement, bumps, and all.
Another way is to join a student-alumni mentorship program. These might be offered through your Careers Services office – this is a great way to start building a relationship with a member of the alumni- possibly in your area of interest. This can become a series of informational interviews of sorts, and a chance to really think deeply about your next steps immediately before and after graduation on that career ladder.
When you have started to build your own personal alumni network contacts, you can also start the expansion of your network by asking for an introduction. This is where someone suggest someone else that you should meet in their network. When someone offers to make an introduction for you, it’s important you follow-up first with them. Thank them for agreeing to make the introduction to X person and offer a little blurb about yourself to make the introduction process easier. You will then receive an e-mail or direct message with the introduction and it’s a chance to open the conversation. Send the email back first (you were the one looking for the introduction in the first place!), showing your gratitude for the introduction and then open the suggestion for action: ask for a short informational interview.
5. How should I reach out to alumni?
Now you know:
- why you want to reach out
- who you want to reach out to and
- how you are going to reach out to them.
Now is the time to take the leap! I believe the message to an alum should be simple. It’s the connected, connection, connect steps of writing an alumni reach out message (either a direct message on Linked In for instance or an e-mail):
Connected: Start your message by acknowledging your shared connection with the university (maybe you studied in the same program, course, or field of study?). If you have people in common include this at the start of your message, too.
Connection: In the middle part of the message, explain why you are making the connection. Are you interested in hearing more about their specific career path? Are you curious about their job? Do you want to explore their experience from a particular perspective- perhaps working in a certain country or region? Clearly outline the purpose for the connection and a little about your career aspirations (or be honest if you are just exploring loads of career options at this stage!).
Connect: In the final section states the action. Ask for an informational interview (or possibly for an introduction if this is appropriate). Be flexible and open about the day/time, and suggest an online informational interview (it’s easy for them to just jump on a quick online meeting!).
Closing: always open it up for something in return. Something like: “I am grateful for your consideration and if I can be of any support to you, please let me know.”
Approach reaching out to your alumni network with kindness and generosity. Do not ask for a job. You can ask to be kept in mind if any opportunities arise in the future (that’s the radar!). This is a building relationship exercise. An exploration, so treat it as such.
Any final tips to build your alumni network as a student?
Two final things: first, keep your eyes open. Read your university’s social media posts, magazines, and alumni profiles- there might be a member of the alumni community front and centre you want to connect with personally (or if not, at least learn more about their career trajectory in the articles provided!).
Finally, building your alumni network should be a regular habit. I suggest an Alumni Friday. This is the day—monthly, but ideally weekly—when you spend your time focusing on building your alumni network. It might be an hour on Fridays when you reach out to alumni contacts you found on LinkedIn, read the alumni magazine, or hold an informational interview. Slowly but surely you will build your alumni network, and when you graduate you will find yourself on the radar of so many others, which will be a game changer as you embark on your career and life after graduation.
Dr Maria Gallo is the author of The Alumni Way: Building Lifelong Value from Your University Investment. She is an alumni scholar and strategist with over 20 years’ experience in higher education leadership roles in Ireland and Canada. Maria is also a Visiting Research Fellow with the Centre for Social Innovation at the Trinity Business School- Trinity College Dublin. She is active in all her alma maters in Canada, the UK and Ireland. For more information on The Alumni Way, visit www.thealumniway.com.