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Acing the Career Conversation: What to Do Before, During and After

Embarking on a new path. Considering your next professional step. Switching to a different industry. If you’ve ever found yourself at one of these career crossroads, you could have benefited from a career conversation. Also known as an informational interview, a career conversation is a chance for you to learn from someone knowledgeable about your area of interest. From professional guidance to industry information and more, there’s so much you could gain over a cup of coffee (or Zoom call!) with the right person.

Career conversations are also a natural way to build new connections. Your Stanford alumni family includes professionals around the world in a variety of roles, companies and industries—and these conversations can help you tap into that network in a meaningful way. Our advice? Make time to chat with a few alumni with different experiences, and focus on building genuine relationships. You’ll be glad you did.

Keep reading below for the inside scoop on what you need to prepare for before, during and after the interview. Need help making an informational interview request to an alum? Check out our tips for cold contacting alumni

7 Steps to Ensuring an Effective Career Conversation

Before the conversation
 

  1. Prepare, prepare, prepare.

Think about why you contacted this person and what you’d like to learn from them, creating a list of five to seven questions you want to ask. Then prioritize your questions by order of importance, so you can cover the most pressing ones first in case your meeting is cut short.

Next, research the person, role, company and industry. You can find information on LinkedIn, visit the organization’s website, or even create a Google alert to receive email notifications about specific keywords. Bonus: Look up the alum in the Stanford Alumni Directory to find commonalities that may help facilitate your connection (like major, student activities, residences and more). It never hurts to have a few topics in your pocket! 

Lastly, don’t forget to develop your elevator pitch and prepare an answer to the question “How can I help?”

During the conversation 
 

  1. Introduce yourself

It’s a good idea to start the interview with a quick refresher of who you are and what you hope to learn. (Need a starting point? Scroll down to the “Sample Introduction” below.)

Now’s also the time to put that elevator pitch to use and give the alum a sense of your experience, skills, interests or values. Aim for it to be about 90 seconds long. 

  1. Ask thoughtful questions 

People enjoy talking about themselves and sharing what they know, so try asking about the person’s work, role or company, or seek advice and perspective on their field. (Scroll down to the “Sample Questions” below for ideas.) Just remember that since you requested the meeting, it's up to you to keep the conversation going and be mindful of the time.

  1. Ask for introductions or contacts 

One of the best ways to build your network is to ask for an introduction or a contact—and often, all you need to do is ask.

  1. Say “thank you”

Always, always, always say thank you. Ask if you can stay in touch (e.g., by connecting on LinkedIn or exchanging contact info) if you have additional questions or updates.

After the conversation 
 

  1. Follow up 

After the meeting, send an email to thank them for their time, listing specific ways they’ve been helpful to you. (See examples in the “Sample Emails” section below.)

Think about ways you might stay in touch. Whether you share job progress or send  articles they might find interesting, you have options for keeping the conversation going—and don’t forget to think about how you might help them in the future.

  1. Reflect and plan your next steps

Take a few moments to jot down what you’ve learned, whether it was new information about an industry, helpful career advice or ideas about what to do next.

Career Conversations: Sample Materials to Get You Started
 

Sample Introduction 

“I really appreciate your taking the time to talk with me. I graduated from Stanford in (year) with a degree in (major). I’m especially interested in learning more about (role, organization, field) as I explore various career opportunities in (industry). I’d appreciate any insights or advice you can offer me about ________ (career path, role, company or industry).” 

Sample Questions

Role/career path

  • Can you describe the work you do in a typical week?
  • What do you enjoy most about this role? What challenges are associated with this position? What is the career trajectory for someone in this position? 
  • What skills and/or experience are necessary? Is there anything you would change about your career/education now that you are in your current role? 
  • What lifestyle choices have you made in your industry? 
  • Is there anything about the field/organization/role you wished you’d known before entering it?
  • As a (insert identity/background), how did you navigate your career path and find workplace allies? 

Team

  • If you think of a successful employee currently in your department/organization, what makes them stand out? What skills make them successful?
  • What is the balance between teamwork and individual work in this position?
  • What is the biggest challenge facing the department/organization right now?
  • What kinds of backgrounds do people in this organization (field/team) have?
  • How are new employees onboarded into the company/department?
  • What are typical work schedules for employees? Is it common to work nights/weekends?
  • What does belonging and inclusion look like on the team and what strategies help cultivate that?
  • Have you found helpful ways to hold colleagues accountable to diversity and inclusion goals on your team or projects? 

Organization/industry 

  • How would you describe the work environment or company/department culture?
  • How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way work is done in your organization/field? 
  • What will be the likely changes in this industry in the next few years?
  • What strategies do people use to stay up to date on trends in the industry?
  • What are typical career paths in this field? 
  • How does this organization define diversity? What lenses of diversity has the organization made a direct commitment toward?
  • How has your organization put into action your DEI priorities (e.g., hired a chief diversity officer, actively support diverse suppliers/contractors, offer employee DEI training, annual compensation equity analysis)? 
  • Does your company have any employee resources or affinity groups that help to cultivate a sense of belonging? 
  • What other types of organizations do (name of role) work in? 
  • How do you see the next few years in terms of job prospects in this field?
  • What are the current needs in the field? What changes are expected? What have diversity and inclusion policies entailed in this organization/industry? How important is diversity to this organization? Where can I learn more about the diversity initiatives?
  • Do you find that leadership teams are generally diverse throughout the industry?
  • Are you aware of any internal (or external) programs in place to support diversity

Research (Higher Education)

  • Can you tell me more about the research being done?
  • What kinds of questions is the research trying to answer?
  • My experience is in X and interests are X, Y and Z. Would someone with my background be an asset in your lab?
  • What are the weekly commitments away from the bench (lab meetings, journal clubs, etc.)?
  • What expertise/skill set is most important among the lab team

Work values

  • How does the organization support ongoing learning and training for employees?
  • What opportunities are there for advancement? 
  • Which values of the company do you see play out on a daily basis?
  • Has the organization made any formal commitments in support of racial equity?
  • Is it possible to balance career and personal life well here?

Advice/insight

  • What advice would you give me as I start my career in (industry)?
  • Where do the people who have had these roles go next?
  • Given my background and interests, are there other organizations you might suggest I explore?
  • How would you advise me to get started on building experience in this field?
  • Are there certain classes or training programs you would recommend for building experience for this type of position?
  • Can you provide any resources (identity or industry specific) that were helpful to you in this stage of your career?
  • Is there anything about the field/organization/role you wished you’d known before entering it?

Hiring practices

  • Does the company hire throughout the year or are there specific recruiting periods?
  • I understand you currently don’t have openings in the department/organization. How do you recommend I stay in touch to learn about future openings?
  • What do hiring managers look for in a résumé and cover letter?
  • What is the application process like?
  • What is the interview process like? What kinds of questions are typically asked?
  • What is negotiable in this position?
  • What is a typical salary range for this role? Is the salary negotiable?
  • What, if anything, did you negotiate? What do you wish you would have negotiated?

Next steps

  • If I have more questions, may I contact you? Would you prefer email or phone?
  • I would love to keep in touch, could I add you as a connection on LinkedIn?
  • You've been very generous with your time, and you've given me several new ideas to explore. Do you know anyone in _____________ (field) or at __________ (company) who might be willing to talk with me?

Sample Thank-You Emails 

Be sure to send an email within 24 to 48 hours after meeting with an alum to express your appreciation and let them know how the meeting helped you. 

Sample Email #1

Sample Email #2

Sample Email #3