There are two components to networking for graduate school. The first is to engage in informational interviews to explore whether graduate school is a path you’d like to pursue. If you decide to pursue graduate school, you’ll next be communicating directly with faculty to learn more about specific opportunities in their research labs and graduate programs.
What is an informational interview?
An informational interview is a brief meeting with someone in a profession or an organization you want to explore. Instead of directly observing a professional in their environment of work, an informational interview will allow you to have a short conversation (typically 30 minutes) in person or over phone to ask questions about the profession of interest. You can conduct informational interviews with faculty, graduate students, and post-doctoral scholars in your field of interest; all will be able to give you different and valuable perspectives.
Sample questions to ask during an informational interview
- What was your experience in graduate school like, and how did it compare to your undergraduate studies?
- What is a typical day on the job like? How much of your time do you spend doing research, teaching, or administrative tasks?
- What do you enjoy or find most rewarding about your profession?
- What do you find to be the most challenging aspect about your profession?
- Why did you decide that you wanted to pursue a research career, and how did you pick your specific topic or field?
- What skills do you think are most necessary for success in this profession?
- What experiences in your undergraduate education best prepared you to go into your field?
- Can you recommend any journals or professional organizations that would be helpful to learn more about your field?
- What advice do you have for someone intending to go into this field?
- Based on my interests, can you suggest any other individuals I should contact for more information?
Communicating directly with faculty
Once you determine that graduate school is something you’d like to pursue, you will begin the application process. As a part of this process, you will be asked to identify potential faculty advisors with whom you are interested in working. Networking with these faculty prior to submitting your applications is an essential step in the graduate school admission process.
There are numerous reasons to network with faculty during the admissions process, including:
- Determine whether faculty are accepting new students. Even if you are the perfect fit for a given lab, if there’s no funding available, you won’t be able to get into the lab. Knowing this in advance can help you evaluate whether or not to submit an application to a particular program.
- Assess “fit” between yourself and a potential faculty advisor. On paper, everything might look great. However, you may find after meeting faculty in person that their mentoring style or availability doesn’t match with what you’re looking for.
- Learn more about the culture of the program, the lab, and the school. You’ll gain the most insight into this during the interview weekend, but reaching out and networking in advance can also help you learn more about these characteristics.
- Put yourself on the radar of potential faculty advisors. Some programs offer admission conditional on a faculty member accepting you into their lab, while other programs will have you rotate through several labs during the first year before you select an official advisor. In either case, faculty are often asked to provide input to the admissions committee, and can speak for you if you’ve already begun establishing a relationship. Note: while this may happen, this should not be your primary reason for reaching out to faculty! You want to be creating authentic connections, rather than working to create an “in” with the admissions committee.
In addition to contacting potential faculty advisors, it’s also a good idea to reach out to graduate students in the labs of interest. Graduate students are usually willing to have a candid conversation about the advising style and accessibility of their advisor, the culture of their lab, and the support provided by the program.
Steps to identifying and engaging with faculty:
Make contact with current faculty, and explore your field
Connect with your current research lab, professors and TAs, and other students involved in undergraduate research to identify faculty in your field. You should also plan to spend time reading through current scientific articles in your field to see who is currently publishing. Finally, find a list of speakers at recent conferences hosted by the professional society of your field. This will likely be a long list, so you’ll need to filter it according to faculty that are researching specific topics of interest.
Begin Researching Faculty and Programs
Once you identify faculty that are doing work that excites you, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the faculty member’s work, and the programs with which they are affiliated. Some faculty might be affiliated with more than one program, so be sure to do your research to see which program would work best for you. You’ll likely have a lot of information at this point, so be sure to develop a system to track the folks you plan to contact, as well as the responses you receive. We suggest recording this information in a spreadsheet.
Create an Email Template
Creating a template of what you plan to say in your email can be helpful in preparing you to contact faculty. You should include information about who you are (student, school, major), why you are reaching out to them (opportunities for graduate students in their lab), and how they can reach you. Remember to brief, as faculty are very busy; however, consider including your resume or other relevant experiences you have participated in.
Start sending emails
Most graduate school applications are due mid to late Fall. Give that, you’ll want to begin reaching out to faculty late summer. If you are contacting multiple faculty at the same school, you should plan to contact them all at approximately the same time. If you don’t hear back within two weeks, it is appropriate to send a follow-up email. The results of this email outreach will vary. Some faculty will simply send an email reply and nothing further. Some may express interest, but state that they’d prefer to discuss anything further during the actual interview held by the graduate program. Others will be willing to engage in additional conversation before the official interview, and will work with you to set up a Skype or in-person meeting.
What to expect during a follow-up meeting
If you reach out to faculty via email and they request a follow-up meeting (whether in person or virtual) it can often be difficult to predict what to expect. Sometimes these meetings will feel more like an informal conversation, while other times they might feel more like an interview. Either way, you want to do you research ahead of time, and come ready with questions you have about the faculty’s research, and the program. During the conversation, be clear on what is exciting to you about the faculty’s research and lab, as well as what you can contribute. You can also use this as an opportunity to discuss hypothetical projects to illustrate your goals and interests - just be sure not to give the impression that these are the only projects you would consider!
- I read about your recent work in XX, and found it to be very interesting. Can you tell me more about what you’ve worked on with this project since that paper was published?
- What is your advising philosophy?
- I see the PhD program guarantees X years of support. How does this support usually break down (e.g. research fellowships, TA positions, etc.)?
- Can you tell me more about the culture of the department?
- What do you look for in prospective graduate students?
- I see you’re affiliated with Department X and Department Y. Can you tell me more about the differences between these graduate programs?
Be sure to record your reflections on what you learned about the lab, the program, and the faculty member. Don’t forget to send a thank you email!
Have questions, or need some advice? We invite you to set up a time to speak with a member of the CBS Career Team. You can do so online at https://cbsss.appointments.umn.edu/, or by calling CBS Student Services at 612-624-9717. In addition to answering any questions you may have, members of the Career Team are available to help with:
- Identifying individuals for informational interviews
- Identifying faculty and/or graduate programs of interest in your field
- Requesting informational interviews and/or conversations with potential faculty advisors
- Reviewing questions to ask during informational interviews and/or conversations with potential faculty advisors