After a decade of studying alumni relationships, I am keenly aware that most students and graduates don’t think about their alumni network very much at all. Your alumni network offers you connection to thousands of fellow graduates. Although your alumni network is often linked to your undergrad experience, it has as much value – or even more – for your graduate studies. In my book The Alumni Way: Building Lifelong Value from Your University Investment I call this alumni capital, a form of social capital that you have from the moment you start university. Here is a quick guide to reconsider your alumni network at all stages of graduate school.
Before you go
Not sure yet what you want to study or where? Reach out to fellow alumni from your undergraduate university who have also completed graduate work in your field of interest or even at your top graduate school choices. A quick LinkedIn search or a recommendation from friends should yield a list of alumni candidates. Once you are connected, ask for an online informational interview. This is a 15-to-20-minute conversation where you come prepared with your curiosity and questions to explore their graduate school experiences.
Once you arrive
Graduate school can be even more challenging than undergrad to find a circle of friends and mentors. Play the alumni card: find out if other new graduate students or other people in the program or department went to the same undergrad university as you. This is a great ice breaker and gives you something in common to open conversations. Next, consider the alumni from your new school, perhaps they have similar research interests or an interesting career path. An online informational interview is a chance for some insights that you may find helpful as you start your studies.
During graduate school
Build your network! This is a crucial piece of the grad school puzzle. To make the experience successful after graduation, it’s good to begin this “curiosity expedition” as early as possible. How did they excel or thrive in their graduate program? What did these graduates from the same program do or where did they go after graduation?
Do a little sleuthing: ask your professors, fellow students, and administrators for introductions to some program graduates. As alumni relations work at universities is increasingly online, seek out formal alumni programs or mentorship. The same is true for reaching out to alumni anywhere in the world: it’s never been easier to find, connect and forge relationships with fellow alumni with shared personal and professional interests. Seek out student-alumni mentorship programs available through your university’s alumni online platform or career services.
Approaching your final thesis, dissertation, defense, or viva
During crunch time, alumni can offer encouragement and insight on this process. Even if you are in the throes of your research, your alumni network might suggest avenues to publish or present your research. If you have existing relationships with alumni from earlier explorations, you can reach out to them for their experiences. It’s not advice – everyone’s experience is different – but it can be the energy and perspective to remember that others have completed this process with success.
After graduate school
You made it! Now what? You might have a focused idea of a career path or postdoctoral study options. What did your fellow alumni do after graduation? This is an opportunity to find out. Ask for their career stories, not a job.
Building your alumni network throughout your graduate school career allows you to build your “who knows you” network. You want to be top of mind when people have opportunities available to ensure you are that someone recommended.
Finally, don’t forget that this is also a two-way street. Be generous with your time to help others, perhaps taking time with students hoping to apply to graduate school. This generosity keeps the alumni network ecosystem in balance. Consider volunteering as a student mentor or speaking to an undergraduate class about your research or your graduate school experience.
Finally, no matter what stage in your graduate school journey, make the building of your alumni network a regular habit. I suggest an Alumni Friday. Block out an hour on Fridays to connect with alumni contacts you found on LinkedIn, read the alumni magazine, or hold an informational interview. As you build your network you will find yourself on the who knows you radar of others, which will go a long way to supercharge your graduate school experience and life after graduation.