Mills College at Northeastern students, alumni benefit from inaugural career conference on Oakland campus

Northeastern Community members take notes on their laptops at the career conference
Photo by Michael Halberstadt for Northeastern University

OAKLAND, Calif.—Bleary-eyed students and alumni gathered early Saturday morning in the sun-drenched Lokey School of Business building. They scanned for familiar faces and gathered courage. Name tags on their chests, clutching cups of complimentary coffee, they made awkward introductions and hoped for the best.

It was a networking event like any other, fraught with the pressure to present your best self and make new connections. But this one was unique: a daylong career conference, sponsored by Mills College at Northeastern University, aiming to demystify the process of finding your dream job with concrete tools and a little soul searching.

Hosted by Northeastern’s Career Design Team, the event was called the “NUCareer Connect Conference: Reflect, Explore, Connect.”

The repetition of “connect” in the title was not by accident.

“The hardest lesson I learned is that a job is not going to come to you right after graduation,” said Octavia Sun, a 2016 Mills graduate, who participated in the event as a mentor. “You have to network.”

How to network was a frequently discussed topic, one of many explored in the six breakout sessions of the conference, which covered areas like “Crafting Your Professional Introduction,” “Revising Your Resume and Cover Letter” and “Building Your Professional Brand.”

Anne Grieves, associate director of career development at Northeastern, coached a small group of students and alumni in the “Building Your Professional Brand” session and stressed the importance of networking etiquette.

Grieves’ tips were especially relevant, given that 70% to 80% of all new hires involve networking.

Making professional connections impactfully, yet politely, can be a challenge—especially with LinkedIn’s ability to send rapid-fire connection requests, which some applicants mistake for meaningful networking.

It all starts with a good introduction, Grieves said.

She cited a famous movie quote from “The Princess Bride” as an example of a good introduction that checks all the boxes. The classic line, oft-quoted by cult fans of the movie, is: “Hello. My name is Indigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

How can this silly dialogue possibly exemplify a good LinkedIn introduction?

Grieves said it has the four ingredients necessary: polite greeting, name, relevant personal link and manageable expectations.

In Montoya’s case, his intent was to exact revenge on his father’s murderer, but still—his audience understood who he was, why he was addressing them and what would happen next. And for job seekers looking to build their network, Grieves said, your intent should be just as clear.

Whereas in job interviews, Grieves said, open-ended questions are better to elicit information, in LinkedIn messages, where time is limited and attention spans are short, straightforward questions make it easier for people to help you.

A great thing to request from your LinkedIn connections, Grieves said, is a 20-minute phone call, called an “informational interview.” Many professionals want to provide mentorship and make connections of their own. If they trust that your intentions are sincere, and have a context to place you in, you can gain a lot of insight in a 20-minute discussion about a role or company you are interested in.

Bad introductions, Grieves said, include such professional faux pas as reaching out on behalf of someone else, asking to pass along a resume, and asking to vouch for a candidate they don’t know. Also, assuming they know the hiring manager, asking for a “favor,” and putting the onus on them to do all the work.

Grieves showed examples of such messages she’s received, and said she did not respond to them—not because she didn’t care, but because the sender didn’t do their research, state clear intentions and make it easy for Grieves to follow up without investing too much of her own time and energy.

“Networking is reciprocal, building a relationship over time,” Grieves said. “Networking is not asking for a job.”

Eleanor Strader, a 2018 Mills MBA graduate, attended the “Revising Your Resume and Cover Letter” session and learned why her resumes might not be getting much traction.

After her receptionist and marketing assistant job ended at the beginning of the pandemic, Strader applied for five marketing jobs, but the only response she received was from a headhunter, who never followed up after their interview.

“I hate that dead air,” Strader said. “Just let me know.”

Strader suspected her resume was getting passed over by scanning algorithms, which search out keywords on resumes before advancing them to hiring managers. Strader plans on revamping her resume to include these keywords, which can be gleaned using platforms like JobScan. Strader said the service is free for students and alumni of Mills at Northeastern.

“I am optimistic,” she said. “I think there are definitely positions in my field.”

The conference ended with a luncheon and panel of alumni, who shared their wisdom on finding jobs that give you financial stability and personal fulfillment.

Winifred Day, a 1978 Northeastern graduate, has worked as a teacher, market research analyst and in the arts. She urged students to use their Mills and Northeastern connections, an alumni group of over 300,000.

Richard Rocco, a 1981 Northeastern graduate, taught pharmacology but made a career pivot and began writing books.

“Are they successful? No,” he said with a smile. “Don’t be afraid to take a position that follows your passion—your bliss—instead of the money.”

Grieves, who demonstrated how to search for these alumni connections on LInkedIn, reminded attendees that the Career Design Team holds weekly coaching sessions, online and in person.

“You have our services for life,” she said.