I recently was asked by a college student majoring in economics how she should prepare herself for a career. Gabby Beamon of Penn State (name used with permission) has identified two industries she was interested in working in, and she had the goal of eventually becoming a CEO. Here’s my advice, which would apply to someone with lesser goals as well.

In an article on Forbes I recommended trying to talk to people in occupations you are interested in. (The Best Job For You Is Something You’ve Never Heard Of—Here’s How to Find It) So this woman should try to talk to CEOs in her two target industries. Just getting a meeting is a lofty goal, but a persistent student can do it. I wouldn’t start with the largest companies. If your target industry is retail, trying to meet Doug McMillon of Walmart is a stretch. However, there are many smaller, regional companies whose CEOs would take a meeting with an ambitious student.

Step one is to read about the target industries. Look first for general articles in places like Forbes, then drill down to the trade press, specialized publications serving the industry. Gabby has two target industries, which is great. Three would be a maximum. Get to know the industries, the challenges they are facing and who the players are. Identify the middle-market companies within your geographic area. If you attend a college out in the boondocks, you may have to think of major cities where you live or you have friends you could put you up on a visit.

Step two is to find people who work at your target companies. LinkedIn is the starting place. Think of a funnel. At the wide end is everyone you can connect with now: your friends, teachers, parents, friends of your parents, the boss at your summer job, etc. Be extra alert to “referral sources,” the people who have a wide range of contacts. These typically include bankers, attorneys, accountants and consultants. Midway through the funnel are those in the target industries. Go ahead and ask your connections, “Do you know anyone who works in the X industry?” Check with your college’s career center and alumni affairs office about alumni who might help you.

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