The Art of the Informational Interview

A version of this post was originally published on the Wayne State University BEST blog

As a doctoral student or postdoc, you’ve spent years percolating inside of the lab.  Perhaps you talk with your lab mates, lamenting the seeming directionless nature of your days.  Some of you may already know what you want to do next, and to you I say, “Bravo!” Some of you may still be unsure, knowing only the general domain into which you would like to shift:  industry, communication, government, education, perhaps law.  And to you, I say, “Great start!”  Every single decision we make about the trajectory of our career, both what we want and do not want, is a step forward.  I know it is absolutely terrifying to switch tacks when, perhaps, academia is the only thing you have ever known or quite possibly wanted.  The decision to leave when you know that, deep down, that this is the best way forward is a great accomplishment.

So, now what?

Now, my friend, you do what you do best:  research.  And one of the best ways to gather information is through the informational interview.

First of all, what is the “informational interview”?

This is an opportunity for you to connect with someone in your field of interest, to have a conversation that highlights the other person’s particular experiences, the path she took to get to where she is, her satisfaction or dissatisfaction with her company/career.  This is a chance to discuss your background and how you may perceive her field to be (and to see if this perception is correct).  This is your chance to discuss your concerns, to ask for advice about how to proceed to gain a footing in this field, should you decide it is a good fit.  In other words, the information interview is a dynamic and fruitful exchange of information that will hopefully lead to a friendship or a recommendation on your behalf.

What the informational interview is not

This is not a chance for you to sit back and let the other person do all the work, although you may very well find yourself in the position of just listening, in which case you must be prepared to direct the conversation to answer the questions you do have.  This is not the time to ask for a job; you are only gathering information to help you to make a more informed decision about a particular position or company. And you may very well end up with someone willing to help you in this endeavor … just not quite yet.

But, before you can put any of this into practice, you must first secure an informational interview.

Scream it from the rooftops: Network, network, network!

Or whisper it softly to yourself.  Either way, let the world know you are looking to make changes in your career.

For me, informational interviews sometimes emerged from unexpected places – chance encounters with others who were involved with writing, editing, and publishing.  I met one such person in the alley behind my house as I was getting on my bike one morning – turns out my neighbor was a prolific Pushcart prize-nominated writer.  Through her, I joined a weekly writing group chock full of talented freelance writers and editors from the Detroit area. Through that group, I met others who attended a monthly book group, of which I’ve now become a part and guess what – that book group was also full of aspiring writers.

Now, I already have very long days.  Between working in the lab, raising a child, writing for the BEST blog and my own blog, my days are saturated; there are nights when I would love to just curl up on the couch and forget that I am transitioning out of my career into a new one, which is one of the scariest and time-consuming feats I’ve ever tried to achieve.  But I pick myself up and head off to writing or book group anyway.  I do this because I know that in addition to making myself a better writer, I am strengthening my new network and building relationships and that takes effort; it takes showing up.  The discussions I have with the attendees may not be “informational interviews” in the traditional sense, but they are a means of expanding my repertoire of knowledge on the things I need to know at this particular moment in my transition, such as branding, gaining exposure and visibility, building relationships with potential clients, and so on.  It is also a forum for sharing my writing and learning how to improve it, because despite my connections to an unlimited number clients, if my content is subpar, nobody will be interested.

Use social media to find your next informational interview

Let your social networks know you are looking to change careers and ask for advice.  Let your friends know.  Let your neighbors know.  Let strangers know.  Use tact, but let people know. Most will want to help, or will know of others who will want to help.  My point is, you never know where your next invaluable source of information will come from, so cast a wide net and be gracious.

A few weeks ago, I wrote on the blog about the value of leveraging LinkedIn in your job search.  When using social media, make sure you reach out to the right person.  If you are interested in a particular company, look for someone who has a role you would like to aspire to, but isn’t so high up the ladder that they won’t have any time to talk with you.

If you do contact someone over LinkedIn, do make sure your profile is complete (including a professional picture) and your objectives are clear, especially if it is someone you do not know personally.  Alumni of schools you’ve attended are a good place to start when cold-contacting. Also, see my article for advice about how to ask your connections to introduce you to someone outside of your network and about what you should include (and omit) in your first message to this potential new contact.  Elliot Bell, Director of Marketing for The Muse, has some other important bits of advice to consider when composing your email.

Get clear on what you want to know

Whether your interview will be over the phone or over coffee, make sure you know what your objectives are ahead of time.  In several of my interviews, I found that the other person had so much information to share that sometimes I was unable to do anything other than nod.  In this case, it is especially useful to know what you want to learn from your interaction with this person, so you can gear the conversation back to the topics or concerns in which you are most interested.

Lily Zhang, Career Development Specialist at MIT, suggests that you begin the interview with a warm-up.  Since most people enjoy talking about themselves, she suggests you let them, in the beginning, anyway.  Start with an easy opener, such as, “How did you get your start in this field?” or “What’s it like working at your company?”

Understand that this meeting isn’t only about learning about the other person but also an opportunity for you to discuss your background and future goals.  It is a chance to make a memorable impression and showcase what you know.  Zhang suggests framing questions with introductions that display your knowledge, such as:  “It looks like recent developments in the field of nuclear fission are going to be pretty disruptive to the energy industry. How do you think this will affect your company?”

Consider what information you cannot find on your own through web searches.  If you are still in the career exploration phase and are considering several fields, you may want to know if this particular area is a good fit for you, given your particular set of strengths.  You may want to know how you can improve your resume or portfolio in order to become a more competitive applicant.  I am always particularly interested in what this person did when she or he was in my position – how did this person gain the foothold that propelled her or him into that first position outside of academia?

If you are more advanced in your career development plan and have a particular company in mind, perhaps you want to learn more about the culture of the company.  Does the employer expect everyone to work 70-hour weeks?  If so, do they offer perks that might compensate for this level of commitment?  Do people seem happy/satisfied/fulfilled there?  What skills or personality traits does the company look for in new hires?  If you’re contemplating starting a family or already have one, how does the employer handle maternity leave or family medical leave?  Consider honestly how you would function in whatever set of circumstances the company represents.  This is your chance to gain an insider’s perspective because the last thing any of us wants to do is substitute one unfulfilling career for another.

Lily Zhang also suggests that you go with the flow of the conversation rather than firing off as many questions as you possibly can.  Remember that you are trying to build a relationship and that it is already evident that you are looking for a job, so please do not ask your contact to find you one; that is the quickest way to alienate your new acquaintance.  Remember that as with all social interactions, there is a certain etiquette involved.  For example, while you should bring along a copy of your resume, only offer it if your companion asks to see it.

As your interview draws to a close, do ask if your new contact knows of anyone else who might be willing to talk with you.  Just as with social media networking, the likelihood of someone taking time out of her or his busy schedule to talk with you increases if the request is made through a mutual contact.  Also, rather than just asking “Do you know of anyone else I should speak with?” Zhang recommends that your request be specific.  For example, since I would like to transition into writing and publishing, I might ask, “Could you recommend someone I could chat with about how to pitch article ideas to magazines?”  Keep in mind the information you are interested in learning, identify any areas that are still vague after your meeting, and tailor your request for another potential interviewee who might be able to fill in that gap.  Most people find it easier to come up with a name of someone who has the particular expertise you’re interested in finding more about.

Finally, be sure to follow any conversation with a new contact with a thank-you note.  Lily Zhang also recommends keeping this person updated on your meetings with those people she or he may have put you in touch with.  The Cheeky Scientist suggests playing the “long game”:  “If you have not done so already, connect with them through LinkedIn, endorse their skills, and follow their achievements online … Congratulate them for a promotion, pass along an article or conference of interest, or simply write to them to discuss current events in the field.” Remember that in doing this, you are seeking to become a peer, not a fan.  If a position for which you would like to apply opens up at their company, you can leverage the connection to ask for the name of the hiring manager or whether you might mention their name as a reference in your cover letter.

For those especially interested in industry positions, I highly recommend the Cheeky Scientist’s blog post about these types of informational interviews.

Don’t forget that you are more than qualified at gathering information. You’ve done it for a very long time and successfully enough to get a PhD.  Now you are using your energy and ingenuity to change your life for the better.  Good luck!