In a recent conversation with a PhD student, the topic of informational interviewing came up and the term elicited a blank stare. For people focused on the tenure-track career path, informational interviewing is often not even on their radar. But if you’re still trying to figure out what career path or what type of work environment–business, not-for-profit, academic administration, government–might be right for you, informational interviewing is a powerful research tool. I call informational interviews research, because that’s what they really are. They are not, as some might claim, a disingenuous way to impress people who might eventually give you a job. They are, however, a great way to start getting a real sense of what jobs are out there that might make you feel happy, balanced, challenged, intellectually stimulated–whatever it is that you’re looking for in a career.
What is an informational interview, for those of you who reacted with the blank stare? A brief meeting, usually between 15 and 45 minutes, with someone who has a job in which you’re interested. You get to ask the questions, and the questions are usually aimed at finding out more about how that person got into their career, what their field/position/industry is like, and what their working life is like day-to-day. While general advice about informational interviews suggests that you should reach out to anyone in your network (or in your network’s network) who has a job in which you’re interested, my advice is for PhDs to be a little bit more focused, at least at first–see if you can find people with your degree, in your field, and start out by talking with them about their jobs. It can seem impossible to imagine yourself in any career but a professorial one when you don’t have any examples of what those other positions might be, or any information about how a person with your degree might go about moving from academia into something else.
If you’re really and truly unsure about what else you’d like to do, cast your net wide. Look to those sources of information I mentioned in my last post–your program, your university’s alumni office, your LinkedIn connections–and make a list of people with your degree in all kinds of industries that you might want to talk to. Cold calling people for informational interviews can be surprisingly effective–people like having a chance to talk about themselves–but it is often more effective, and less intimidating, to get someone you know to set up an introduction. I belong to the Toronto VersatilePhD group, and we’re offering each other introductions within our respective fields, and to people we know outside of them. A member of my PhD program has set up a Facebook group where we talk about what we’re doing with our degrees, and somewhere similar is a great place to find targets for an info interview.
Once you’ve set up an interview, spend a little time doing your homework. Find out what you can about the person and what they do so that you’re not asking questions that can be easily answered by Googling and you’ve got more time to ask the important questions. Decide what questions you’d like to ask–this list can get you started, but think about what it really is that you want to know about their career, and their working life. If you’ve done a skills or preferences assessment already, these can guide you to the kinds of questions you’ll want to ask, and the kinds of answers you’re looking for. If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably want to know about how the person transitioned from academia into their current career. You might also want to ask about the skills the person uses in their working life, and about the skills gaps (if any) they felt they had when they moved into a non-academic career and how they addressed those gaps.
When it comes to the details, treat the informational interview a bit like you would a job interview. Dress nicely, although not as formally as you would for a job interview. Mind your Ps and Qs. Respect the amount of time you agreed on, even if you’re having a great conversation. Get yourself some business cards–yes, even if you don’t have a job–and exchange them with your interviewee. And write a thank you note when you’re done.
After a few informational interviews, what you’ll hopefully have in hand is this: a really good sense of some careers and positions in which you might be interested, knowledge about how to move into a new field, key terms and lingo from that field you can use in job documents, the names and contact information of friendly faces who might just call you up if a job comes around, and confidence in your ability to interact with and impress people in a wide range of non-academic fields. All that for the price of a cup of coffee.
If you’re looking for some more advice or information about informational interviews, check out the links below. And what about you, dear readers–how many of you have done informational interviews? Did you find them helpful for your job search?