Informational interviews, when properly prepared for, are a powerful career and self-development tool.
Contributor Prital Patel
In 2014 I attended the Naturejobs Career Expo in Boston as a reporter, covering a talk delivered by Lauren Celano of Propel Careers on how to look your best on paper (here’s part 1 and part 2). I am currently an executive member of the Life Sciences Career Development Society (LSCDS) at the University of Toronto, a platform for assisting graduate students in exploring career options outside of academia. I worked as part of a team to organize a networking reception to give researchers at University of Toronto an opportunity to engage and network with life sciences professionals in non-academic roles. As a prelude to the event, Celano gave a seminar on informational interviewing and effective networking.
“Informational interviews are one of the most powerful tools available to graduate students and academics who wish to figure out what exactly it is they wish to do.”- Lauren Celano
Typically lasting between 15-30 minutes, informational interviews can happen anywhere ranging from coffee shops, Skype or even the telephone. They are an opportunity for job seekers to gather information about jobs and companies that are of interest to them.
As a graduate student, I can attest to the fact that the number of “non-traditional” career options I can pursue are numerous. Whilst the possibilities are exciting, they quickly become overwhelming. As Celano pointed out, narrowing down where your interests lie is crucial for proper time management, especially as it allow you to effectively develop career-specific networks and prepare for job interviews. I’ll admit that reaching out and speaking to strangers over an informational interview seemed very daunting at first. However, Lauren simplified it into a step-by-step process making it easier for me to find a structured approach to take.
Informational interviewing is like a conversation, not an interview. Don’t get too nervous about formalities. #LSC101
— LSCDS (@lscdsuoft) February 26, 2015
Finding the right professionals
Many academics don’t realize how well connected they already are. Family, friends, colleagues, classmates, lab mates, professors and mentors are great first connections. Starting informational interviews with people you know will help get the ball rolling, allowing you to build your confidence. To broaden your horizons and connect with professionals of diverse backgrounds, LinkedIn is one of the most powerful tools we can use.
Connecting with the professional of interest
So you’ve found someone in a role you potentially see yourself in, how do you approach them? E-mails are one of the best ways of communicating with professionals. Referrals are important and effective at securing informational interviews. E-mail the professional you wish to speak to, re-iterating who you got the referral from in the subject line as well as in the body of e-mail. Communicate in a succinct manner what you are interested in speaking about so that both parties can be better prepared for the informational interview. Be sure to attach your LinkedIn profile and/or copy of your resume.
During the Informational Interview
Although not an interview per se, it’s still important to make a good first impression. So, arrive on time, be prepared and dress well. Have a strategic set of questions prepared to get the most out of the informational interview. Strategic questions can take three forms:
Questions about a certain job
Asking what the professional does from a day-to-day basis in their job is key in understanding whether or not it is something that you see yourself doing in the long term.
“Job descriptions may not necessarily reflect what someone does during their time at the job. Asking what a professional does on a day to day basis is important as you may not realize otherwise what a particular job entails.”- Lauren Celano
Questions about a company
Companies can range in their attitudes towards employees, work-loads and culture. Inquiring about these items can help you determine whether the company that you have glorified in your mind really is the place you wish to work at.
Questions about career entry
Getting your foot in the door is usually one of the biggest challenges. Informational interviews are a great way to gain some insider information on how that can be achieved. It’s also an opportunity to ask questions such as: where it is that the company usually advertises job openings and what resources to tap into to learn more about the company such as blogs on market research outputs and career events.
Other potential questions:
Although it is inappropriate to ask the professional what their salary is, you can ask what the average/ competitive salary for a professional starting off at their company is. Another great question you could potentially ask is whether in their company there are roles that employees with your background are working in.
As you conduct more and more informational interviews, Lauren suggests organizing the outputs as they are key in quantifying where your priorities lie. This in turn will help you make rational decisions on where it is you really want to apply. Creating job search checklists are a great and simple way to stay on top of all the information you will gather about companies. These can include itemized rows that could list location, requirements, responsibilities, size of company, salary, management style etc. and range from must have, not important, and definitely not.
Concluding and keeping updated
Be sure to thank the professional when the interview ends as well as send an email thanking them for their time. Keeping updated with your growing network is also very important. Some key ways you can do this is by notifying them of any annual scientific or industry conferences and networking events. As a graduate student, you could invite people you had a great conversation with to join a focus or career panel just like I did (Bonus: You will most likely get a shout out from the professional during the seminar on how good your networking skills are- and that is definitely something I felt really good about!)
Lauren ended the seminar with a great message- “Remember to always give back”.
While we learn more about how and where we will thrive, take the time to give back to people who need your advice- for example undergraduates wishing to learn about whether graduate school is right for them.