A Beginner’s Guide to Networking Using Informational Interviews

Understand the goal of informational interviews

Throughout your career exploration and job search, it is important to network by speaking with other professionals whose jobs are interesting to you. Informational interviews are simply informal career conversations with such people. The goal of informational interviews is to gather information on a specific industry, role or company. You will be able to use the information you collect to make more informed choices on your potential career trajectory and to craft more convincing job documents in your desired industry.

Informational interviews are not job interviews, though they may eventually open doors for you to land job interviews. With each new person you meet, your network will expand. You never know who might refer you to an open position and help your resume make it to the top of the pile.

Start with people you know, then expand your network

At first, informational interviews can be intimidating. You may feel anxious to talk about a new field. Remember that you are the interviewer, not the interviewee. Think of the informational interview as an opportunity to learn. In general, people enjoy talking about themselves, so put your research skills to good use and ask away! You will come out of the interview with more knowledge, practical advice, resources, and perhaps even some leads.

It can be a good idea to start with people who are currently in your network to get comfortable with the format and style of informational interviews. You could ask to interview PhDs from your graduate program who have changed fields. Their insights may be especially helpful as they understand the specific skill set that you have developed and could bring to a new field. Family members, neighbors, and friends may be valuable resources in your career exploration.

The Beyond the Professoriate Community is another great place where you can meet and network with PhDs who have transitioned into a variety of industries. You can find them on LinkedIn.

Request informational interviews

Once you have identified a few people with whom you would like to have a conversation, reach out to them over email or LinkedIn message to request an informational interview.

The format of the message should include:

  1. an introduction – say something about yourself. Did someone refer you to this person? Did you come across their article, podcast or webinar? Are you alumni from the same school?
  2. the hook – explain why you are interested in the field, role or company about which you are inquiring. Do you have previous experience?
  3. the ask – say that you would like to ask them some questions or advice about how to break into their industry or role. State how long the interview will be. The average length of an informational interview is 20-30 minutes. Be specific so that the person can schedule this time in their calendar.
  4. the location – suggest meeting on the phone or by video conference, especially now as Covid-19 has limited access to some public spaces. Offer options and let the interviewee decide.

Be as flexible as possible in the scheduling of the informational interview. Appointment Scheduling Software such as Calendly can facilitate the scheduling process by avoiding back-and-forth emails.

Don’t be surprised or offended if you do not receive a reply right away. Remember that people are busy. Your email might end up in a Clutter of Junk folder rather than in an Inbox. It is appropriate to send a follow-up email after some time has passed.

Prepare questions

Before your meeting, conduct research on the industry, company or role about which you are learning.

Establish the goal of your meeting before writing your specific questions. What do you hope to get out of the 20-30 minute conversation? For example, if you are just starting out and you are interviewing a PhD who transitioned into a different field, you may want to learn what skills you already have that are valuable to that role or industry. If you are trying to find out if a specific industry would be a good fit for you, then focus your questions around company structure, company culture, and day-to-day tasks. If you want to learn about the hiring process in a company, then use that time to ask about applications, portfolios, and interview styles.

Read what you can about the person with whom you are meeting. Study their career trajectory on LinkedIn to prepare questions about how they transitioned into their current field.

Here are a few questions to help get you started if you don’t know where to begin:

  1. Can you tell me the story of how you ended up in [Role]?
  2. What does your day-to-day look like?
  3. What does the hiring process look like at [Company]? Is there a hiring schedule?
  4. What do you enjoy most about your role?
  5. What do you wish you had known before you started working at [Company]?
  6. Is there anyone else you think I should meet?

Write down your goals and questions and have them accessible during your appointment. The conversation may veer off, but you can always focus it back to your original topic so you won’t run out of things to ask.

Follow interviewing etiquette

Introduce yourself briefly and what it is you hope to get out of the conversation (refer back to the goal you set in the previous step). This will help orient the conversation.

Let the interviewee do most of the talking and ask follow-up questions as necessary. As the interviewee is speaking, take detailed notes.

Keep track of time and respect the limit you had set in your request, whether it was 20 or 30 minutes.

Always send a thank you note to your interviewee. Use the notes you took during your conversation to tell them what was especially helpful and what advice you hope to put into practice.

Stay in touch

If you have not already done so, gather the interviewee’s contact information and connect with them on LinkedIn or other social media channels that they may use for professional purposes.

After your informational interview, it is important to stay in touch periodically so that you stay top of mind when opportunities come up.

Here are some ideas on how to follow up with your network:

  • Follow the company of interest and/or the interviewee on social media and interact with their published content. Some companies evaluate candidate interactions on platforms such as LinkedIn.
  • Send congratulatory messages for major accomplishments.
  • Leverage social media to keep your network updated on your own accomplishments (e.g. completion of a certification, professional development activities, volunteer work related to the pertinent field).
  • Send messages for special holidays.

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