If you’re a PhD or academic looking for a new line of work, conducting an informational interview is a crucial first step.
Today we’re going to go over the basics of informational interviews and show how they can set the stage for a future job offer.
Our goal is to help academics master this strange art form and begin their long and winding journey towards a new, post-academic career.
What Is an Informational Interview?
Good question! Informational interviews aren’t really a thing in academia.
Oh sure, you’ve been to academic conferences. You’ve schmoozed with the bigwigs in your field. You asked insightful questions about their research and maybe even convinced one to write you a letter of reference.
But you never did an informational interview in the usual sense of the phrase. Why would you? You’re in academia too; you know how your field works.
The closest thing you might have done to this happened way back when you were applying to graduate schools. You might have called up potential doctoral advisors to ask about their areas of specialty and whether they’d be willing to support your work.
But by and large, informational interviews are not a part of the academic job applications process.
After all, if you’re applying to academic jobs, the assumption is that you’ve already spent several years in your field. You either have your PhD in hand or will receive it very soon.
It speaks to the cult-like nature of academia that anyone who is “just looking for information” is patently unqualified for most academic jobs.
But beyond the academy? Informational interviews are de rigueur.
So, what happens in an informational interview? Well, it’s pretty much what it sounds like: an informal conversation with someone working in the area you’re interested in.
Job interviews are done with hiring managers who are actively looking for candidates to fill a role.
Informational interviews are done with employees who are not currently hiring. They are more casual and not a formal part of the job application process.
Nevertheless, to break into a new professional field and wrangle your first legit job interview, the importance of informational interviews cannot be overstated.
From Informational Interview to Job Offer: 4 Steps
1. How to Set Up an Informational Interview
Informational interviews are usually set up after doing some preliminary research and networking within a chosen field of work.
Maybe you did some networking on LinkedIn. Maybe you met someone at a jobs fair or through a mutual connection. Maybe you simply found a local business you liked and called them to ask for more information.
In any case, once you’ve found someone in the field, shoot them an email. Very politely ask if they’d have time for a 30-minute phone conversation.
(In the bygone days of yore, informational interviews were commonly done face-to-face. But in our socially distanced age, phone calls are the way to go.)
It may feel awkward to reach out like this, but you’d be surprised by how many people say yes. Plenty of people like talking about their work.
If you’re sincere in your interest, they’ll be sincere in their desire to help.
2. Conducting the Interview
Just because it’s informal doesn’t mean you shouldn’t prepare.
First, write up a quick ‘elevator speech.’ Briefly explain your background and why you’re interested in this job.
Have a list of questions ready for them. What should you ask during an informational interview? Some good informational interview questions include:
- What are the daily responsibilities of your job?
- What kind of tools or technologies do you use?
- What skills or specific training are required?
You should also ask about the mechanics of actually getting the job. Things like:
- What is your professional background?
- How did you get your interview for this job?
- How did you apply? Did you apply directly or go through an agency?
- Is there anyone else I should talk to about working here?
- What would you recommend I do next if I want to get this job?
In both categories of informational interview questions, direct your questions towards specific, concrete details and advice.
Warning: do not ask for a job!
The person you’re talking to is probably not a hiring manager. And even if you did get an informational interview with hiring managers, they’re probably not hiring at that moment. And even if they are, this is not a job interview.
Asking for a job during an informational interview comes across as forward and off putting. Instead, focus on pragmatic information and advice. Determine the concrete series of steps you need to take in order to pursue this career path.
When done right, an informational interview will tell you what to do next.
3. Keep Records, Send a Thank-You Note, and Follow Up
Keep track of people you’ve interviewed and make an effort to stay in touch with them. Feel free to connect on LinkedIn or follow them on Twitter.
It never hurts to send a follow-up thank-you note. This could be an email or LinkedIn message simply expressing your appreciation for taking the time to talk.
After all, that person took time out of their day to help you. They weren’t looking to hire anyone at the moment. There was nothing in it for them.
They did you a solid. So say thanks!
In your thank-you note after the informational interview, throw in a line asking them to please ‘keep me in the loop’ if any interesting job openings pop up. Now, the odds of that person actually remembering you months from now when a position does pop up are slim. But it never hurts to ask!
Beyond the initial follow-up note, feel free to email them later if you have questions.
Obviously, too much contact will risk irritating them. Don’t stay in touch just for the sake of staying in touch.
But if you come up with a legitimate question or interesting ideas to raise, that’ll be reason enough to send the occasional message. If you see a position at their company, you may ask them to look it over briefly and give their thoughts.
And just like that, you’ve established a professional connection! Feels good, huh?
4. The Road Ahead
If you’ve only just started doing informational interviews, remember that you still have a long way to go before landing a job.
But hopefully your informational interviews will give some ideas about what steps to take next: the best job sites to look at, other people to interview, skills to develop, etc.
There are many other ways informational interviews will facilitate your job search and help ‘get your foot in the door’ with an employer:
- Name dropping: when to apply for a job, mention somewhere in your application that you’ve spoken to this or that person about the duties and responsibilities of the role. Mentioning a trusted employee within the organization will help you stand out from the crowd.
- Expanded networking: your contacts may introduce you to other employees, or send advanced notice of upcoming openings. If you keep in touch with them, they’ll remember you if something comes up.
- Referrals: If you’re lucky, one of your contacts will give you a referral link for a job. These are invaluable for getting past automated screening systems.
- Job interview prep: again, if you’re lucky, your contacts may be willing to do a practice job interview with you. They’ll offer valuable insights on what the hiring manager wants (and doesn’t want) to hear.
If fate smiles upon you, a job interview with a hiring manager will be the next step in the process. But that is a topic for another day.
As with all good things, patience and perseverance are essential for snagging a job. This holds true no matter what post-academic career you’re looking at.
Doing informational interviews is like planting a pack of mystery seeds.
You don’t know what they are or when they’ll sprout. But if you put in the time and effort, there’s a good chance of bearing some kind of fruit.
For more tips and advice on informational interviews, check out this post.
Did you land a virtual job interview? Congrats! For advice on that, check out our recent article on prepping for online interviews.
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