Informational Interview Tips for Grad Students & PhDs

The academic job search sets us up for failure: we spent a few months crafting a job letter and research statement. We make sure our CV lists absolutely all our accomplishments. Then we spend months reading job boards (when I was applying for history jobs, I spent hours poring over the jobs Wiki). We spend a bit of time modifying the job letter, but not a lot. For the most part, my research and teaching statements were pretty standard. I’d sometimes invert the structure of the cover letter.

Oh, and these documents are loooonnng. A two to three page cover letter is standard. A CV of less than 5 pages would seem light. Then there’s the teaching statement, the research statement, the sample syllabi, and the transcripts, teaching evaluations, and an article or draft chapter. It’s not uncommon to be sending out upwards of 60 pages for one job application.

If your advisor knows someone at the hiring institution, a good advisor will send an email or pick up the phone, advocating for their student. Maybe someone from the department was hired there a few years earlier; someone else will probably call and put in a good word. It’s a rare moment to be applying for a job where you — the candidate — have a solid in.

On the rare occasion that someone who is already teaching at that institution lands the job, or someone who shares a degree which several people on faculty have gets hired, then we roar with rage on the jobs Wiki about the unfairness of an internal hire.

Well. The non-faculty job search is the OPPOSITE. Hiring someone internally, or who comes with a recommendation from someone who works within an organization is standard and considered smart. Hiring is expensive, so if someone who works with me assures me that Candidate X is a good fit for the organization, and I like this co-worker, that personal reference is probably all I need to bring that candidate in for an interview. Most likely, if the candidate does well in that interview, I’m going to hire them. And that’s not nepotism; those are effective hiring practices.

So, what do you do then, when you don’t have an internal contact? This is where building a professional network while you’re job searching is essential. Rather than spending the time writing resumes and sending them out for jobs, about 60% of your time should be networking and looking for new leads. You can get started by finding organizations of interest and then looking for people on LinkedIn who work there. Send an invite with a personalized note and ask if you can speak with them by phone for twenty minutes or so. Or, better yet, offer to buy them coffee at a place of their convenience.

Go in prepared for the interview by having a list of questions about the organization about the person’s job, and how someone like you might find work at a similar organization. Don’t directly ask for a job, as that is considered poor etiquette for informational interviews. Do ask if the person knows of any opportunities. You can also ask for networking leads – does this person know anyone whom you should connect with?

Often, a cold email or LinkedIn request will go unanswered – and that’s okay. People are busy. Don’t take it personally, but keep at it. You just need a handful of friendly people to meet with you and extend a helping hand to be on your way to building a professional network.

Are resumes/cover letters important? They are vital! You need a carefully curated resume that showcases key skills and core competencies, and that speak to your specific value to that organization. Don’t send a canned resume, people can tell. Spend time on the cover letter, and show that you read the job ad and highlight the relevant skills. Think of the cover letter like an abstract, and the resume as the core document.

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L. Maren Wood earned her PhD in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the co-founder of Beyond the Professoriate.

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