As you make plans for the next step in your career, how can you narrow down the thousands of job listings out there to prioritize the ones that are right for you? How do you know if a company or university is going to be a good fit for your personality? Do you know what the day-to-day responsibilities are of the jobs you are considering? Informational interviews can help you answer all three of these questions.
So what is an informational interview? An informational interview is an informal conversation between an employee and a job seeker (you!) where the job seeker learns more about the employee’s company and/or specific role.
An informational interview is NOT a job interview, and it is NOT the time for you to ask for a job. It IS a chance for you to get inside information about a job in much greater depth and detail than you can get from a job description or company website, and it IS an opportunity for you to build rapport with someone who may be able to assist your job search in the future.
Having a better idea about what a job interview is (and is not), how do you set up an informational interview? Just ask! Most people are happy to share their experience and talk about their work since – unlike asking for a referral or a job interview – there is no pressure on either party. If you are considering X job and/or company Y, the first step is to see if you already know someone to interview. This could be a former classmate, a friend of a friend, someone you met at a conference, etc. Once you identify someone, send them a brief email reminding them how you know each other (if you don’t know them very well) and politely asking to set up a time to talk further. Here is an example:
It was great talking with you last month at the AHA conference. If I remember correctly from our conversation at the reception, you work as an X at company Y. As I plan the next step in my career, company Y is one that I am very interested in learning more about. If you can spare a few minutes next week, would you be willing to share some of your experiences at Y and specifically working as an X? I’d love to buy you a cup of coffee at your convenience.
If you don’t already know someone in your target role/company, don’t worry! In order to find interviewees in the first place, LinkedIn is an incredibly valuable tool. In fact, some of the most enjoyable informational interviews that I’ve had have been with people that I had never spoken outside of email or LinkedIn before our phone call. Simply search LinkedIn for employees of company Y, look for people that have X job and share something in common (e.g., graduated from the same school, hold the same degree, pursued similar research, etc.), and send them a brief, direct message. Here is an example:
I came across your profile as someone who also has a PhD in Biomedical Engineering and now is an X at Y. I’m finishing up my PhD in BME now, and I’m very interested in a career in X. If you have a few minutes, would you be willing to share some of your experiences?
Ideally, you will be able to meet in person, but a 15 minute phone call can be great if you don’t live in the same city as the person you are interviewing. Regardless, now that you have done the hard work of finding someone to talk with and scheduling a meeting, it’s time for the fun part.
So, what do you talk about during an informational interview? Remember, the overarching purpose is to learn more about a company and/or a specific role to determine whether it might be a good fit for your career, so you should try to have a discussion that will help you make that determination. Depending on how comfortable you are with leading a conversation with someone you don’t know well, you will probably want to have several questions prepared that you can ask your interviewee. There is no “correct” list of questions to ask; it could vary widely depending on what you already know about the role/company, your relationship with the interviewee, etc., but here are a few questions that I find to be generally applicable:
- Could you describe a typical day or common responsibilities as X?
- What led you to a career doing X?
- What does it take to be successful as X at company Y?
- What is the work culture like at company Y?
- What is the most difficult part about doing X?
- What is the career trajectory like for an X at company Y?
- What advice do you have for someone interested in a career in X at company Y?
This is just a sample of potential questions you could ask during an informational interview. The specific questions you ask should be based on your interests, your background, the interviewee’s background, and research into the role/company you are interested in. Even if you do not write down any specific questions, you should still do background research so that you do not waste your interviewee’s time by asking questions that, for example, could easily be found on a company’s website.
Also – and pay close attention because this is very important – you DO NOT want the person you are talking with to feel like they are being interrogated. You DO want the conversation to flow and be just that – a conversation. If your interviewee seems particularly excited about a certain topic and starts going into more detail than you were expecting, great! Take the opportunity to probe a little deeper into that topic and gain greater insight. Don’t worry if it means you don’t get to every single question you had planned; this is usually a good sign that you are building rapport with the interviewee and that they are enjoying the conversation.
If you decide that their particular role/company would be a good fit, the person you just met with could become a valuable member of your network in terms of helping you get referral for a job, so you want to make sure that you have left a good impression. Ideally, the informational interview should be a positive experience for all involved. You should leave with a better understand of whether or not that role/company will be a good fit for you, having learned information that can only come from an insider, and the interviewee should leave having had a pleasant conversation about his or her work experience with someone who asked thoughtful questions and was genuinely interested in what he or she had to say.
David Prim is a PhD candidate in biomedical engineering at the University of South Carolina.
Questions? Comments? Ideas? Email GRADprofdev@sc.edu.