As you consider the next step after your graduate degree, remember the informational interview – an informal conversation with a professional in a position of interest about the field, their career path, and/or the organization they work for. Although the purpose is not to walk away with a job offer, informational interviews can be incredibly useful in career exploration, networking, and the job search beyond.
Why are informational interviews important?
First, speaking with professionals in positions of interest offers a window into your possible future. What do these people enjoy about their work? What about it is particularly challenging? The answers to these kinds of questions are difficult to find online, which is what makes informational interviews so valuable.
Informational interviewing is also a key networking tool. Every person you connect with expands your professional circle exponentially. We know that the vast majority of jobs are obtained through networks of personal connections. Having a strong circle of contacts is what makes that possible!
Who do I talk to?
It’s much easier to make a connection if there is some common thread that links you. So, start with the network you already have: family, friends, faculty advisors, supervisors, etc.
From there, work your way outward. Identify individuals of interest in professional associations or at conferences you attend. To make more distant connections, LinkedIn is a wonderful tool, especially the LinkedIn Alumni Feature. To further expand your reach, connect with authors of research papers or publications you’ve found fascinating.
Finally, the people that you connect with can be great resources as well. When you meet with someone, ask who else they recommend you chat with!
How do I connect with them?
Once you’ve identified who you want to interview, reach out to them by phone or email. Let them know who you are and why you are emailing them, explain how you are connected (i.e. how did they end up on your radar?), identify what you’d like to talk to them about, and provide a few options for meeting times. Remember to give them a choice of meeting via phone or face-to-face.
How do I prepare?
Do as much research as you can about the company and the individual. This research will lend itself to intelligent, meaningful questions that provide you with useful information. It will also give you a frame of reference for the individual’s answers.
Also, remember that no informational interview is without a little back and forth. Have your elevator pitch ready to go so you’re prepared if the conversation turns back to you.
What do I ask?
Remember, let your research and your curiosity inform your questions. But if you’re really stuck, here are a few suggestions to get started:
- What has been your path to this position?
- What qualities must a person possess to be successful in this field? In your position?
- How did your graduate coursework/research inform your work in this position? In this field?
- What do you know now that you wish you had known when you started working?
For more suggestions, check out the Career Center’s sample “Ask An Expert” questions.
How do I follow up?
Always send a thank you note! Try to be as personal as possible by mentioning things you talked about, following up on questions asked, or providing any documents the individual requested (e.g. your resume). Remember to also connect on LinkedIn – this individual is now part of your professional network!
Katie Kinniburgh serves as the Career Development Coach for the College of Engineering at the University of South Carolina. She joined the Career Center in the summer of 2017, after receiving her master’s degree in College Student Personnel Administration from James Madison University and her bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As the Career Development Coach for the College of Engineering, Katie’s primary role is to assist students as they develop, refine, and attain their professional goals. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Questions? Comments? Ideas? Email GRADprofdev@sc.edu.