In this blog post, I answer the following questions (from my personal perspective) about informational interviews in the context of exploring non-academic career options:
- What’s an informational interview?
- What’s the point of doing an informational interview?
- Who should I do informational interviews with?
- What should I consider before requesting an informational interview?
- What should I ask during informational interviews?
- How do I request informational interviews?
- Where should I conduct informational interviews?
- How do I follow up after informational interviews?
What’s an informational interview?
You’ve probably heard the term “informational interview” floating around if you’ve spent any time in the non-academic career space.
Don’t let the word “interview” intimidate you! These aren’t official (or even unofficial!) job interviews.
In the context of the academia-to-industry job search, trainees and academics who want information about non-ac career paths can do informational interviews with folks in various non-ac jobs to learn about their industries, careers, and job responsibilities.
They should typically last anywhere from 30 minutes to 1 hour. Obviously, there’s wiggle room, and whatever works for the individuals involved is absolutely fine.
What’s the point of doing an informational interview?
It’s not to be handed a job. It’s not to be handed a referral, even.
Don’t go into them expecting that to happen (unless you’ve discussed those things up front).
Informational interviews are a way for you to learn about careers outside of academia.
They’re also important because grad students typically don’t learn in-depth information about career options while in grad school.
Who should I do informational interviews with?
It can be anyone whose job you find interesting and want to get RELEVANT insights from.
I emphasize RELEVANT, because it’s important for you to get information that’s going to actually help you and isn’t just aspirational.
Consider speaking with folks who are a combination of these things:
- Are in the same geographic area as you
- Have the same background as you, to whatever degree you see fit (same major, same research background, etc.)
- Have jobs that are in industries you’re interested in (even if you hadn’t fully considered it until recently). For example, you may have only been looking at medical writing jobs in pharmaceutical companies, but medical device companies and medcomms agencies pique your interest – you just don’t know much about them.
They don’t have to be strangers! Here are some examples of people you may know and may be good options:
- Someone from your grad program who did an internship you’d like to know more about
- An alumnus from your grad program or grad school who went on to a cool-sounding career
- People you know from college. If you got along well with a TA, that’s a great option, because they’re automatically a few years ahead of you career-wise.
- Family members or friends’ family members who work in industries you’re interested in
- Faculty who have returned to academia after working in non-ac jobs (within the past few years would be best). I did an informational interview with a super new faculty member who had joined the department less than a year before our conversation. She had worked for a global policy think tank after her postdoc for a few years and then came back to academia.
What should I consider before requesting an informational interview?
Really take a look at your current situation.
Are you already fairly aware of the job(s) you’re most interested in pursuing?
Or maybe you’ve just started thinking about leaving academia, and you’re open to learning about various peoples’ experiences in various career types.
There’s no wrong answer here!
If you’re already certain that you want to pursue a specific career path, say management consulting after finishing your neuroscience Ph.D., or a data scientist role after your genetics Ph.D., you may want to delve deeper with the person you’re interviewing by asking more specific questions about resume details, industry-specific qualifications or terminology, and potential career paths.
If you’re still starting out, you may want to ask more contextual questions pertaining to how and why they chose that career path over others they may have considered, relevant transferable skills, and what their job entails.
Obviously, any question is fair game. You don’t have to limit yourself in any way.
But being conscious of the framework and approach to your informational interview will help keep things on track!
You want to gather information that’s useful to you and where YOU are in your career exploration journey. There’s something to learn at every step.
What should I ask during informational interviews?
Consider organizing your informational interview into sections, and give the person you’re interviewing a heads up on it at the start of the interview.
This is a logical way to organize your informational interview questions:
- Their PAST academic history and career trajectory til now
- Their PRESENT job responsibilities
- What they’d like to do in the FUTURE
- General job application process questions (to whatever extent is relevant to your current situation)
Please note, you don’t have to cover all of the categories above during the informational interview.
Here are some questions I would personally be happy answering in an informational interview. I bolded some of my favorites!
- What’s your academic/educational background?
- Did you want to stay in academia to become a professor or did you always intend on leaving?
- What initially attracted you to the career or job that you current have?
- What skills from graduate school or your postdoc do you think are most applicable to the role you’re currently in? (If they have had more than one job since leaving academia, make sure to ask about the first job they got, which is probably more relevant to your current situation.)
- What specific skills or experiences made you a good candidate for your (first) job?
- How long did it take from starting your job search to starting your first job?
- When do you recommend I start actively applying for jobs with respect to when I want to leave my current role?
- Can you tell me about the product, service, or research that you work on in your current role?
- Did you take any time off between the last position you had in academia and starting your first job?
- How has your job search strategy changed over time?
- What are some of the most important lessons you learned about applying for jobs since you first started?
- Knowing what you know about this specific industry/job, given our geographical location, and my background, how much do you think someone like me should expect to be compensated?
- What kind of career trajectory do you want to have? What are some roles you’re interested in getting next, given the role(s) you’ve had so far?
- What were the pros and cons of the company you work for now/the job you have now?
- How has your opinion on the industry you’re in changed since you got your first job in it?
- How do your personal values align with the mission of the company you work for? How important is this to you and how have your opinions on this changed over time?
This is absolutely NOT an exhaustive list – these are just the ones I thought of and would be happy answering myself.
You can find many more questions online! Here are some websites with great questions:
40 Questions to Ask in an Informational Interview
The Best Questions to Ask in an Informational Interview
Note: Try to avoid questions that are too generic and are difficult for the other person to answer on the spot. As a general guidance, I recommend being more specific, and aiming your questions at that particular person’s experiences, than generic.
How do I request informational interviews?
If you have that person’s email, that’s a great option – it’s professional, it’s definitely something they’ll eventually check, and a great place to keep a record of your communications.
People may also be open to a thoughtful private message on social media websites such as LinkedIn and Twitter.
You’re asking for someone’s precious free time, so be respectful and courteous!
At worst, you’ll be ignored or rejected, and that’s totally fine. There will always be other people to talk to, and the best folks to talk to are those that are willing and open to the conversation. At least you asked.
Where should I conduct informational interviews?
Here are some common avenues by which people conduct informational interviews:
- Video calls (Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype, etc.): A great way to have a formal meeting from the comfort of your home while still being able to put a face to a name
- Email: Great for flexibility, approachability, and thoughtful exchanges with little stress (I enjoy doing informational interviews via email! Feel free to reach out via the Contact page on my blog, or directly to firstname.lastname@example.org)
- Real life: Meeting IRL is great, and may go especially well if you’re already relatively acquainted (like if you’re on the same campus). Offering to buy them a cup of coffee, tea, or other refreshment is a polite (and often very appreciated) thing to do!
How do I follow up after informational interviews?
A timely, simple thank you message on the same platform you’ve been communicating with that person on is plenty. Try to send it later that day!
Express your gratitude, include a simple summary of what you got out of the conversation so it doesn’t sound too generic, and include relevant well wishes.
If you may want to pick their brain again in the future, it’s especially important to end your interactions on a good note and to include a line about future conversations or keeping in touch.
Informational interviews are a great way to get current and accurate insights from people in various jobs, but are often not heavily emphasized in the grad school or academic setting.
These conversations are not binding – you’re simply gathering information in a relatively casual manner.
The more data points you collect, the more representative the picture will be.
If you’re interested in getting a new job, leaving academia, or are simply exploring options, try to set up an informational interview this month! You’d be surprised how normal most people are, and how willing they can be to share a little about their careers.
Best of luck to you.