Do you have a degree (or are you pursuing a degree) in a specific area, yet you have many diverse interests?
Have you identified careers that interest you but struggle to tell if you’d actually enjoy the day-to-day?
Do you hesitate to pursue the additional training, education, or experience that a certain job requires because you aren’t totally sure if that’s really what you want?
What better way to find out about what a career is really like than to talk to people who are actually doing it?
Because it’s not a job interview, where people are biased toward emphasizing only the positive aspects of their work, informational interviews can yield very candid answers about the ups and downs of certain career moves. When you’re fresh out of school deciding what to do with your life, this kind of information is invaluable.
Plus, informational interviews give you a chance to learn all of this before you invest tons of time and/or money in an internship or additional schooling. A thirty-minute conversation could change your life.
What is an informational interview?
If you haven’t heard of this concept before, that’s okay! Although informational interviews are not new, they are seldom focused on in school—which is too bad, because they are so useful for all of us figuring out our careers.
An informational interview is a meeting during which you learn about a job or career from someone who is doing it. You may also learn about a specific company from someone who works there, ideally in the role that interests you.
You may be thinking that informational interviews sound like a great way to meet people and get your foot in the door and maybe even get offered a job! You’d be right…but it’s important to remember that technically, getting a job offer is not your goal.
You’re meant to be purely gathering information during these conversations, hence the name informational interview. Probing about job openings leaves a bad impression and can end up backfiring, so it’s better to keep the conversation focused on the interviewee and let them broach the subject if they so choose.
How do informational interviews work?
- Identify people to interview. These should be people who have careers or work at companies that you are considering in your own career plan.
- Send them an email. Introduce yourself, explain your interest in speaking with them, and ask them when they are available to meet for a short conversation (no longer than 30 minutes). There are plenty of examples online already, including this one, which can help you craft your message.
- Prepare. Before the interview, look up some background on your interviewee and the company they work for. Then come up with a list of questions you want to ask them. What do you hope to learn? Are you interested in how they got their current position? What they like (and dislike) about their career? How much money they make? All of these questions are fair game.
- Meet. This is the fun part! Let them set the place to meet; usually you’ll either go to their office, or buy them a coffee somewhere convenient for them. I like to bring a pen and paper with me so that I can take notes, along with my list of questions. Allow the conversation to unfold naturally, but feel free to use your questions to guide you, and be mindful of sticking to the allotted time.
- Follow up. That night, make sure you send them a message thanking them for their time. This makes a good impression and also ensures that they have your contact information for future contact.
Reflecting on what you learned in each interview is really important to having those Aha! moments about your career. I usually write down all my thoughts right away so that I don’t forget anything, and then I can compare my notes from different interviews. This is especially helpful when you talk to different people in the same career, which is something I recommend. Everyone has a different experience and more data will reflect different aspects of the same industry, helping you to make more informed choices about career options.
As you gather information from early interviews, you’ll start to refine your search and discover more specific questions that you have for later interviewees. For example, say you have a background in mathematics and want to learn about career options in the industry. At first, you’ll be gathering general information about what career options have been pursued by PhD students in mathematics such as data scientists, business consultants, applied research scientists in corporate R&D, engineers, and others. Over time, you may transition your focus into talking to those people who work in specific job areas at specific companies or who specialize in certain areas that excite you. Alternately, you may discover that you actually have no desire to work in a corporate environment at all and that a startup journey excites you more, and start talking to others who have succeeded in commercialized research from an academic research environment.
Try to have fun as you explore what’s out there! Bring an open and curious mind to every conversation. The more people you talk to and learn from, the more your own career path will become clear.