Career exploration: conducting informational interviews

11/18/2016 1:39:11 PM

When contemplating a new job or career, it can be hard to know what you’re getting yourself into. Informational interviews are a great way to get a better look at a potential new company or career path without the rigor and commitment of an actual job interview.

What exactly is an informational interview? It is a conversation between a prospective job seeker and a professional in the job seeker’s career of interest. The two discuss the industry, paths to entry, and even specific companies or options for employment.

Informational interviews can be the first point of contact to bring new people into your network, since you often set up an initial meeting to get to know them and learn about their jobs, their experiences, and their career paths. Building a network in a field or career path of interest can be invaluable when it comes time to seek a job, so a common misconception about informational interviews is that they are a way to find employment. While this isn’t necessarily always incorrect (the interactions can eventually lead to employment in some cases), the goal of an informational interview is not to find a job.

To clear up some of the mystery about informational interviews, here are five tips and tricks to successful informational interviews.

1. Research potential career options or companies where you’d like to work.

Informational interviews are most useful when you focus your attention on a potential career path or potential future employers. Begin your search by looking up potential careers online based on your interests. Like research? You might consider looking into a lab manager position, industry research position, or government lab position. Enjoy writing? Check out science journalism, technical or medical writing, or editing positions. Once you’ve narrowed down an area, you could take it a step further and look up specific companies (maybe even in your geographical area) that have these types of jobs available.

2. Leverage your network to find sources for informational interviews.

Using your network contacts or LinkedIn, ask around to find a few people who work in your career of interest or work at your company of interest. It’s good to start with three to five people and to keep track of whom you’ve contacted. Send an email or LinkedIn message introducing yourself and explaining why you are reaching out. Ask to meet for an informational interview to learn more about the career/company. If you feel shy, you can ask a mutual contact to send a message introducing your before you set up your informational interview.

3. Be prepared and informed for your informational interview.

Once you’ve set up your interview, be sure to do additional research into the specific job or company. You’ll want to make sure to visit the website of the company or institution where your contact works, and learn what the company or institution is all about. Jot down some notes if you find interesting things that could help you during your interview. Make sure that you look up where the interview will take place and plan your travel time (including finding a place to park if needed), if you’re doing it in person. You never get a second chance at a first impression, so you want to be slightly early and dressed presentably. You should dress to match the expected environment – if you’re going to a corporate office, business dress might be a good idea, but if you’re meeting in a local coffee shop, something casual, but professional, will probably be just fine.

4. Ask lots of questions (to receive lots of answers!).

During the interview, be sure to have on hand a list of questions to ask. All of your research into the career, the company, and the specific contact you’re interviewing with should give you a good starting point to formulate your list. It’s always good to ask the following questions:

- What is your background? How did you prepare for your current career?

- What does a typical day entail at your job?

- What do you find most challenging about your job? Most rewarding?

- What preparation or experience did you find most valuable to succeeding at your job?

- What resources or advice would you recommend to someone who wants your career?

- Who else would you recommend I speak to about this career path/company?

Be sure to bring a notebook (or laptop/tablet/phone) to jot down any insights you might learn from your conversation. You’ll want to take special note of any resources or people they mention so you can follow up about those specific items later.

5. Follow up with your interviewer to give thanks and maintain the connection.

After the interview, send a follow-up email thanking your new colleague for taking time out for you. Remind the person about any information (contacts or resources) he/she promised to share. You should do this within one or two business days – the sooner the better. Sometimes, a contact you make from an informational interview can become a mentor, providing ongoing career advice as you enter a new field or search for jobs. Don’t be afraid to reach out again if you had a positive and fruitful interaction!

Looking for other tips on how to master networking and job searching? I wrote posts on networking, strategies for job searching (part I and part II), how to decipher a job post, the job acquisition process, four things to consider when choosing a career, mentoring, and navigating the two-body problem. As always, we’d love to hear your feedback or suggestions. Leave a comment or reach out to ASBMB on Twitter or Facebook!

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