Getting information about industry

Courtney Chandler
Jan. 14, 2022

Happy near year, and welcome back to another column about industry careers! This happens to be my last column covering the industry beat. 

My academic training didn’t come with many opportunities to learn about careers in industry, and I don’t work in industry myself. So, when writing this column, I relied heavily on outside resources to learn and share all I could about the field.

If you’re in a similar position — hoping to get more information about industry as a whole or already pursuing a career in industry — I hope the information below helps you on your journey.

Informational interviews are your best tool

Informational interviews are a valuable way to feel out careers in any field, and industry is no exception. Most of my columns were written based on informational interviews with those working in the field.

So, what is an informational interview? It’s an informal conversation between you and someone working in a field/area you’re interested in and is not a job interview. The goal is to collect information, not to ask about job openings.

There are many benefits of informational interviews. When I was finishing up graduate school, I set up informational interviews with people from all kinds of career paths to start to narrow down what interested me the most.

By talking to people already working in the field, you gain firsthand information about the realities of their position. They can speak about the pros and cons of their role and give the history of how they landed where they did. This can help you decide if you want to pursue that kind of job and be more prepared for the application process by understanding what qualities may be associated with a successful candidate.

You may also learn about career paths you didn’t know existed, which could open new doors as you start to move into industry. Before starting this column, I had no idea how vast and varied the many roles in industry were — there truly is something for everyone.

Finding industry contacts

The first step is identifying people to interview. This can be hard and may seem intimidating, but it’s easier than it looks. Start by doing some research into the specific roles or companies in industry you’re interested in.

When reaching out to people, start nearby. Is there anyone you know or someone close to you knows personally? Does your boss or mentor have connections they could put you in contact with? You could also look at alumni networks from your undergraduate or graduate schools to see if anyone is working in a related role.

Starting with a personal connection can help make the process easier but is by no means necessary. The two tools I used the most to find industry contacts were Twitter and LinkedIn. There are a lot of scientists that talk about their careers on Twitter, or you could use LinkedIn to search by specific job titles.

The tricky part is that outside of academia most professionals do not have their email addresses freely listed on the internet. My advice is to message people on Twitter or LinkedIn. That’s how I made most of my connections, and most people were extremely kind and willing to talk with me about their experiences.

While this may seem awkward, it really isn’t — so many people are happy to help and excited to be asked! And the people who didn’t have time or weren’t interested normally just didn’t respond. No one was rude or dismissive, and I’ve made some great connections along the way (some that I’m still in contact with despite interviewing them long ago).

Start by introducing yourself and mentioning why you’re interested in talking to them. For example, I would normally say I was interested in learning about their role and would ask if they had time to answer a few questions about their career. I find phone interviews are more informative than email interviews, so ask if they would have 15 to 30 minutes to talk with you about their role and give any advice about the field as a whole. 

Asking the key questions

Most informational interviews are short, so use your time wisely to gain as much useful information you can. Prepare your questions beforehand and make sure they are open-ended — this will give you more information than simple yes or no questions.

If you’re doing the interview in person or on a video call, I would recommend dressing as you would for a job interview (or slightly more casual) to help set the tone as professional. Also have your elevator pitch ready so you can talk about yourself, your background, and your career goals if it comes up.

Here are few sample questions I would typically ask during an informational interview, but you can come up with whatever questions suit you:

  1. Why did you decide to pursue a career in industry? What are your favorite and least favorite aspects of industry?
  2. Can you tell me about your position? What are your main responsibilities? What do you enjoy most about it? What are some of the biggest challenges?
  3. How did you get to your current role?
  4. What did you do during graduate school/post doc to prepare for a career in industry?
  5. Do you have any advice for someone looking to pursue a similar role?

It’s a good idea to come with questions prepared, but you can also let the conversation flow naturally. As you’re talking, make sure to keep track of time — if they only have 30 minutes, wrap up the interview within that timeframe (unless they seem willing to continue talking and you also have the time). When you’re done, ask if you can send any follow-up questions via email.

Don’t forget to follow up

After you’re done, send a thank-you note or email within one to two business days thanking them for their time and information. It’s a small gesture but is a nice way to acknowledge their effort.

If you had a good conversation and they seemed receptive to staying in touch, reach back out as your move through your career. This is key to building and maintain your network (an all-time favorite industry buzzword). Plus, if you stay in contact, you may hear about open roles or even get recommended for one.

In fact, one of the people I interviewed for a past column (Brandon Anjuwon–Foster) was an incredible resource during my most recent career change. I had reached out to him originally to write an industry column, but he ended up helping me along my career journey outside of industry.

Don’t discount the connections you can make just by talking with people. The informational interview may seem intimidating or not that important since it doesn’t lead to a job, but they are a great way to understand a future career and build connections.

In the future, fellow columnist Martina Efeyini will be taking over all things industry, and you can find me covering academic careers. Until next time!

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Courtney Chandler

Courtney Chandler is a biochemist and microbiologist in Baltimore, Md., and a careers columnist for ASBMB Today.

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