Informational Interviews: An Excerpt from Navigating the Path to Industry

Networking is incredibly important for any non-academic job search. Most job searchers recognize this, but still fail to take advantage of one of the most powerful forms of networking, the informational interview.

An informational interview is an interview where you ask someone who’s working in a job that sounds interesting to you a lot of questions and try to figure out if you’d like the job and how you might get such a job. You do not contact someone and ask for a job, even if that person has a job you want posted. You contact her and ask if you can ask some general questions about her field and how she got to where she is today.

This is the step where many of your peers will drop out. It is intimidating to reach out to people you do not know and ask them to meet you to answer your questions. Why in the world would they agree to do this? Amazingly, most people will say yes. They remember how hard it was to make the transition out of academia and are willing to help out. Also, people generally like to talk about themselves and to feel like an expert giving advice.

Once you’ve scheduled an informational interview, spend some time preparing. Do background research online so that you know the basic jargon of the field, and can ask intelligent questions. Prepare a list of questions and take it with you to the interview. You don’t need an extensive list, just a few to get the conversation started. You can also always ask someone to tell you about his career path, and to describe a day in the life of someone in his job. Then let the conversation evolve. You’ll probably come up with more questions as the conversation proceeds.

You absolutely must be prepared to give your research summary and the summary of what sorts of industry jobs you’re considering. If you can’t give a good research summary, your interviewee is unlikely to want to stick her neck out and tell a potential hiring manager that she thinks you are sharp. If you can’t describe the information and advice you’re looking for, she can’t search her network for someone who can help you.

After the interview is over, follow up with a thank you email. If the interviewee offered to put you in touch with some other people, this is a good chance to say something like “I look forward to talking to your friends Joe Jackson and Annie Anderson about opportunities in industrial underwater basket-weaving.” Usually, this is enough of a reminder to prompt someone to follow through on their offer of help. If a couple of weeks pass and you never get that introduction, though, you can reach out again with a gentle reminder, saying something like “I know you’re very busy. I just wanted to check if you’ve had a chance to contact Joe Jackson, in case I missed an email.” Only remind someone once unless they have specifically told you to pester them until they follow through. If they don’t follow through, heave a big sigh and move on to the next contact. You still learned from your conversation and made a new connection with someone who might be able to help you in the future.

This is an excerpt from Navigating the Path to Industry, a job search advice book by M.R. Nelson. It has been lightly edited to enable it to stand alone as an excerpt.

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