What is the value of an informational interview?
I find informational interviews to be one of the most powerful tools for building a professional network and exploring various science career paths. As the name implies, it simply involves setting up an interview to obtain career-related information from a person who is experienced in a career of interest to you and/or works for an institution in which you wish to make contacts. In general, I have found that people like to talk about themselves (and mostly not in an egotistical sense) and welcome the opportunity to share their background and career history with others. I have had success employing informational interviews as my predominant method for networking. Such interviews have yielded me the opportunity to take on different projects at work in line with my career goals and expanded my professional network at least 5-fold in the last year.
Besides gaining invaluable career-related information and advice, it is also a perfect opportunity to practice verbal communication skills, including describing your own career goals and learning how to translate your qualifications and skill sets to different audiences. Not to be too stereotypical 😉 …but scientists are not well-known for their social skills and in this ever-increasing virtual world, informational interviews are a vital platform by which you can establish professional relationships and maintain the art of verbal communications.
How to conduct an informational interview?
The first step is to identify a list of people to interview: you can start with contacts that you received from a career fair, recommendations from colleagues or even your current supervisor. Next, you will need to send an invitation for an informational interview, determine the best time based on schedules and the proper format (i.e. phone, meet for lunch, etc.) I know some people who are very hesitant to contact people for interviews, especially people that they do not know. Thus, I have gathered some examples of typical emails that I have sent to people requesting an interview in case it might help you with developing an email template.
A typical informational interview will last from 30 minutes to one hour so consider setting aside at least one lunch a week for informational interviews on a regular basis. Before the interview, be sure to look up the background of the interviewee and take some notes on questions that you would like to ask. To help you through the process, I have designed an Informational Interview Template. It can serve as a guide with the type of questions that are useful to ask and arranged in a naturally progressive order. One of the most important questions is the last one in regards to recommendations for other people with whom to speak so you can expand your list of potential interviewees. Finally, it is important to follow-up with the person after the interview with a thank you note and I will expand upon this format in a later post.