When I started, one year ago, to look into industry positions, I faced a discouraging reality: I was trying to get information reading job descriptions on job portals, but they were filled with terms and acronyms I could not understand. The positions themselves had cryptic names and I felt completely lost.
To navigate in this ocean of confusing information I started to ask questions to friends that had already transitioned to industry position after their PhD. Only afterwards did I become familiar with the concept of informational interviews, which are nothing else than informal chats with people to learn about a particular field or career.
Are you curious to learn more?
Let's get started with our first informational interview, step by step!
1. Work on your Mindset
The job search can be a challenging process, especially if you want to move to a different field. Approaching experts to ask questions can be intimidating, that’s why it’s important to fight your insecurities, that sound like “little voices” in your head saying that you are not good enough, that your questions are stupid or that no one will reply if you ask for an informational interview. At least that's how I felt, especially at the beginning when I had no clue about what I wanted and I didn't even know what to ask.
These limiting beliefs were stopping me from taking action.
However, when I took the time to analyse them rationally, I realised that they do not have any concrete reference to reality. In other words: they are utterly false!
If you want to know more about limiting beliefs and how to overcome them, check out the article I wrote a few months ago.
2. Identify the people you want to talk to
In the beginning, it’s easier to interview people you know, or that have common friends, that could introduce you. Alumni networks are another great place to start, because people are usually happy to help or give advice. And once you got the hang of it, if you ask politely and show real interest and respect, even strangers on LinkedIn might accept your invitation to share their career journey with you!
True story: In the middle of the first wave of the pandemic I contacted a friend from my former university because I knew her husband works in a company I'm interested in - information that I got from another informational interview a few months before.
First of all, it was a beautiful occasion to reconnect and find out that they had a baby. Besides that, it offered a very friendly environment to ask "stupid" questions I would not be comfortable asking strangers.
Out of this one conversation I got:
interesting insight about the company and how recruitment process works in general,
a lot of tips and material to write applications and prepare for interviews,
an invitation to visit them once travelling will be possible again,
the name of another contact, who started a chain of three phone calls with professionals in different roles at the same company.
It's not surprising that informational interviews are my favourite part of the job search!
3. Prepare for the informational interview
Once you have identified the people you want to interview and they have accepted your invitation, do some research on the person you will interview and on that specific career path.
Prepare a list of questions to ask, about 10 is usually a good number for a 20-30 minutes interview: this will show your interest and will maximize the amount of information you can get in a short time.
Don’t be scared to ask questions to find out if this job has the characteristics that you are looking for, that would make you happy, for example:
About skills and technical details of the job
About what you could improve before or on the job
About the working environment and leadership style
About the values of the company
About career perspectives
The working values and skills that you identified in the last couple of weeks will help you to define the questions about what is important for you.
4. Do the interview
The first thing to keep in mind when you are having an informational interview is that you are not asking for a job, you are asking for information and want to show genuine interest in the work experience of the person you are interviewing.
Hopefully you have come to the interview prepared with clear questions, but be ready to listen and open for the conversation to divert to other themes. Another thing that could happen - it happened to me several times - is when the answer to the first question is so articulated that covers already most of the points you prepared. Then you need to listen and improvise, and asking about a personal perspective on some aspect of the job can be a useful trick to keep the conversation going.
Also, be prepared to briefly explain who you are and why you are interested in that career. I was caught by surprise once and since then I always have a couple of sentences prepared.
Talking with people in the field will provide you immediate access to the important information and to the updated panorama of a certain profession. The informal setting has the great advantage of discussing personal experiences, which will give you a much clearer picture of a job compared to what you can read in a job description. You can even ask what are the problematic aspects of the job or of the company, or the more challenging situations encountered during the career transition. The answers will give you specific tips on how to deal with similar situations. However, every career journey is different, and you might get suggestions that are not useful for you. Don’t get discouraged and ask more questions!
Useful tips: always respect the time previously agreed and end your interview on time and with a thank you. A follow up thank you note is key to leave a good impression.
5. Organize the information and analyse the results
These informational interviews will give you a lot of material to work with: in my experience, other than a general clarification of different roles and careers and insights into the mechanisms of different companies, I got tips on how to write CVs and cover letters, suggestions on how to prepare for interviews, resources to improve my qualifications, contacts to other interesting people to talk to…
If you don't want to end up like me, with millions of flying sheets of paper stored in different corners of the house, desperately trying to find the relevant one 5 minutes before the interview, make sure to organize them and extract the information after each interview, to keep adjusting your job search plan.
Maybe a practical Excel file, with the list of people to contact and their information, or ONE notebook - not like I did: one in the lab, one at home and a third one when I can't find the other two... But as they say, you learn with experience, right?
6. Take the next step
Now that you collected data you have to define your next step!
It could be to interview other people, implement the suggestions received during the interview, or check the resources that you discovered.
I soon realised that with every new interview I became more comfortable asking questions. Moreover, the information I learned allows me to ask more detailed and precise questions.
I hope you can have as much fun as I do interviewing people and discovering new insights into the career path for you!
And remember: as long as you are genuinely interested and polite, people are usually happy to help.
Stay tuned for the next articles on how Mindset and Community are essential tools for your career, especially during the job search.
But first, implement the 6 steps of this article and post below your experience with the first informational interview!
About limiting beliefs: What you believe is what you get
This article from EMBL careers shares useful resources to master informational interviews.
Cheeky scientist offers free webinars and resources to gather information about different careers, as well as paid memberships to access networks of people in the field of your choice - I'm personally a member of the Medical Writing Organization and I love it!