Informational Interviews: What Are They and Why Should I Be Conducting Them?

SOT Communique Summer 2017 Masthead

Informational InterviewInformational interviews can be invaluable in helping you determine the type of position in academia, government, or industry in which you are interested. However, many people are unfamiliar with the prep, etiquette, and follow-up that is necessary to have a successful informational interview experience. To better address these issues, I interviewed Dara Wilson-Grant, MSEd, a licensed professional counselor, and the associate director of the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Ms. Wilson-Grant has spent 20 years helping individuals navigate career-related issues and works extensively with postdoctoral scholars in STEM-related studies.

At what stage of their experience do you typically meet with STEM postdoctoral scholars who are interested in informational interviews?
Informational interviews are helpful at every stage in a postdoc’s career development, so it varies. Some may be at a stage in the postdoc where they are wondering what’s next or how will they decide. Others may have a vision, but not know the best course of action for moving toward those goals.

If I don’t want a faculty position, what is the best way to approach someone in an industry or government position?
Quote about the purpose of informational interviewsBe clear about your goal in seeking a meeting. The purpose of an informational interview is to gather information that can help you explore your options, make informed decisions, and plan your next steps. Most professionals are happy to help with this as long as they are approached with sincerity and respect for their time. With that said, here are a few tips: 

  • Give thought to the types of questions you wish to explore.
  • Research basic information ahead of time. Google and LinkedIn are excellent resources.
  • Share one or two examples of the types of information you are seeking. For example, “I’m interested in learning more about your transition from academia to a career in science policy (e.g., challenges and advice on gaining experience).”
  • Do not underestimate the importance of good manners. Request a reasonable amount of time (15-30 minutes) and stick to it. Follow the meeting with a note of thanks.

How do you find people for informational interviews?
One approach is to gain access to your undergraduate and graduate alumni databases. These databases allow you to search alumni by geographic location, job title, industry, degree, etc. What’s also great is that the listed individuals have given their permission to have their contact information displayed—meaning they want to help fellow alums.

Other resources include professional associations and LinkedIn. When using LinkedIn, make sure to explore relevant interest and industry-related groups.

Do you recommend asking about salary/benefits?
Absolutely. Informational interviews are great for gathering difficult to find salary data.  If you are unsure of how to ask or are uncomfortable asking, here are a few diplomatic ways to frame your question:

  • What is the typical salary range for a position in this field?
  • What type of salary range can I expect given my background and experience?

Can informational interviews lead to a future job?
Quote about how informational interviews can create professional relationshipsIt has been my experience that when postdocs are thoughtful in their approach and follow-up, informational interviews often blossom into a professional relationship. These new relationships can end up proving helpful in getting a foot in the door or one step closer to the next chapter in their professional life.

Other Tips I Learned

  1. Ms. Wilson-Grant stressed the importance of preparing for the interview. She recommended doing your homework—researching the interviewee and where they work by using sources like LinkedIn to gather a general outline of relevant experiences, education, and similar information.
  2. It’s also important to keep in mind that individual informational interviews will be bring different benefits, so it is important to go on more than one.
  3. Conferences are a great opportunity to meet face-to-face with someone who doesn’t live in your area. Use the conference website to determine who is attending and try to arrange an informational interview over coffee or drinks ahead of time.
  4. Regardless of the informational interview experience, remember to follow-up with a thank you and let the interviewee know what information was helpful.
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