Career Exploration for Postdocs: The Informational Interview
By Liisa Hantsoo, Ph.D.
Maybe you’ve found yourself, mid-pipet, daydreaming of a career in biotech consulting. Your Western blot is making you want to move West to join a start-up, and crunching your numbers has you curious about big data careers.
You want to explore these career areas, but have no idea how to start. Taking time off to shadow someone might not be feasible. Doing an internship is a large commitment. So how do you know if that biotech startup career is really the thing for you? This is where informational interviewing can come in handy. It lets you experience a “day in the life” of another career without having to leave your bench. Informational interviewing is, quite simply, an interview you conduct with someone in a career field you’re interested in. The interview allows you to gather information about a particular career, before taking a larger plunge into that field. The informational interview is helpful for those in the preliminary stages of exploring alternative careers. For instance, perhaps I’m interested in several possible career paths – I might do informational interviews across a range of careers, talking with an administrator, a biotech entrepreneur, and a big pharma staff scientist. The informational interview is also helpful for those who have a good idea of the career path they want to follow, but want to get a variety of opinions from those in the field about their experiences. I might contact a few individuals in similar positions to help determine whether I want to work for a large pharmaceutical company, or whether am I better suited for a smaller company. In either case, the informational interview can be an invaluable source of practical information. Below, we outline a few tips for informational interviewing, along with advice from Rosanne Lurie, Senior Associate Director and Postdoctoral Fellow Career Advisor with Penn’s Career Services Office.
1) Identifying Your Interviewees
The first step is to identify people with whom you would like to conduct an informational interview. You might approach the alumni association of your undergraduate or graduate institution to see if they have a database of alumni career information. Another great place to start is LinkedIn – you can look for people with whom you share connections, or filter by your current institution or undergrad / graduate institution so that you have something in common. Lurie recommends trying the Penn Alumni Group on LinkedIn (1), to which postdocs have access with a Penn email address (even if they are not alums of Penn). She also says that “joining the LinkedIn group for professional associations, such as the Association for Women in Science (AWIS), is a great way to research career paths, [or] individuals who you might reach for informational interviews.” Or, you might go directly to the website of a company or organization you’re interested in, and look for staff or positions that interest you.
2) Making the Request
Once you’ve identified a few individuals you might want to interview, it’s time to get in touch. Emailing or sending a LinkedIn message is a good way to make contact. Let the person know your current position, how you found them, and that you are interested in conducting an informational interview to learn more about their field. A sample email might read:
“Dear Dr. X,
I recently came across your information in the ABC University alumni career database. I graduated from ABC in 2012 and am currently a postdoctoral fellow in the Neuroscience Department at the University of Pennsylvania. I am interested in learning more about careers in biotech consulting and noticed your work with XYZ Consulting Company. I thought that you might be able to share some of your experiences in biotech consulting. I was wondering if you might be willing to talk with me about your current position, how you came to your position, and any advice you might have for someone who is considering this career path. I appreciate your time.
Jane Doe, Ph.D.”
3) Setting Up the Interview
If the person is willing to do an informational interview, determine whether they’d prefer to do the interview via phone, email, online chat, Skype, or in person. The interview will likely take about 30 minutes, so let them know this and budget time accordingly. On your end, make sure that you have a good phone or internet connection if you’re using a cell phone or Skype. If you are doing an interview via Skype, or in person, you want to look professional, but do not need to dress as formally as you might for a job interview. The purpose of the informational interview is to gather information and build connections, not to ask or interview for a job.
4) Preparing Interview Questions
Finally, prepare your questions. You will want to have a range of questions ready – aim for 5 – 10 questions (you may not cover all of them, depending on time constraints). A good format to follow is “Present, Past, Future, Advice” – breaking the interview into four segments that focus on the interviewee’s current position, how they got there, where they plan to go next, and any tips they have to share. Come up with a few questions for each of these four categories. A few examples, based on those found in the NIH Office of Intramural Training and Education’s Informational Interviews guide (2), are below.
-What are your current job responsibilities?
-What does a typical day / week look like for you?
-How would you describe your work environment?
-How is working in (industry / nonprofit / etc) different from working in academia? (You might break this into specific items, such as differences in environment, expectations, compensation (pay, hours, vacation, benefits package), and work-life balance.)
-What skills, educational background or credentials are important in this position?
-What personal qualities are important for someone in your field / position?
-What are the most challenging aspects of your job? What are the most enjoyable / rewarding aspects of your job?
-What is the average starting salary for someone in (field) in (city / geographical area)?
-How would you describe the work-life balance?
-How did you find your current position / what path did you take?
-How did you make the decision to enter this field?
-How did you organize your job search? What was the interview / selection process like?
-Are there things you wish you had known / done before entering this field / position?
-What helped you succeed in your first year in this position?
-What are the opportunities for advancement in this field?
-What areas of growth do you anticipate in your field in the next 5-10 years?
-What might be the next step for someone in your position?
-What advice would you give to someone in my position to enter / be successful in this field?
-Do you know anyone else who might be willing to talk with me about their career experiences?
-Are there other companies / positions you would recommend that I consider?
5) The Interview
Open the interview by introducing yourself, thanking the interviewee for their time, and setting the agenda. You might remind them of your current position, let them know that you’re currently exploring career options in their field, and are hoping to ask them a few questions about their current position and how they got there. You might ask them to begin by describing their current position or role in their organization. Once you’ve gotten a feel for their current role, it’s time to move into your specific questions – the main part of the interview. Finally, as the interview closes, thank your interviewee again. Let him or her know what you found value in talking with them. You might also ask to stay in touch, or ask whether it would be okay to contact them with follow-up questions. If the interview was not in person, you might ask if you can add them to your LinkedIn network, or if it was in person, you can ask for their business card.
Following the interview, you will want to send a thank you note or email, ideally within 24-48 hours. Thank them again for their time, let them know that you appreciated the opportunity to talk with them, and note anything memorable about the interview. You might say that you hope to stay in touch, or let them know that they may contact you in the future should they be in need of your services. In fact, Lurie advises staying in touch with your interviewee, to let them know how you have followed up with their suggestions – for instance, reaching out to other contacts whom they had recommended.
It’s never too early in your career to start informational interviewing. To get started, check out resources listed below – NIH’s Office of Intramural Training and Education has how-to sheet on informational interviews (2), UCSF’s Office of Career and Professional Development has sample email requests, interview questions, and thank you notes (3), and of course, UPenn’s Office of Career Services has blog posts (4) and a great page on informational interviewing (5), with Do’s and Don’ts and sample questions. For those who might feel a little overwhelmed at the prospect, TheMuse.com also has a very down-to-earth article entitled “5 Tips for Non-Awkward Informational Interviews,” (6). Finally, if you’re not sure how to start or want more information, Penn postdocs can contact the Penn Office of Career Services for an appointment (http://www.vpul.upenn.edu/careerservices/gradstud/doctoralandpostdoc), or attend a walk-in session.
References and Resources:
(1) Information on using LinkedIn and the Penn Alumni group are here: http://www.vpul.upenn.edu/careerservices/networking/linkedin.php.