Informational Interviewing: A Method to Researching Your Career Options

Nov. 29, 2016

You've heard about Medical Science Liaison (MSL) positions and even know alumni from your institution that have entered the field, but what does a MSL actually do? Is it a sales position? Is there a lot of travel? What's the work-life balance? Or maybe, you've really enjoyed being a Teaching Assistant and teaching/mentoring undergraduates in your lab and you're wondering what types of teaching positions are available? What's the culture at different institutions? How much teaching experience do you need? How much time do you really spend on teaching and preparing for class? When you're looking for answers to these myriad of questions, who do you turn to?

You can start with your advisor/principal investigator, but they may only know about the institutions and career path they have chosen. You can talk to the director of your postdoc office or the career center on campus or read books and online resources that describe career paths for scientists. But wouldn't it be best if you could talk to someone who is currently in the job? Or maybe even talk to a few people to get different perspectives? Then why not do an Informational Interview?

What's an informational interview, you ask? First let me tell you what it's not. It's NOT a time to ask for a job. These interviews should take place while you are still deciding on a career path, an organization to apply to, etc. so that you can narrow down your choices. It's not a time to tell the other person an in-depth story about yourself; you're there to listen to them and learn from them. However, you should have an elevator pitch ready to go. Although in these interviews, you're not the interviewee, but the interviewer, it's best if it can be a dialogue instead of a monologue.

Now let me tell you what an informational interview is. It's about researching career paths-and what do scientists know best? How to research! As mentioned above, informational interviews should occur long before you are going on an actual job interview. They will help you gather information about a career field, an organization, one's career path, that position's daily responsibilities, skills that are needed for a particular position, and many more topics. Informational interviewing can occur while you are networking in your exploration and data gathering stage of the job search process. While networking interactions may be as brief as a few minutes, informational interviews are more in-depth. Think of it like graduate school, where you gain a breadth of scientific knowledge and techniques from lab rotations (networking) and then in-depth knowledge of one specific research topic over several years of thesis research (informational interviews).

Your next question might be...Why would another scientist want to talk to me or help me? If you are contacting them for a particular reason, then you are non-verbally saying that they are an expert and who doesn't want to feel like an expert? When I hosted a Speed Networking event for students and postdocs, I had a chance to recruit and talk to more than a dozen science professionals. Many of them felt a deep sense of gratitude if they were helped in the past and felt proud that they could now offer that help to someone else via the networking event.

So what are the practical steps involved in setting up, conducting, and following up on an informational interview?

  1. Contact someone from your network by email (make sure it's written professionally-ask a labmate, career counselor, etc. to review it) or phone with clear intentions stating that you are gathering information about a particular career path, positions in that path, and how that person got to their position. Ask if you can meet them in person for coffee (make sure to pay for it!) and if not, do a 30 minute call. If you don't receive a reply to your original email after 2 weeks, follow up with a polite email reminder.
  2. Do your research and prepare specific, relevant questions ahead of time. Include ones that you should not ask during a job interview, such as what do you like least about your job or on a more positive note, what do you find most challenging? See below for potential questions.
  3. Make sure you have an elevator speech ready to go as well as defined career goals - it's okay to say that you are considering a few options, but reveal what those options are.
  4. Do NOT ask for a job at this point. You are only gathering information.
  5. Always write a thank you note/email right after the meeting or phone call.
  6. Did I NOT ask for a job now.
  7. Keep track of who you've contacted and when, find time to review your notes and include any action items, including following up with other contacts who were suggested. Create an Excel spreadsheet, use a career notebook, and/or tracking websites/apps like myIDP (under Talk to People-Informational Interviews and My Activities).
  8. When you go on the job market, reach back out to those interviewees that you think will be the most helpful for particular jobs that you're applying for or companies/institutions you want to work at to ask additional questions and give them a heads up on your job search.

To learn the most about a career field, it is best to conduct informational interviews with several people, especially if they are in different organizations but the same field. This will give you a broader view of the career field as well as an in-depth look at several positions within and between organizations.

Informational interviews aren't just for non-academic career paths. As mentioned in the beginning of this article, there are many different types of institutions where you can get a faculty position, from research one universities to small liberal arts colleges to community colleges. Within each category, there are many different institutions and potentially multiple departments that all have different promotion and tenure rules, teaching loads, and % of salary contributed by the faculty member's grants. When you start applying for positions, you can reach back out to these interviewees to ask more specific questions about the open position(s) and hopefully have them pass along your CV to the search committee.

To get a first person perspective for this article, I spoke with Dr. Allison Beal, a PhD immunologist and an Investigator at GlaxoSmithKline conducted informational interviews. "I had no idea what I wanted to do so I talked to many scientists about 'what they do every day' and received a lot of insider information on what a job was like and how that professional got there." To gain a broad perspective, she asked the same set of questions every time, such as "what did you like/not like about your job?, and what skills are crucial for this position?" She kept a career notebook, dedicated to who she had met with and when, notes from the meeting, and more scientists that she needed to follow up with. Allison's first job was with a medical communications firm and after several years, she decided to go back to bench work and applied to pharmaceutical companies. She didn't do many informational interviews when looking for her current position because she had enough information from working with pharmaceutical clients. Allison has already paid it forward by attending our Speed Networking event.

Informational interviews provide a unique look into a career field, career path, particular position, organization, and the list goes on. Insider information can be obtained from the interviewees, most of whom are more than happy to pay forward the help that they received. These interviews along with networking can help narrow career choices, determine which positions and organizations to apply to, and ultimately reap from the seeds that were planted long before you went on your job search.

Suggested Informational Interview Questions:

  1. Provide an overview of your career path.
  2. Describe your current responsibilities. What do you do in a typical day? Typical week?
  3. What experiences (classes, training) prepared you to attain your current role? Of those, what was most instrumental?
  4. What do you find most challenging? What do you find most rewarding?
  5. What skills and/or personal qualities are necessary in this career?
  6. How would you describe the culture, management style, and organization of your company or institution?
  7. Can you tell me about typical compensation packages within this career field, including salary range and other benefits, as well as work-life balance?
  8. How long did your job search take for that first position either after graduate school or a postdoctoral fellow position?
  9. What, in your opinion, is the job outlook in this field?
  10. How do you stay informed of trends in your field? (i.e. websites, list-servs, etc. you read or meetings/conferences you attend.)
  11. Are there particular networking events that you attend or that you would recommend for someone interested in pursuing this path?
  12. Who else would you suggest that I can contact and can you provide me with their contact information?

Author: Lisa Kozlowski

Lisa Kozlowski
Lisa Kozlowski is Director of the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs at Thomas Jefferson University.