Informational Interviews

 In jobs: preparation and placement, PhD/Postdoc Blog

Ahhhh! I networked and now I have this informational interview. What do I talk about? How do I not sound like an idiot? Do I want to work for this company? Worst of all, WHAT if I look SILLY??

All these questions might seem trivial, but this is what ran through my mind when someone I was talking to handed me their business card and said, “Shoot me your resume, I’d be happy to talk more.”

To avoid freezing and staring at their business card guiltily for the next three months, I tried breaking the informational interview process into small steps. Think of this post as a protocol. I will not  just be listing potential questions; there are already several websites that have lists of informational interview questions.

Step 1: Follow up.

I edited my resume to fit the company this person worked for, and sent it off with a little, “Hi I’m so and so. We talked about that thing. I hope your flight back was lovely.” And I got a response, which set off the panic question wheel all over again!

Step 2: Set up a time to talk.

I tried to give them options. “Which of these three days works for you?”, “Do you want to talk via Skype, phone, or smoke signals?” Also, check your skype and email names for professionalism.

Step 3: Panic Research.

I feel like this is where I can be most helpful. You are all smart and capable. You know you should investigate the company before you sit down with a person who works there, but what do you research? What questions can you ask that will help you decide if you want to work at this company?

Step 3.1: Ask yourself questions.

What do I want out of this interview? Am I fact-finding? Am I hoping for a connection within the company? Do I want this to turn into a potential job? What is making me wary about working for this company?

Step 3.2: Formulate questions to ask.

Using the answers from the 3.1 questions, I developed new questions to ask. I specifically focused on what gave me pause when considering working for this company, because I already knew this was a fact-finding interview. I wanted to know if the employees had too many projects, so I asked questions to target that. How many projects are they on at a time? Do they feel they have time to do justice to those projects? I wanted to make sure the company has a good culture, so I asked questions about the work environment.  Is the culture team or individually focused? Is it sink or swim? Do they mentor new hires? When in the career path do people tend to leave the company? You can be a bit more probing in your questions here because it is not a job interview.

Step 4: Calm down.

First and foremost, this is a simple chat. It is not the end of the world. It is not a job interview. It is a fact-finding adventure. Take the pressure off.

Step 5: Have a pleasant conversation.

View it as making a new friend/mentor. When we started the interview, our first ten minutes focused on the tasty food in Baltimore and places they should try. I’m going to reiterate something from my last post. People are nice, and everyone likes talking about themselves. Most people are flattered when you want their advice, ask for it. If you do not get to every question, that is okay. Do not sacrifice a pleasant conversation to get all 100 questions answered; this is not an inquisition. Last, be respectful of their time.

Step 6: Follow up, again.

My interviewee told me to tweak my resume and send it to them this week. I also plan on sending them a thank you card. I know this might be a little antiquated, but it works. Always send a thank you, of some form. The interviewee just took time out of their busy day. Saying thank you is the least we can do.


Current Position: 6th year Ph.D. Candidate, Materials Science and Engineering

Program Start Date: August 2012

Institution: Johns Hopkins University


If you’ve found this helpful, please share it with another soon-to-be gainfully employed friend and watch @NIHBEST on Twitter or online at NIH BEST for more from my lovely colleagues and me.

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