The power of the informational interview

The power of the informational interview: reveal your dream job!

Amy Becker, UC Davis FUTURE Program
Ph.D. Candidate, Biomedical Engineering
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Through my recent experience with the FUTURE program at UC Davis, I learned about the informational interview tool. This has greatly enabled me to learn about different careers in different sectors and make more educated decisions about my Ph.D. training to tailor it to potential career paths.

Wow! That is powerful.

Before the FUTURE program, the extent of my career discussions was, “Are you going to continue research in academia or industry?” which is such a narrow perspective and prevented me from considering many other options. The informational interview liberated me from this tunnel vision perspective of where my Ph.D. could take me and made me more excited about my future.

What is an informational interview?

This type of interview is for you to learn about a career path directly from someone currently in that role. The interview should last 20 – 60 minutes and can be either in person or over the phone. Many people are very excited to talk about their career, and some will offer personal insights into their story that you cannot get from a resume or LinkedIn profile. To call it an interview is a bit of a formality because it is more of a casual discussion about career mentoring.

Many people find the hardest aspects of the informational interview is a) pinpointing who you want to talk to and b) cold-calling them to ask for a conversation.

Yikes.

The FUTURE program bypasses these two barriers with a cultivated network of Ph.D. professionals who pursued non-tenure track career paths and are excited to mentor trainees on career decisions. As part of the FUTURE workshop series, the program connected me with several of these partners, which kicked-off my first set of informational interviews. This was great because it got me familiar with the process, and now I understand that anyone can be a potential career mentor.

How did the informational interview help me?

When I first began considering career exploration, I was worried that if I chose a non-academic path or a non-research path that my Ph.D. would “go to waste” in other roles (Sunk Cost Fallacy). The narrative that I had been told was that you should only do a Ph.D. if you want to continue research and/or become a professor, and otherwise, it is a waste of time. The informational interview showed me that there are many roles in academia, industry, and the public sector that value the experience, knowledge, and skill set that comes with a Ph.D. By enabling me to see these options, I can select professional development activities during my Ph.D. that will develop my skills and prepare me for specific careers. A few that I am excited about include Medical Science Liaison for a private company and the role of a Regulatory Scientist for the FDA.

How can you set up an informational interview?

Anyone you meet and anyone you come across on LinkedIn can be a potential career mentor. Your PI may have connections outside of academia, and you can request an introduction and career mentorship through them. This would be the ideal scenario; however, many of the people you meet in academia are working in academia (not a surprise). These are excellent networking opportunities, but not necessarily great opportunities for career mentoring /career exploration.

  • A great place to start is to reach out to someone with a Ph.D. who graduated from your institution who now works in a role that you are curious about.
  • It might feel a little weird to reach out to a stranger on LinkedIn, but I want to emphasize that LinkedIn is designed for networking and we should not be afraid to use it.
  • When you introduce yourself, mention your mutual connection to a university and explain that you are pursuing a Ph.D.; they will likely be excited to chat. When you tell someone that you would like to learn more about their career path and current job position, they are usually flattered and eager to talk.
  • Explain to them your request to talk for 20 – 60 minutes and set up a time to do that.
  • Prepare open-ended questions and consider sending some of the questions before the meeting so that they have time to think about their responses. Your questions should pertain to how they ended up in their current position, what prepared them to be there, and what are the best and worst days in this role.
  • Avoid asking basic questions about the company that can be quickly answered from the website; make the questions worthwhile for both of you.

It is inspiring to hear directly from a successful Ph.D. graduate about both their times of career uncertainty and when they finally found their niche. Because I had access to self-selected mentors through the FUTURE Program, I learned that people are often excited to talk about their career path and enjoy mentoring with a low time commitment. I found that the people I interviewed also gain satisfaction from mentoring me, and I understand that feeling; I have been a mentor to new graduate students and undergrads. It is rewarding to provide guidance and perspective to someone eager to learn.

My experience in the FUTURE program is why I feel less abashed to seek out career mentorship from strangers on LinkedIn. The informational interview combines career exploration and low-stakes networking, which makes it doubly worth your time.

And who knows…it could even make them think of you the next time their group is looking to hire!

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