A friend and I are going through the same thing right now; trying to identify the Next Step in our careers. It’s a daunting process and one that I should be approaching more diligently. I’m starting to realize however, that I’m extremely lucky to have the resources available to me that I do at my current institution. Many universities have little to no advice to offer graduate students and postdocs who are considering alternatives to academia.
My friend and I are both taking a similar approach right now and are trying to arrange informational interviews. Informational interviewing is a concept I hadn’t really encountered before, likely because I’d never really researched alternative career options in earnest. Basically, it involves reaching out to people who currently hold jobs that you think you would be interested in and meeting with them to try to get a picture of what their day-to-day is like in their job.
My friend has a couple of these interviews coming up in a couple weeks and was wondering what questions were appropriate. I mentioned I’d read “Career Opportunities in Biotechnology and Drug Development” by Toby Freedman and that the book had offered some good advice on the subject (all the advice below comes from this book). And with that, this post was born.
Obtaining an Informational Interview
Email is best for first contacting someone. Include in the email exactly what their time commitment would be (likely 20-30 min), then make sure to keep to that during the interview. If you’re going to try to phone someone, apparently the best times to do it are Tues, Wed, Thurs 9-11 am and 1-3:30 pm. Expect that many people are busy and won’t be able to meet with you.
Preparing for the Interview;
Identify your main objective before you get to the interview and focus on what is most relevant to the interviewee’s background. Think of questions in advance, bring pen and paper with you to the interview. It is important to maintain the objective of the interview, getting information, and do not give your resume/CV to someone unsolicited. However, remember that you are making a new contact and to dress to impress. Also, make sure to bring a token of appreciation (eg. a coffee) for the interviewee.
During the Interview;
Avoid saying any negative, be enthusiastic. In fact, avoid talking to much in general. Apparently the interview should be talking about 80% of the time. Remember what time commitment you agreed upon with the interviewee and be conscientious of time.
After the Interview;
Immediately write a thank you note to everyone you meet with. Keep a file of all the people with whom you have informational interviews and when you get a new job, make sure you give them your updated contact information. LinkedIn is also great for maintaining contacts. Finally, make sure that you keep interviewing people until you have found your new career path. Persistence pays off!!
Below are a series of questions that the book suggests are good ones to ask on informational interviews. These are tailored to interviewees in biotechnology/industry jobs but many of them could be used for other interviews and serve as good jumping off points.
- What was your career path?
- Can you tell me about your transition from academia to ________ and the differences between working in both?
- Reflecting back on your career, what would you have done differently if you could repeat it?
- Describe a typical day of work
- What do you enjoy most/least about your job?
- How much time do you spend managing people?
- How much time do you spend “putting out fires”?
- What are the hours? Do you travel frequently?
- What advice would you offer about how to be successful in this position? What personality traits are needed to succeed in this job?
- How is success in this occupation measured?
- What career opportunities does this field offer? Where do people in your position typically go next?
- What are the important long-term trends affecting your industry?
- What are the typical pay ranges?
- What is the entry-level pay?
- What entry-level skills are needed to get a job?
- Is advanced education recommended?
- What steps would you recommend that I take to improve my chances of getting a job in your field?
- What is the job market like right now for this occupation? What about the future job market?
- What is the best way to learn about job opportunities in this field?
- What are the best places/ways to find employment in this field?
- Who else could I contact about this occupation? Can I use your name?