5 Ways To Protect Your Informational Interview And Get A Job Referral

The world is your canvas and informational interviews are your paintbrush.

What does that even mean?

I was a PhD looking for an industry job, and that was the kind of advice I used to get.

But this one I really struggled with: You’re a PhD – you can do anything.

Hearing this sentiment over and over again was not empowering for me, but infuriating.

Why?

Because I didn’t know what I wanted to do.

Sure, I could do anything… 

But that still left me very lost.

The tide shifted when I discovered informational interviews.

An informational interview is when you contact a stranger and ask them questions about their job, their company, and their life.

At first, I was scared to do an informational interview…

Which is why I totally ruined my first one.

I was afraid of rejection, afraid of reaching out, and afraid to dial a phone number – to talk to a professional stranger.

The first time I reached out to someone, I was extremely awkward.

I said um over and over.

I stuttered like I was on a first date.

The person on the other end of the phone said, Sorry, I don’t have time right now.

But we both knew what they meant:

“You sound weird, and I have more important things to do than babysit an awkward woman I’ve never met.”

I didn’t give up though, and I pestered this poor person for 5 minutes of their time to talk in person. 

They agreed.

Then I did what any PhD would have done…

I prepared a list of 100 questions as though this were a normal way to have a conversation with a busy professional.

During the meeting, I basically forced the other person to answer all of my questions.

If they started talking for too long about what they were interested in, I cut them off and brought them back to my questions.

This seemed perfectly logical to me.

I had questions and needed answers, which meant they shouldn’t have been droning on about their interests.

In reality, I was just acting like a lawyer and putting them on trial.

Instead, I should have acted like an interested journalist.

That person didn’t give me a referral, and it is not surprising when I look back on the experience.

Clearly, my original informational interview strategy was terrible.

So I changed my approach – dramatically.

Instead of trying to use the people I was talking to for my own gain, I approached informational interviews purely as learning situations.

And it worked!

By relaxing and focusing on the other person during the informational interview, I learned about different industry positions, company cultures, and so many other things.

Most importantly, I got referrals.

You can learn from my mistakes and experience the huge benefits of informational interviews.

You Can’t Rely On Academia To Help Your Career

Do you know what positions are available to you outside academia?

Or what it’s like to work in industry?

How about which companies would best suit your desired professional lifestyle?

Probably not.

But these are questions that many PhDs have as they begin their transition from academia to industry.

According to Nature, their career path is a top concern for 55% of PhDs.

PhDs are realizing that they don’t want to stay in academia, but they simply don’t know what else is available.

Most graduate schools don’t teach or prepare PhDs for careers outside the university setting.

This means that industry remains a mystery to far too many of us – for far too long.

According to a Council of Graduate Schools survey of more than 800 university staff members from 226 institutions, 62% of respondents reported that their university provides some type of professional development for PhDs.

But this professional development usually focuses only on careers in academia, not in industry.

The same survey reported that only 44% of universities have professional development programs that prepare graduate students for non-academic careers.

Nature reported that only 33% of graduate students felt that their university provided useful advice about careers outside of academia.

If your university won’t teach you about the opportunities that lie outside of academia, you must learn about them yourself through informational interviews.

By conducting informational interviews with industry professionals, you gain direct insight into industry.

You can learn about various positions, the skills companies are looking for, and earn referrals at your target companies.

All you have to do is set up and execute informational interviews. — 

5 Steps PhDs Should Take To Avoid Ruining An Informational Interview

If you are a PhD leaving academia behind, learning about industry is your top priority.

And while the Internet is helpful, you cannot replace the value of talking with an actual industry professional.

You won’t just enjoy a customized learning experience.

By conducting an informational interview, you are building a professional relationship.

This relationship has the potential to benefit you your entire career.

Here are 5 things to consider as you begin setting up informational interviews…

1. Reach out to people you or your friends already know.

Most PhDs vastly undervalue their current network.

When you think about setting up an informational interview, it’s easy to instinctively reach out to a director at a large company.

This instinct is wrong.

Your first step should be to activate your current network.

Whom do you already know in industry?

Do you know anyone who already knows someone in industry?

Think about graduates of your lab or undergrad friends who are already working in industry.

There is probably someone in your current network with whom you can set up an informational interview.

The major benefit of setting up an interview with someone in your current network?

You already have a rapport with this person.

They know you – or they know someone you know.

This informal referral from a mutual friend means they are already more willing to share with you.

2. Never introduce yourself during an informational interview by saying, Hi, I’m a PhD interested in XYZ.

When asking for an informational interview, your message should focus on the other person.

Let this really sink in because it’s important.

This interview is not about you. 

Ultimately, yes, you are doing it for yourself to get an industry job,

But as far as the other person is concerned, you should focus on them – not yourself.

An informational interview is a way for you to learn more about industry – it is neither the time nor place to try and get a job.

As PhDs, we may feel like we need to prove that we are worthy of an informational interview.

But the reality is—thankfully—much simpler.

To get someone to agree to an informational interview, you just have to show them you won’t be an annoyance

People love to share their thoughts and stories, but they hate being bombarded with inappropriate requests.

Your success rate depends on whether you can make it clear that:

  • You value their opinion 
  • You want to get to know them

But if you send a 2-page message all about you and why you would be a great fit for their company, you will only show them that you’re a needy waste of their valuable time.

3. Always add value before asking for something.

Setting up a face-to-face meeting is very valuable.

It may take more effort than a digital interaction, but it’s completely worth it.

However, if you want to set up a face-to-face interview with a cold contact, there is something you will need first…

Rapport.

That means you need to add value before you request the meeting.

Adding value can be as simple as congratulating them on a new position, complimenting an article they wrote, or sharing your enthusiasm about something their company is doing.

For example, you could write:

Hi [Name],

I just read your article [article title], and I really enjoyed it. In particular, [idea or concept from article] is intriguing, and it made me think about [another idea].

I was wondering if you have any further reading recommendations?

Thank you!

[Your name]

This message serves as your first value-add.

Based on how they respond, you can usually continue the conversation by chatting about the reading recommendations they made. 

Alternatively, you can find another subject you have in common with them.

After a couple of messages, it is acceptable to ask to set up an in-person meeting.

An example script is below:

Hi [Name],

I hope you are well.

I enjoyed your reading recommendations and your insight into [topic].  I would love to learn more about [person’s company/position], and I just think it would be so valuable to hear your thoughts… 

Do you have time to meet up for a 15-minute coffee next week?

Thank you!

[Your Name]

In general, people enjoy getting to talk about their experiences, so many people will be willing to chat with you.

But if you don’t ask, you’ll never know…

4. Send short messages (<100 words) to show that you respect the other person’s time.

Another way to set up informational interviews?

You can reach out to people you have found on LinkedIn.

(Make sure your LinkedIn profile is top-notch BEFORE you reach out for informational interviews.)

Search for people who are already in the positions you want and/or work at companies that interest you.

Focus on people who have been in their current position for fewer than 2 years – these contacts are typically more willing to share their experience.

Target other PhDs who have recently transitioned because they know what it feels like to leave academia for industry.

Once you have found someone you’d like to reach out to, send them a short message with a simple request.

It must be emphasized again…

Since you do not know this new contact, your message should be very short.

This indicates that you value their time.

In your message, focus on your interest in them and their role.

Make your request as easy for them as possible.

For example:

Hi [Name],

I came across your profile on LinkedIn while searching for info on [position/company]. I’d like to learn more about [position/company], and I would highly value your opinion. 

Do you have time for a brief 5-minute chat?

Thank you!

[Your Name]

P.S. [Insert a compliment like: “I love your LinkedIn profile banner!”]

5. Reinforce that you respect their time – give a time frame for the interview and stick to it.

While people do enjoy talking about themselves and sharing their stories, they don’t want someone to monopolize their time. 

Your message needs to make it obvious that you understand this.

Be specific about:

  • Whether you want to talk in person or on the phone
  • How long you want to talk.
  • What you hope to learn

You can even mention that you just have a couple of questions to ask them about their role.

For example:

Hi [Name],

I really enjoyed the article you posted in [insert LinkedIn group] about [topic]. I’d love to learn more about [topic], and I’d value hearing your perspective. Do you have time for a brief 5-minute phone conversation where I can ask you a couple of questions about [idea/position/company]?

Thank you!

[Your Name]

P.S. I am also a member of [a different LinkedIn group] where people often post insightful articles about [topic]. I thought you might want to check it out [insert link].

When you have the actual conversation, it’s important to keep your promise and stick to the time frame mentioned in the message.

Don’t ask someone to chat for 5-10 minutes just to take advantage of them for half an hour.

Instead, be polite, respectful, and genuinely interested in what the other person has to say.

Sometimes, the other person will willingly extend the conversation – that’s okay.

But you should still remark on the end of the agreed-upon time limit.

For example, you can thank them for their time and the insights they have given you. 

If they offer to chat a bit longer, great. 

Otherwise, it’s time to leave.

And no matter what happens, you should ALWAYS thank them for their time at the end of the interview.

So in summary, PhDs must follow these golden rules for successful informational interviews: reach out to people you or your friends already know; never introduce yourself by saying, Hi, I’m a PhD interested in XYZ; always add value before asking for something; send short messages (<100 words) to show that you respect the other person’s time; and reinforce that you respect their time – give a time frame for the interview and stick to it. Don’t make the same mistakes I did or your informational interview will be a failure. If you take the necessary steps outlined in this article, you’ll do just fine.

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Aditya Sharma, PhD
Aditya Sharma, PhD

Aditya Sharma, PhD, earned his advanced degree at the University of Toronto, Canada. Now, he combines his passion for all things STEM with keen business acumen, and he works as a scientific consultant at a top Canadian consulting firm.

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