How to Conduct An Informational Interview Like A Boss

When I first decided to do an informational interview, I was nervous. 

I’d sit down in front of my computer and look over my dozens of questions. When the time came I clicked on the zoom link and waited for my interviewee to come on. I was always early. I thought that would help me prepare and become less anxious. 

However; the waiting always made me less confident. And when the informational interview started, I fumbled through my questions. 

The conversation was rigid, forced and awkward silences made up the majority of the time. At the end of every informational interview, I felt defeated. I knew this was what I was supposed to do. But how do you do it?

I decided to take a step back. Looking at all my questions, I asked myself, “what information am I really trying to get through with this question.

This was such an enlightening experience. I saw that many of my questions were not necessary. The ones that remained could be grouped into three categories: personal and qualification, fit, and lifestyle. 

That was it. down to just three dominant questions. My overall goal for an informational interview was merely to have a conversation with someone to learn new insights of a particular topic while building my network. I wanted to understand what it took to be successful in the career track, what lifestyle I could expect in that career track, and how I might fit into a particular company. 

Narrowing it down to these simpler goals was a huge relief. I no longer felt like I needed to rush through every question just to get through. 

I felt relaxed. The conversations became more fluid. I started to enjoy informational interviews and I was able to double my network in just a few months.

Informational interviews are an invaluable skill, but to get the most out of them, you need to fully understand the three types of questions you should ask. 

Why Is An Informational Interview Important?

Informational interviews are a great way to get job referrals but they need to be done in a very delicate manner. It’s not just contacting someone and asking them to pass along your resume. 

In fact, this is the number one thing not to do in an informational interview. People don’t like to be used and that will always feel like they are being used. Instead. you want to build a relationship and you want to gather information. 

At a very basic level, an informational interview is a conversation with someone who has a job title that you are interested in and what to learn more about that position. It’s less about using them to get your foot in the door and more about asking them for advice. It’s a non-threatening way to form a bridge between you and the industry of interest. People love to give advice. When you ask for their advice, you are elevating them to a higher status, and that will make them feel valuable. 

Most graduate schools do not provide adequate career guidance to PhDs. A report in Nature estimated only 33% of graduate students receive useful career advice about options outside of academia. 

This means most PhDs are left clueless about the diversity of opportunities available to them in industry. This is where informational interviews come in. By setting up informational interviews, you can gain vital knowledge about other career opportunities while making new connections. 

If you build these career connections well, you will develop professional relationships. These professional relationships can turn into job referrals. Job referrals are your fastest way to getting hired. As a bonus, many companies have an incentive program for those who refer candidates that get hired.
However, keep in mind that networking is about more than just connecting. It’s about building relationships and adding value to the other person. Make it less about you and more about them. You want to be a journalist, to discover and learn new things and less like a lawyer, arguing your way to ‘success.’ 

There are 3 types of questions you want to ask at every interview. These questions will give you a better understanding of the career while fostering a relationship with the interviewee.

1. Personal and qualification questions for an informational interview

These questions are directly related to the interviewee’s experience but they also give you an idea of how they prepared during their job search. These questions include basic introductory curiosities such as who they are and how they got the position. You can ask them how long they’ve been at the company and what they thought about the interviewing process or even what resume style they used to get hired.  

You can even go as far as asking them if they got a referral. If they got a referral, it will remind them how useful that was for them and maybe even encourage them to pay it forward. If they didn’t get a referral, it will still be a gentle reminder that this is something they can do. It plants the seed while not directly asking.

You can also ask what they thought made them a competitive candidate. Often this will lead to them telling you about an internship they had or an opportunity you weren’t aware of. This might give you an idea of steps you can take yourself to propel your job search or career progression. 

They might also highlight a specific transferable or technical skill that you currently are not showcasing on your resume. You might even get some insights on common nomenclature that you are unaware of but should add to your resume. They may even give you a few other names of people at the company to reach out to. 

Here are some personal/qualification questions you could ask at your next informational interview:

  1. How did you get started doing this type of work?
  2. What parts of your job do you find the most challenging or the most rewarding?
  3. Can you describe what a typical day looks like for you?
  4. What are the skills you use most in your work?
  5. What connections would be most helpful to get hired here?

In each of these scenarios you are gaining information about what you need to do to be a better candidate without making the conversation about you.

2. Questions on current, future, and company fit

You can think of these questions like a machine. A company is made of several moving and dynamic parts that when assembled functions to perform a certain task. The purpose of these questions is to determine if you are a missing piece to this company, or would your skills be better suited in a different machine. Not every person is right for every company or career track and it’s important to know if you are or not before you try to apply for a job at the company.

current fit

These questions move away from basic information about your interviewee and into questions about the company and how your interviewee interacts and connects with the rest of the company. 

Many questions go under this category. Fundamentally, you want to determine whether your goals and expectations fit that of the company. 

But remember you don’t want it to be about you. Phrase your questions in a way that allows the interviewee to draw on their own experiences while providing information you are looking for. 

You can ask questions like what their day-to-day looks like. Or what does their overall week look like? You can get more specific than this as well. For instance, how many hours a week do they spend in meetings? How much collaboration are they involved in? What are thier current responsibilities and deliverables? We call these current fit questions. 

future fit

You also want to know where they are going. You might want to be where they are now but eventually you may want to move up. What does that look like for them? What are their goals? You can potentially discover new career opportunities and new directions for your own career path. 

company fit

Finally, you want to ask questions about the company fit, what is it like to work at that company over other companies? What is the hierarchy at the company? How do company employees communicate with each other? As more and more companies are moving to a remote setting, it’s important to know not only how the company is staying in touch but also how much communication they expect. You want to avoid questions like how much PTO they get or salary questions as these can come off as greedy and lazy.

3. Lifestyle questions for an informational interview

The final category are lifestyle questions. Everyone has their own ideal work environment and this includes how much time they spend in work and how much time they spend doing other things. This can also be a great time to find something to connect about outside of the career focus. When you are able to connect with someone’s hobbies and interests, this builds the foundation to a stronger relationship. It’s also often easier for people to communicate about and creates a very fluid and memorable conversation. 

Here are some lifestyle questions you can ask:

  1. What is the work life balance at the company?
  2.  Are people required to work on the weekends? What do you do on the weekends?
  3. Are there a lot of people that work 10-12 hour days? Has the company adopted the 4 day work week? 
  4. Does the company have any employee retreats or happy hours?
  5. Is there a lot of travel involved in the position? If so, where have they traveled?

Bottom Line

Bottom line: keep it light. You want to remain non-threatening while elevating the other person. Don’t go in with an agenda to get all of your questions answered. Rather use your questions to guide the conversation and avoid awkward silences. Allow the conversation to develop organically. You want to listen far more than you talk. You also always want to keep the conversation going after the initial talk. Follow-up with them, thank them for their time. Always continue to add value. 

To learn more about informational interviews at the PhD level, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the wait list for the Cheeky Scientist Association.

Join Cheeky Scientist Association
Get Free Job Search Content Weekly
Isaiah Hankel, PhD
Isaiah Hankel, PhD Chief Executive Officer at Cheeky Scientist

Isaiah Hankel holds a PhD in Anatomy and Cell Biology. An expert in the biotechnology industry, he specializes in helping other PhDs transition into cutting-edge industry career tracks.

Isaiah believes--from personal experience--that if you feel stuck somewhere in your life, it’s a clear sign that you need to make a change. Don’t sit still and wait for the world to tell you what to do. Start a new project. Build your own business. Take action. Experimentation is the best teacher.

Isaiah is an internationally recognized Fortune 500 consultant, CEO of Cheeky Scientist, and author of the straight-talk bestsellers Black Hole Focus and The Science of Intelligent Achievement.

Similar Articles

5 Onboarding Steps For PhDs That Protect Your New Industry Job

5 Onboarding Steps For PhDs That Protect Your New Industry Job

By: Sarah Smith, PhD

Onboarding expert and contributing author Sarah Smith, PhD, shares her company onboarding experience. The day I had been waiting for was finally here. My first day in industry. I had been looking for a job for nearly a year, and this one seemed like a great fit for me. I couldn’t wait to get started…But when I showed up, no one was prepared for me to be there. I had no desk. One of my coworkers seemed very annoyed that they had to find a random table for me to sit at. I didn’t have a computer either. I was…

Recessions Are Tough - 3 Ways PhDs Can Be Tougher

Recessions Are Tough - 3 Ways PhDs Can Be Tougher

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Let’s talk about frustration.  I’m talking about the frustration of a rejection in your job search.  Many PhDs are experiencing this kind of frustration in their post-pandemic job search. It’s important for you to understand that Cheeky Scientist has been through this before.  Cheeky Scientist actually came out of the financial crash of 2008 when we were in a recession.  I can tell you firsthand that the mood of the public changes during a recession.  There are fewer jobs.  There’s a greater sense of urgency.  This causes people to get more rejections. And rejection leads to frustration.  So, how can…

7 Video Resume Failures That Make Employers Press “Pause”

7 Video Resume Failures That Make Employers Press “Pause”

By: Sarah Smith, PhD

My very first video resume was embarrassing. At the time, I thought it was pretty good. I had some music going in the background because it seemed like a way to add personality. Bad idea. After reviewing my recording, I noticed there was also a dog barking somewhere in the background. On top of that, the lighting wasn’t very good in the room where I filmed myself. I had shadows on my face, and it made my eyes look a little sunken… However, this seemed fine to me – after all, I was applying for a PhD-level position not a…

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

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

By: Aditya Sharma, PhD

The world is your canvas. 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…

You're a PhD Who Revealed Your Salary. You Won't Like What Happens Next...

You're a PhD Who Revealed Your Salary. You Won't Like What Happens Next...

By: Sarah Smith, PhD

Your salary should always remain a secret from interviewers and potential employers. Contributing author Sarah Smith, PhD, explains why… And how PhDs can deflect questions about their current salary. After 2 postdocs at 2 different universities, I realized something… I didn’t enjoy what I was doing anymore. The academic career wasn’t what I had envisioned. All I did was sit at a desk and work on my research in isolation. I had lost my passion – my future in academia was painfully limited. So at a networking event, I took a deep breath and awkwardly introduced myself to a prominent…

The Job Was Mine Until These 5 Unexpected R&D Interview Questions

The Job Was Mine Until These 5 Unexpected R&D Interview Questions

By: Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Undercover Recruiter found that 33% of interviewers take only 90 seconds to determine whether they’ll hire you. As an employer myself these days, I can confirm that sometimes, 90 seconds--or less--really is all it takes This does NOT mean you can drop your guard after the first 5% of the interview! While some interviewers may privately decide to hire you almost right away, it’s still possible that you’ll struggle with a key question and change their mind for the worse. Especially when the questions catch you off guard and you end up looking confused or unprepared. Employers want R&D specialists…

7 Top Job Skills That PhDs Can Leverage To Get Hired Fast

7 Top Job Skills That PhDs Can Leverage To Get Hired Fast

By: Surayya Taranum

The key to making a successful transition to industry is through developing and highlighting your transferable skills. And yes, as a PhD you already have the transferable skills you need for your future career. Now you must learn to leverage these skills to build a career in industry. Your potential employer knows that you have deep technical skills in your field, what they need to see is that you have the ‘soft-skills’ they are looking for in their next hire. You need to show to potential employers that you are a well-rounded individual with the transferable skills needed to be…

5 Ways PhDs Sabotage Their Own Job Interviews

5 Ways PhDs Sabotage Their Own Job Interviews

By: Sarah Smith, PhD

If you’ve been selected for an interview, the employer knows you have the skills to do the job. But the interview is the last step - the point where they weed out candidates they don’t want. It’s your final opportunity to shine, so look at your interview strategy. Is it time to change things up?

What The 'Flow' Of Your PhD Level Interview Process Will Look Like In Industry

What The 'Flow' Of Your PhD Level Interview Process Will Look Like In Industry

By: Aditya Sharma, PhD

Hiring is up. The unemployment rate is the lowest it has been for 50 years and according to Execu-Search 55% of candidates were interviewing for more than one position at a time. This means that you, as a job seeker, have power to leverage in your job search. This is especially true because you are a PhD. You should be going on multiple interviews, getting multiple offers and then choosing the job that is the best fit for you. Data from Express Employment Professionals show that 42% of job applicants rejected a job offer because it was not the perfect…

Top Industry Career eBooks

Complete LinkedIn Guide For PhDs

Complete LinkedIn Guide For PhDs

Isaiah Hankel

The LinkedIn tips & strategies within have helped PhDs from every background get hired into top industry careers.

20 Most Popular Industry Career Tracks For PhDs

20 Most Popular Industry Career Tracks For PhDs

Isaiah Hankel, PhD & Arunodoy Sur, PhD

Learn about the top 20 industry careers for PhDs (regardless of your academic background). In this eBook, you will gain insight into the most popular, highest-paying jobs for PhDs – all of which will allow you to do meaningful work AND get paid well for it.

Industry Resume Guide for PhDs

Industry Resume Guide for PhDs

Isaiah Hankel, PhD

Learn how to craft the perfect industry resume to attract employers. In this eBook for PhDs, you will get access to proven resume templates, learn how to structure your bullet points, and discover which keywords industry employers want to see most on PhD resumes.