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. 

If you’re ready to start your transition into industry, you can apply to book a free Transition Call with our founder Isaiah Hankel, PhD or one of our Transition Specialists. Apply to book a Transition Call here.

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ABOUT ISAIAH HANKEL, PHD

CEO, CHEEKY SCIENTIST & SUCCESS MENTOR TO PHDS

Isaiah Hankel, PhD is the Founder and CEO of the largest career training platform for PhDs in the world - Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by 3 million PhDs in 152 different countries. He has helped PhDs transition into top companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, Intel, DOW Chemical, BASF, Merck, Genentech, Home Depot, Nestle, Hilton, SpaceX, Tesla, Syngenta, the CDC, UN and Ford Foundation.

Dr. Isaiah Hankel received his doctorate in Anatomy & Cell Biology with a focus in immunology and is an expert on biotechnology recruitment and career development.

Isaiah has published two bestselling books with Wiley and his methods for getting PhDs hired have been featured in the Harvard Business Review, Nature, Forbes, The Guardian, Fast Company, Entrepreneur Magazine and Success Magazine.

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