Master The Informational Interview (And How To Land A Referral)

By the time I started my industry job search, I was desperate.

I was nearing the end of my PhD and I was consumed with what seemed like a million last-minute tasks – final experiments, last drafts, and defense presentations.

I felt like I didn’t have the time to dedicate to my job search. And what little effort and time I did put into it was haphazard.

My attempts involved repeatedly clicking the LinkedIn “Connect” button and uploading the same resume to any online job posting I could find.

To make matters worse, I wasn’t even sure what job I wanted. All I knew was that I needed a job – and fast!

I kept thinking, “How am I supposed to figure out what job I want and how to get it when all I’ve known is academia?!

Then I learned about the informational interview.

Informational interviews are a great way to build a rapport with someone that can share information about a company or a job; information you wouldn’t otherwise get from a simple online search.

Not only do they help you determine whether a job or company is a good fit for you, but they can also help you get your foot in the industry door.

So, I decided to try my hand.

I sent message after message, asking complete strangers if they could help me get a job at their company.

Not surprisingly, I didn’t get much of a response. And for those that were kind enough to give me an informational interview, I never heard from again.

Clearly, I was doing something wrong.

I learned the hard way that there was a right and a wrong way of doing informational interviews.

One Cheeky Scientist member recently shared how they successfully conducted an informational interview:

“For the interview, I had some questions prepared based on CSA scripts and my previous conversations with the employer. They answered all my questions, and the answers were quite useful.

…but when it became really successful was when I let go of the scripts and focused on where the conversation was going. I just let them talk and I ended up with information I never would have thought to ask about.

They also connected me with other people that are working in the same field, which was amazing. I had hoped for 30 minutes of their time, and we ended up talking for over 2 hours!”

Why Informational Interviews Are The Key To Landing A Job In Industry

Many PhDs wonder if they really need a company connection to get a job.

To answer this, consider the following stats:

According to Forbes, nearly 80% of open positions are never posted online. That means that employers use alternative methods to find talent – including referrals.

In fact, employee referrals have the greatest chances of getting hired. Only 7% of job applicants have a referral when they apply for an open position, yet they account for 40% of all hires.

Moreover, only 1 out of 200 resumes result in a job offer while 1 out of every 12 informational interviews results in a job offer.

In summary, getting an informational interview and a referral will substantially increase your odds of getting hired.

So, to find a job in industry, create a strategy – one that includes setting up informational interviews. It’s the only way to open doors that remain closed to those that don’t bother to make the effort.

4 Impactful Methods For Acing The Informational Interview

As I said, I quickly learned that there was a right and wrong way to go about obtaining and conducting informational interviews.

So today, I will discuss the 4 methods you can use to ace your informational interview – from getting the interview, to conducting the interview, and turning your interview into a referral.  

1. New to informational interviews? Start with your established connections.

Asking for an informational interview can be daunting – and for some, down-right scary. For those that can relate, I recommend starting slow.

To begin, create an outreach script – one that asks for an informational interview.

Reach out to people that you already know. It could be people at work or in your academic lab; someone you met at a conference; or anyone that you already have an established rapport with.

Practice your script with them. The goal is to feel more comfortable asking people for an interview.

Keep in mind that the person you’re reaching out to doesn’t owe you anything. That means you shouldn’t ask them for something without first adding value.

This value can be as simple as promoting their expertise. And the most effective way to promote their expertise is to ask for their advice.

This way, you elevate their credibility. People are more likely to respond favorably to someone that is asking for guidance rather than a favor.  

When reaching out, also make sure your requests are both time and topic dependent. In other words, ask them if they have 5 minutes to answer two questions you have about their current role.

People are more willing to have a conversation with you when they know that you’re not going to waste their time.

2. Build rapport with employees by reaching out to your mutual connections.

Once you’ve become comfortable with your outreach script, start finding new connections at the companies that you want to work at.

Find the companies’ LinkedIn pages and search through their employee lists to find people that have the position you’re interested in. See which employees share a mutual connection with you.  

Leverage this common ground – reach out to your mutual connection and see if they would be willing to introduce you to the person.

In your message, the subject line should mention the person’s name and the reason you’re reaching out. For example, “Introduction to John Doe”. Keep it short and sweet.

For the body of the message, avoid directly mentioning that you’re looking for a job while also being direct in your intentions.

For example, “As you know, I’m interested in a career in XYZ. I noticed that you’re connected with John Doe, and I was hoping you could introduce us. I am interested in the company he works for, and I would love to ask him a few questions regarding his role.”

Also ensure to relieve the pressure by saying you understand if they’re not comfortable with the introduction. This will increase their willingness to help you.

For example, “I understand if you’re not comfortable doing this. Please let me know if I can provide you with any further information.”

After all, getting you hired is not their priority.

And lastly, write out the message you would like sent to their contact. They’re much more likely to say “yes” if you make their job easy.

3. During an informational interview, provide the interviewee with value by keeping the focus on them.

Say, you have a few informational interviews lined up – that’s great! Although much of the legwork is out of the way, you want to make sure you make the most of your interview.

At this stage, many PhDs make the mistake of over-preparing. They bring 101 questions to the interview and expect all of them to be answered.

When you do this, you turn the conversation into an interrogation.

Informational interviews should be a free-flowing conversation. The attention should be on the other person, not your 101 questions.

That’s not enjoyable for anyone involved, including you.

To prepare for an interview, realize the purpose of the conversation. It’s to learn about the other person – what their job is and what excites them – and show them your appreciation.

Don’t memorize specific questions. Instead, focus on the type of questions you want to ask.

There are five main categories of questions you can ask:

1) Preparation – how they got the job

2) Current fit – how they like the role; what their day-to-day is like

3) Future fit – their career trajectory

4) Company fit – company hierarchy and culture

5) Lifestyle – work-life balance, amount of travel

Another mistake PhDs make is that they immediately start asking the tough questions. But doing this can make the other person shut down.   

So, to start, ask questions that will get them to open up to you – questions about themselves.

Where did they grow up? What do they like to do for fun? Where did they go to college? What do they like about their field?

Let the conversation flow – if they go off on a tangent, let them. Your one and only goal during this conversation is to build rapport. If you show genuine interest in what they have to say, they’re much more likely to return the favor.

After you’ve established a sense of trust, you can move to questions regarding the company and their current position.

What is the company culture like? How do they collaborate with colleagues? What do they like about their role? What does their weekly schedule look like?

This information not only helps you understand what the company is looking for in an employee, but it also helps you determine if the company is a good fit for you.

In the final stages of an interview, you can begin asking for their advice.

For example, is there anyone else that you should talk with at the company? What advice would you give someone in my position? How would you describe someone that excels in this role?

These types of questions give the other person an opportunity to discuss open roles at the company while also opening the conversation up to questions about you – what you’re looking for in a job and/or what your background is in.

Assuming you’ve built a rapport with the person, this is also the time to ask if you can use them as a referral. You should also come with a copy of your resume. That way, you can ask them if they’re willing to give your resume to the hiring manager.

Always make sure to discuss next steps – whether it be a follow-up on LinkedIn or a further discussion.

4. The professional relationship shouldn’t end at the informational interview – keep the conversation going online.

You may think that once the informational interview is over, your job is done. But in reality, it’s just the beginning!

After an interview, follow up with the person online within the first 24 hours. Recap your conversation, express your appreciation for their insight, and remind them of the next action item.

This could be a reminder about another contact they were going to connect you with, or a follow up after the hiring manager has reviewed your resume.

And as always, end by providing the person with additional value. For example, offer to return the favor or connect them with one of your contacts.

Include a “P.S.” that includes a question. That way, you can keep the conversation going.

A professional relationship is something you must nurture – you can’t expect someone to help you if you don’t continue to provide them with value.

Concluding Remarks

Many PhDs dread the thought of conducting informational interviews. But it’s the one tried and true way of getting that highly coveted job referral. If the mere thought of an informational interview makes you anxious, start slow. Prepare a few outreach scripts and practice using them with your current connections – ones that you have an established rapport with. Then, once you’ve become more comfortable, start finding connections at the companies you’re interested in. If you aren’t connected with any of the employees, see if any of them share mutual connections. Ask your mutual connections for an introduction. During an informational interview, be sure to build rapport with the person – allow them to talk about what excites them. Always be sure to provide value to the person – elevate their expertise and show your appreciation. As with anything, the more you practice, the easier informational interviews will become over time. And you’ll be amazed at what they can do for your industry job search.

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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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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