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5 Common Phrases PhDs Say That Will Ruin Informational Interviews

Contributing Author: Jeanette McConnell, Ph.D.

I knew that staying in academia just wasn’t for me.

But as I was finishing up my PhD I had no idea what lay ahead for me.

For years I had been plotting and planning my career in academia and this was the only path that I had information about.

What about industry?

What about non-profits?

What about startups?

Did any of those places want to hire PhDs?

And if those places were hiring people with PhDs, what would I do at their company?

I didn’t want to do bench research anymore but I was so unsure of what else it would be possible for me to do, this was all I had known.

So I started doing my research.

Googling the types of jobs that PhDs get in industry and learning more about those positions.

But this was still vague.

What were these people doing on a day to day basis?

Would I enjoy these positions?

I finally started to get some clarity on this when I learned about informational interviews.

I started setting up informational interviews with those people who I saw in interesting industry positions.

I had conversations on LinkedIn, email, over the phone and a couple in person.

This was so much more helpful that just reading about the jobs online.

I could actually ask the questions to someone who was living it!

These informational interview questions helped me narrow down the positions that I was going to target in my job search.

It also helped me build my network and those people who I had conversations with have become a valuable part of my network.

Why Your Networking Efforts Are Failing To Get Job Referrals

Networking is a powerful tool in your job search.

However, if it’s not done correctly it will seem like all the work you are putting into networking is for naught.

But, when it is done well it will increase the success of your job search.

For example, LinkedIn reported that 80% of professionals rate networking as instrumental in their careers.

And not only that, 70% of people were hired at a company where they have a connection.

Your network is important.

But networking is more than just showing up to an event or randomly messaging people on LinkedIn.

A study published in the Social Science Research Network found that an introduction can dramatically increase the success of networking.

They found that having introductions increased the number of new contacts met at an event by 57%.

So, reaching out to random people isn’t the way to go.

Instead, learn on your current network and work to meet new people through introductions.

This will allow you to have some built in rapport with the new person and they are more likely to become a person who you have a professional relationship with.

5 Things You Should Never Say While You Are Networking

You know that you need to network.

You’ve heard of informational interviews and want to try them out.

But what if you say the wrong thing?

What if you put in all this time meeting someone, talking to them, following up with them and the connection leads to nothing?

You are likely doing something wrong in your interactions.

There is a clear right and wrong way to interact with someone at an informational interview.

Here are 5 things that you should not say while networking at an informational interview…

1. I’m struggling with xyz.

Don’t bring your problems into the conversation and expect the other person to solve them.

It’s important to remember that this person does not owe you anything.

They are doing you a favor by chatting with you about their position in industry so it’s you job to make them feel like it was a valuable experience.

This means that you should check your struggles at the door.

Instead, focus on the actions that you have been taking and the successes that you have had.

Demonstrate to the other person that you are solution focused and results oriented.

They don’t want to hear you say “I’ve been struggling to get hired.”

This tells the other person that employers are finding something wrong with you, so they are going to be looking for what is ‘wrong’.

But, if you focus on the positives, the successes, they will look for those in you too.

Plus, they will be more likely to help you out if you seem like someone who is going to be successful, because then they will be aligned with someone who is succeeding.

So, be careful to not bring your problems into a networking conversation because it will turn the other person off.

2. Here’s my business card.

Passing out business cards is not networking.

You don’t even need business cards to successful in your networking and informational interviews.

You should be focused on learning more about the other person, rather than tell them about you.

If anything you should be asking for their business card so that you can follow up later on and continue to add value to them.

But, the biggest thing that just trying to hand out your business cards shows someone is that you are doing your networking for selfish reasons.

Now, yes, you are networking so that you can get a job referral and get hired.

But, this is not how you should approach your interactions with others.

Instead, shift the focus onto the other person as much as possible.

Ask questions about their job, their career path, their hobbies etc.

Show them that you are genuinely interested in getting to know more about them and that you value their time and opinion.

This is what will make someone want to help you.

So without even asking for help or making the conversation about you, this other person will feel inclined to ask what you need and how they can help.

3. I’m looking for a job.

Or I’m unemployed.

Just don’t say it, even if that’s the situation you are in.

Again, focus the conversation on the other person.

So instead of saying that you are looking for a job, say that you are really interested in learning about their job.

Say that you are interested in that type of role and would love to get their perspective on what the position is like.

If it comes up naturally in conversation, of course you can tell them that you are interested in new opportunities.

Tell them this sounds like a great career option.

But, never say “I need a job.”

This is going to put the other person into an awkward position and it will make them not want to help you.

Saying “I need a job” makes it sound like you expect the other person to help you, like you are only talking to them so that you can get something.

Not a good way to build a connection.

4. That’s a bad idea.

As a PhD you have been trained to be critical and see all the flaws in something.

This is how you have succeeded as a PhD.

It’s good to be critical of data so that you always get the most robust results possible.

However, this is not true for informational interviews.

Let’s say you are having a conversation during an informational interview and the other person starts talking about an idea or concept they are excited about.

Maybe it’s a new product or a new hobby and as you listen you start to think “Well that’s not going to work.” or “That’s a bad idea.”

Keep this thought to yourself.

This is not the time to be critical.

The other person is sharing something they are excited about with you which means that they are trying to connect with you.

They want to share something with you.

Don’t go right in and say something negative.

This is not a good way to build a professional relationship that will eventually lead to a job referral.

Instead of giving your opinion, ask more questions about the idea or concept.

This shows that you were listening and that you are curious.

Both good things for building up rapport.

5. What’s in it for me?

You might not actually say this out loud, but if you go into informational interviews with this attitude it will show.

It will make people wary of you.

The other person will feel like you are just trying to use them to get what you want.

People only want to help when they think that the help will be reciprocated.

So, first remove the mentality that you are going into this informational interview just for yourself.

You are going into this to build a collaboration.

And the way to clearly demonstrate this to the person who you are meeting is to ask about them and ask about what they need or want.

Ask about their experiences.

Ask about their career.

This will give you lots of valuable insight into this career option and it will also help you build rapport with this new connection.

Informational interviews are a great tool to learn more about industry and to build up your industry network. But, there is a way to ruin an informational interview by saying the wrong things and having the wrong attitude. Some things that you should not say are I’m struggling with xyz, here’s my business card, I’m looking for a job, that’s a bad idea and what’s in it for me. Steer clear of these phrases and always keep the conversation focused on the other person. This is the right way to execute an informational interview that will lead to a job referral.

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Jeanette McConnell, PhD

Jeanette McConnell, PhD

Jeanette is a chemistry PhD turned science communication enthusiast. During her PhD she realized that her favorite part about research wasn’t actually doing research, but rather talking and writing about it. So, she has channeled her passion for discovery into teaching and writing about science. When she isn’t talking someone’s ear off about her latest scientific obsession, you’ll find her on the soccer field or reading a good sci-fi novel.
Jeanette McConnell, PhD