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50 Questions That Turn Informational Interviews Into Actual Interviews

Written by: Catherine Sorbara, Ph.D.

I had been unemployed for 6 months and I was feeling desperate.

I didn’t have any solid job prospects and it had been weeks since I had an interview or made a promising networking connection.

I was beginning to think that I didn’t have anything of value for industry.

Maybe I should go back to academia.

Maybe this transition was a horrible idea.

I knew I could easily get a postdoc.

Something to fill the void.

Something to make me feel useful again.

So, I ditched my job search strategy and started to apply for postdoc positions and, almost immediately, I was called for an interview.

I felt my confidence rise again.

I felt wanted.

I felt important.

Maybe industry wasn’t for me after all.

I went to the interview having barely prepared at all. I had slides from my thesis presentation and knew the research like the back of my hand.

The professor called me the following day with the decision.

I didn’t get it.

I was heartbroken.

I had all the experience — in fact, I was overqualified.

That’s when he told me, “I cannot give you this position because I didn’t feel you were passionate about the work. You have the experience to do much more than this position can offer.”

He saw more value in me than I saw in myself.

I nearly let self-doubt win and almost gave up on the professional lifestyle I had so desperately wanted.

Every job search has its low moments.

Sometimes, they last for days, for weeks, and in my case, months.

But one thing was for sure. I wanted more than academia could offer and I was not going to settle than less than I was worth.

I dug deeper into my job search.

I networked more strategically.

I had several informational interviews every week.

I diversified the positions I was after and I honed my interview skills.

That rejection was the highlight of my job search.

It propelled me forward.

Soon, my research and experience with informational interviews helped me realize what positions I wanted to target.

I even ended up with a referral from someone I met at an informational interview.

Why You Should Be Doing At Least 1-2 Informational Interviews Every Week

The average work week is 38.7 hours long and the average American works an average of 46.8 weeks in a year, according to Pew Research.

There are only 52 weeks in an entire year.

Ultimately your workplace is where you will spend 90% of your year.

Before you make a commitment to spend so much of your time somewhere, you need to do your research.

And, informational interviews are how you can learn about a company before you work there.

One of the biggest things you will learn during an informational interview is about the company culture.

Company culture is everything from how the company is organized, to how they communicate, to how they dress — and, it’s all important.

Forbes reported that 89% of hiring failures are due to poor cultural fit.

Poor cultural fit leaves an employee feeling out of place and unsatisfied.

Informational interviews, which often led to referrals, combat this issue.

And, when you do decide to work for a particular company, having a referral and an understanding of the company will increase your job satisfaction level by 13%, according to Undercover Recruiter.

As a PhD, you have many advantages over other job candidates, and will bring a lot of value to any company you join.

But, to make sure that you also gain value, and are satisfied with the company you choose, you must do your research.

And, informational interviews are the best way to learn about a variety of companies and positions during your job search.

An Exhaustive List Of Informational Interview Questions For Every Stage Of Conversation

When you first sit down at an informational interview, remember that you are not a detective.

An informational interview is not an interrogation.

It is not a series of questions but rather, a conversation.

Let the person you are chatting with speak freely and use the questions you ask to gently guide the conversation.

If you go off topic, that’s a good thing as it shows you are building rapport with the person.

And, remember to always begin your conversation by saying, “Thank you”.

Thank this person for taking the time to talk to you — they are helping you out.

This is a great opportunity to gain insight into a company or a position before you accept a position.

Informational interviews allow you to decide if a company or a particular industry position is a good fit for you.

Do many informational interviews with many different people, and you will come away with a great understanding of what industry positions and what companies you should target.

Here is your list of 50 possible informational interview questions…

In The Beginning, Focus On Asking Questions About The Other Person

The beginning of your informational interview is the time when you need to break the ice and get the conversation flowing.

To accomplish this, it works best to focus on asking questions about the person you are speaking with.

Ask them things that they can relate to personally, as this tends to be easiest for people to talk about.

Try to customize your questions whenever possible, because this shows that you have done your homework and that you are actually listening.

Here are 20 questions that you could ask at the beginning of an informational interview…

1. How did you initially learn about [insert role]?

2. Could you describe what you do on a typical day? For example, what did you do yesterday?

3. What types of skills and experiences do you think have been key to your success as [insert position]?

4. How did you get into [insert field]? What path led you to [current position]?

5. What’s been particularly rewarding about the path you’ve taken?

6. What do you like about your work environment?

7. What are the fastest growth areas within [insert company]?

8. What are the most promising new products or areas of research in [insert company]?

9. What previous professional experiences have helped you most in [insert role]?

10. What’s something that would surprise people about your day-to-day?

11. What are some of the biggest rewards of [insert position]?

12. I know that you worked as a [insert previous position] previously, but how did you start out in [insert current industry]?

13. What are your current responsibilities?

14. Where do you see your career going from here?

15. Where do you see the [insert field] industry going?

16. How have your educational and work backgrounds led you to [insert current position]?

17. When and how did you decide to move into [insert field]?

18. How have your responsibilities changed since you began working at [insert company]?

19. Did you have previous experience in [insert field] before you started working in your current role?

20. What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

Next, Ask Questions That Allow You To Learn About The Company And Position

An informational interview is a wonderful opportunity to learn more details about the company and position that you are interested in.

The more prepared you are to ask insightful questions about the company and the position, the better.

Don’t just ask basic questions that you can Google the answer to.

Ask about culture and work life balance.

Ask questions about what matters to you.

Here are 20 questions you can ask to learn more about the company and position…

1. What are the pros and cons of working as a [insert position]?

2. Do you have a lot of free time outside of work?

3. What does your career trajectory look like?

4. What is [insert company] culture like?

5. How long do people tend to work at [insert company]?

6. What has been your biggest challenge as a [insert role]?

7. What do you dislike about [insert company]?

8. Are there many avenues for you to advance within [insert company]?

9. Who do you report to?

10. How do you communicate with other employees at [insert company]?

11. Do you work on the weekends?

12. What are some of the future career opportunities for someone in your position?

13. What makes [insert company] a particularly good place to work?

14. I read about [insert trend] on [insert company]’s website. What do you think about this development?

15. How would you describe the management style and organization of [insert company]?

16. Do you manage other people? What do the people who work for you do?

17. How does your team respond when faced with a deadline?

18. How do you collaborate with other employees?

19. I read that these are the core company values: [insert values]. How do these impact your day-to-day activities?

20. What type of personalities fit in best at [insert company]?

Finally, Ask Questions That Give You Advice About How To Move Forward

The last part of your informational interview is when you can begin to ask for more specific advice.

If you have been listening well, then you should now know a lot about the role and the company that this person works for.

So, ask intelligent follow-up questions.

This is your opportunity to ask questions specific to the company or position that you want to know, but that haven’t been discussed yet.

But, always be sure to ask about next steps.

Here are 10 questions you can ask to get advice and learn the best ways to move forward with your job search…

1. Is there anyone else at [insert company] you think it would be good for me to talk to?

2. What advice would you give to someone, such as me, who wants to secure a [insert position] role?

3. What are the common qualities of individuals who are successful in [insert position]?

4. What’s one thing you wish somebody would’ve told you before going into [insert field]?

5. What type of work samples or portfolio should I be trying to develop as I try to move into [insert position]?

6. What advice would you give someone in my position who wants to be successful in [insert field]?

7. When you think about your first year as [insert role], what actions/activities were key to your success?

8. How would you describe somebody who would excel in [insert position]?

9. What experiences best prepared you for [insert position]?

10. From the research and informational interviews I’ve done so far, I’ve developed a list of companies in [insert field] that I am interested in. Is there anything you can tell me about these companies? Are there companies I’ve left out that you think I should look at more closely?

You can read about a company’s mission online. You can learn about employee salaries and the newest products a company has online. But, you cannot learn what it is like to walk into the same office, day after day, from the Internet. The only way to really understand what it’s like to work for a company, or work in a particular position, on a day-to-day basis, is to talk to someone in those roles. And, an informational interview is your window into a company or position. When conducting an informational interview, remember it is a conversation, not an interrogation. In the beginning, focus on asking questions about the other person, but let the conversation flow. Next, ask questions that allow you to learn about the company and/or position. Finally, ask questions that give you advice about how to move forward.

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Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.

Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.

Cathy has a PhD in Medical Life Science and Technology and is COO of the Cheeky Scientist Association. Cathy is passionate about science communication including translating science to lay audiences and helping PhDs transition into industry positions. She is Chair of Cambridge AWiSE, a regional network for women in science, engineering and technology. She has also been selected to take part in Homeward Bound 2018, an all-female voyage to Antarctica aimed to heighten the influence of women in leadership positions and bring awareness to climate change.
Cathy Sorbara, Ph.D.