The 7 Questions You Should Never Ask During An Informational Interview

My postdoc tenure was ending soon but with no possibility of an extension. As a result, the stakes were high and the mere anticipation of the unemployment situation gave me chills. To make matters worse, all I was able to hear from the people around me were unhelpful advice, while information and help were all that I needed. 

It was frustrating enough to not have a prospective job, but not knowing my industry fit was even more disheartening. Upon scrolling down job postings, I saw that there were several job profiles that I was unaware of.

I knew everything about academic job titles and responsibilities but I had no idea about industry job titles, roles, or expectations. I couldn’t differentiate one industry career from another. Consequently, I felt that I had no potential of adding value to any industry. Above all, I desperately needed a job.

I was eventually introduced to the concept of informational interviews, which comprises networking with industry professionals and ranges from a 5-minute call to a zoom meeting or an in-person sit-down. These contacts provide first-hand information about the industry, job title, and your fitness for the role. 

Informational interviews provide information about the left over company budgets and industry jobs that have not been posted yet. Having these focussed conversations with other professionals helps me comprehend specifics of the job market and make new contacts, such as the hiring managers at the companies I aspired to join. 

This information was pivotal in helping set up my transition strategy and land my first industry job. 

What Is An Informational Interview & How To Set One Up

The purpose of an informational interview is to help you gain the insider information that would help you get a referral and/or land you a job at your target company. Identifying the right person and setting up an informational interview are the preliminary, yet crucial steps in the entire process. 

Informational interviews have to be carefully scripted, smartly executed and piously followed up for these to be helpful and preferably end up as referrals. 

Often PhDs struggle with this first step as they are uncertain where to begin, whom to ask, and how to best use their time to set up an interview.

The best way to get up to speed with informational interviews is to ask people you already know; reach out to established connections. 

At the same time, you should be mindful in your informational interview questions and avoid the common mistakes that generally PhDs make

  • PhDs ask too soon without adding value.
  • PhDs don’t generally clarify the topic to be discussed or the time needed.
  • PhDs often interrogate as lawyers rather than being journalists with some plausible questions.
  • PhDs don’t set  proper expectations or follow up professionally.

Asking for something without adding value is detrimental. Result oriented PhDs tend to ask for things without thinking how the relationship is helping the other person.  You should add value until the relationship feels balanced enough for an informational interview. 

You can add value by talking about their work or their recent promotion/ a publication; don’t make this about you. Informational interviews are strictly about the person you interview with, they are the star of the conversation. 

It is also imperative to respect the professional’s time. So, gently ask for a limited amount of time and inform ahead about the nature of questions you plan on asking them. The tone must be informal yet within boundaries. 

The main aspect of an informational interview is that you build up a relationship with the industry professional and add value to them so that down the road you will have a valued referral.

Setting Up An Informational Interview 

To set up an informational interview, reach out to established connections through email or LinkedIn, build up rapport with them prior to the interview and follow up with them after the interview. Use proper email etiquette, be brief, accurate but first add value. Be sure to make time and topic- dependent questions, respect their time. Set proper expectations and follow up professionally.

Polite, short, to the point, email etiquette enhances your chances of getting a response.

Here’s a professional script to request an informational interview:

Hi [Name],

I found your profile on LinkedIn during my search for an XYZ position/company. I am interested in learning more about XYZ position/company and would value your opinion. Do you have time for a brief 5-minute chat?

Thank you!

[Your Name]

P.S. [Insert compliment, such as, “I love the quote you have on your LinkedIn profile!”]

Every informational interview begins by adding value and must end in a valued relationship with the prospects to end up with a referral. 

The 5 Informational Interview Questions You Should Ask 

1. How did you prepare for the job position?

This category of informational interview questions aim at encouraging the professional to talk about their personal experience with respect to the job search and the hiring process. Informational interview questions like, “What does the onboarding process look like?” provide valuable insight into the application process, qualifications and skills; the company profile, interview process and effective resume style. All the valuable information that you need to show employers you are a competitive candidate. Reminding them of how important referrals have been for their career may encourage them to offer to do the same for you. They may even give a few other names of people at the company to reach out to.

2. What are your current responsibilities? 

These are questions about the company and how your contact interacts with the rest of the company. You can get similar information by asking questions like: “What do you currently do in the company, “Where do you fit in the company?” “What does a typical day or week look like?” “ hours a week do you spend in meetings?” “What are your current responsibilities and deliverables?” “How much would I need to collaborate is needed in the current role?” Current fit questions aim at assessing your fit to that particular job or company.

3. What does the career trajectory look like?

Future fit questions that show your involvement in the career path. Everyone wants to know when their promotion is due, how they can progress in their job so you should ask questions to check your future fit at the company. “Where have others in this position gone after x years? What does the future look like? What are your goals?” You can potentially discover new career opportunities and new directions for your own career path.

4. What is the company culture like?   

These company fit questions are crucial in showing that you understand the importance of the overall company framework. Informational interview questions like: “What is the prevalent hierarchy at the company? How many meetings do you have on a typical day? How do the current company employees communicate with each other on a quotidian basis?” This last question holds utmost importance in the pandemic since most workforces are decentralized. Company fit questions will inform you of how fit you are and what other attributes or skills you need to attain. Salary and bonus questions are strictly off limits.

5. How is the work environment?

These lifestyle questions will give you a bird’s eye view into the way the company works and especially what your job title demands. These informational interview questions also open the window to beyond career queries such as hobbies and interests, which builds the foundation to a stronger more personal and memorable relationship. Informational interview questions like: What is the work life balance at the company? Are people required to report in on the weekends? How many hours a day do people typically work? Is there a lot of travel involved in the position? reveal a lot about the company and the specific role.

Informational interviews open a window into the company, the job position, the culture,  and most importantly how you fit in there, but there are several questions which foil your chances of getting a referral.

7 Questions You Should Never Ask In An Informational Interview

Good informational interview skills go a long way in aiding your job search but bad informational interview questions will instantly weed your chances out. 

Professionals work on a tight schedule with little or no time to spare. Therefore make the most out of the limited time that you have in gathering the information but in the right way.

Choice of words, phrasing, and timing become cardinal in the success of an informational interview. 

1. Can you review my resume and give me suggestions on how to improve it?

Industry professionals are busy. So, unless they ask for it or you have reached a comfortable stage with them, don’t bring in your resume. If you bring the resume early in the conversation, you clearly send the message that you are not interested in their opinions or advice: your main motive is to get your resume through. This negatively impacts your image. 

Once you have attained a certain level of comfort, you can do small questions like, “can I share my resume with you, I was curious if it has the right format? Or can you check if I added the right skills for this job?” At this point, they will gladly take a minute to review your resume.

2. Do you know which companies or positions would best suit me?

An industry professional can give you information about that particular industry and the specific skill set needed for that job title. Beyond this, it’s just speculation as they are unaware of your specific skills, talents, and situation. PhDs do your research and analyze your strength; this question intimates your lack of self confidence to the contact. You need to develop enough confidence to make your own decisions. 

3. What is your salary and bonus? How much money do you make?

Although this may sound logical, it is still a very personal question. It would present you as the pushy kind.  You can say something like: “I have done some research online, and it seems that the typical salary range is x-y, just wanted to confirm if the public information site can be trusted for my future job searches,” is better placed than bluntly asking “How much money do you make?”

4. What specific interview questions were you asked when you applied for your position?

This is information gathering, not a job interview. While a little prodding may put you out as curious, excessive pestering will imply that you don’t value the person’s opinion. It may appear that you were ‘tricking’ them into an interview. Don’t be impatient; wait untill you are asked if you would be interested in applying for a job at their concern, which is fine—as long as it’s their idea, not yours.

5. What new products is your company working on?

Avoid asking intrusive questions. Firstly, you must remember that the industry contact may feel uncomfortable sharing the private details which have no impact on hiring. Therefore, you can rephrase this question to have a better response. For instance ask something like:, “The pandemic has inspired several companies to invest in vaccines, did that impact your company’s goal?”  

6. Can you introduce me to xyz people?

This question is also a timing/word choice-based question, the problem here is asking for a specific introduction during an informational interview. Instead, save this question and keep it vague: “Is there anyone else you could introduce me to who could tell me more about the company?”

7. Can you help me get a job?

Don’t ask for a job, rather ask for advice. This request can certainly result in foiling your chances of getting into the industry through that contact. 

Know your value as a PhD, leverage your skills to get better  instead of settling down for less. Job hunt is specifically the candidate’s responsibility, such a question would put too much pressure on the person speaking with you. Asking for a job will definitely be a big turnoff to someone who is trying to help you already therefore refrain from it. 

Concluding Remarks

In conclusion, informational interviews are the key to a world of the exclusive information, if used wisely they can lead to many job referrals. Relationship matters, therefore aim at building a cordial relation with your contact so that you will remain in their good memories. Add value, choose your words wisely, always follow-up, and use the informational interview tool to your advantage.

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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Alejandra holds a PhD in genetics. After finishing her graduate studies, she followed her passion for closing the communication gap between scientific researchers and the general public. Currently, as vice-president of development at Cheeky Scientist, she produces content that helps PhDs find success outside academia.

Alejandra Viviescas, PhD

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