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What I Learned By Completely Blowing My First Informational Interview (For PhDs)

Written by: Vanessa Wood Braband, Ph.D.

I was struggling to find a job.

My academic position was ending soon and I had nothing lined up to replace it.

But, no one around me seemed to understand my struggle and the advice I kept hearing was not helpful.

“The world is your canvas.”

“The potential options for you as a PhD are endless.”

“You’re a PhD, you can do anything.”

Hearing this sentiment over and over again was not empowering for me, but rather infuriating.

Because…

I didn’t know what I wanted to do.

Sure, I could do anything… but that still left me very lost.

The tide shifted when I discovered the concept of informational interviews.

An informational interview is when you contact a stranger and ask them questions about their job, their company, and their life.

At first, I was scared to do an informational interview, which resulted in me blowing my first one.

I was afraid of rejection, afraid of reaching out, and afraid to dial a phone number and talk to a stranger.

The first time I reached out to someone, I was super awkward.

I said “um” over and over and stuttered like I was on a first date.

That person said, “Sorry, I don’t have time right now.”

Back to the drawing board.

I tried again and somehow fumbled my way to a “yes” — the person would meet me for 5 minutes to talk.

So, I did what every PhD would have done — I immediately prepared a list of 100 questions (not kidding).

When I arrived, I basically forced the other person to answer all of my questions.

Whenever they started talking for too long about what they were interested in, I cut them off and brought them back to the questions.

THE IMPORTANT QUESTIONS!

Logical, right?

I acted like a lawyer putting them on trial instead of an interested journalist.

Yeah, that person didn’t give me a referral.

I blew it.

Ugh, how was this informational interview thing supposed to work?

Clearly, my original informational interview strategies were terrible and I needed help, desperately.

I knew that I needed to talk to people in industry if I was going to be able to get hired.

That was the only way I could really start learning about what positions might be a good fit for me.

I couldn’t give up.

So, I changed my approach dramatically.

Instead of trying to use the people I was talking to for my own gain, I approached the informational interviews purely as learning situations.

And, it worked!

By relaxing and focusing on the other person, I learned about different industry positions, different companies, company cultures, the importance of business acumen, and so many other things.

And most importantly, I got referrals.

It was awesome.

You can experience the huge benefits of informational interviews too, if you learn how to set them up and execute them correctly.

You can learn from my mistakes.

I’ve shared with you below 5 of the most valuable lessons I learned by screwing up my first few informational interviews.

How Informational Interviews Can Save Your Career

Do you know what positions are available to you outside academia?

Do you know what it’s like to work in industry?

Do you know which companies would best suit your desired professional lifestyle?

Probably not.

But, these are questions that many PhDs have as they begin their transition from academia to industry.

According to Nature, a top concern for 55% of PhDs is their career path.

PhDs are realizing that they don’t want to stay in academia, but aren’t sure what else is available.

Because, many graduate schools do not teach or prepare PhDs for careers outside of the university setting.

According to a survey of more than 800 university staff members from 226 institutions conducted by the Council of Graduate Schools, 62% of respondents reported that their university provides some type of professional development for PhDs.

But, this professional development often focuses exclusively on academic careers.

And, according to the same survey…

Only 44% of universities have professional development programs that prepare graduate students for non-academic careers.

This is disappointing.

And, students are the ones who are suffering.

Nature reported that only 33% of graduate students felt that their university provided useful advice about careers outside of academia.

If your university is not going to teach you about the opportunities that lie outside of academia, then you are going to learn about them yourself.

And, conducting informational interviews with industry professionals gives you a direct line to what is happening in industry.

You can learn about the various positions, what skills companies are looking for, and earn referrals at your target companies.

All you have to do is set up and execute informational interviews.

How To Avoid Blowing Your First Informational Interview (Unlike I Did)

As a PhD leaving the academic sphere behind, learning about industry should be one of your top priorities.

Learning about different positions, different companies, different industry sectors, different company cultures… the list goes on.

And, while the Internet does have lots of information, there is nothing as valuable as talking to a person.

Not only can you learn more from a person, but you set up the foundation for a professional relationship that has the potential to benefit you your entire career.

And, it all starts by asking for an informational interview.

Here are 3 great ways to ask for an informational interview and 2 you should avoid at all costs…

1. Start simple by reaching out to people who you or your friends already know.

Most PhDs vastly undervalue their current network.

When you think about setting up an informational interview, your instinct is to try and reach out to a director at a large company.

This instinct is wrong.

Your first step should be to tap into your current network.

Who do you already know in industry?

Or, who do you know who already knows someone in industry?

Think about people who have previously graduated from your lab or those undergraduate friends you have who are already working in industry.

There is someone already in your network who you can set up an informational interview with — you just have to find them.

The major benefit with setting up an informational interview with someone in your current network is that you already have rapport with this person.

They know you or know someone you know.

This means they are already more willing to share with you and more willing to accept your informational interview invitation.

2. Don’t begin your message with, “Hi, I’m a PhD interested in blah blah blah…”

When asking for an informational interview, your message should focus on the other person, not on you.

You are demonstrating your interest in them, their role, and their company.

An informational interview is designed as a way for you to learn more about industry — it is not the time or place to try and get a job.

Sometimes, as PhDs, we also feel like we need to prove that we are worthy of an informational interview.

When in reality, to get someone to agree to have an informational interview with you, you just need to show them that you are not going to be a pain.

People love to share their thoughts and stories.

People hate being bombarded with inappropriate requests.

If your message makes it clear that you value their opinion and want to learn about them, your success rate will be pretty good.

But, if you send a 2-page message explaining all about yourself and why it would be a great fit for the company they work at, you will have a very low success rate.

Below, is a sample script you can use for reaching out and asking for an informational interview:

Hi [Name],

I wanted to reach out and congratulate you on your recent [promotion/other achievement]! I have been wanting to learn more about [ABC company/position] and it would be very valuable to hear your thoughts. Do you have time for a 5-minute chat?

Thank you!

[Your Name]

3. Send very short messages (<100 words) to show you respect the other person’s time.

Another way to set up informational interviews is to reach out to people you have found on LinkedIn.

(TIP: Make sure your LinkedIn profile is top notch BEFORE you reach out for informational interviews.)

Search for people who are in the positions you want or who work at companies you want to work for.

Focus on people who have been in their current position less than 2 years, as they are usually more willing to share.

Target other PhDs who have recently transitioned, because they know what it’s like to be in your shoes.

Once you have found the person you want to reach out to, send them a short message with a simple ask.

Since you do not know this new contact, your message should be very short.

This shows that you are courteous of their time.

In the message you send, focus on your interest in them and their role, and make what you ask for as easy as possible.

For example, you could write:

Hi [Name],

I found your profile on LinkedIn during my search about 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!”]

4. Add value in your message before asking for anything.

Setting up a face-to-face meeting is very valuable.

It takes more effort for everyone involved, but it’s worth it.

If you want to set up a face-to-face interview with a cold contact, you need to build rapport first.

You need to add value before you make the ask.

Adding value can be as simple as saying congratulations on a new position or complimenting a recent article they wrote.

For example, you could write:

Hi [Name],

I recently read the article you wrote about [XYZ topic] and really enjoyed it. In particular, I found [ABC idea] intriguing and it made me think about [XYZ idea].

I really enjoyed reading your article and was wondering if you have any further reading recommendations?

Thank you!

[your name]

This message serves as your first value add.

Based on how they respond, you can continue the conversation in an appropriate way, by chatting about the reading recommendations they made, or finding another subject you have in common.

But, after just a couple of messages, it is acceptable to ask to set up an in-person meeting.

An example script is below:

Hi [Name],

I hope you are well.

I have enjoyed your reading recommendations and your insight into [XYZ field]. I am interested in learning more about XYZ field/position and would value hearing about your experiences. Do you have time to meet up for a 15-minute coffee next week?

Thank you!

[Your Name]

Asking for informational interviews can be daunting at first, but don’t be afraid to ask.

In general, people enjoy getting to talk about their experiences, so many people will be willing to chat with you.

But, you won’t ever know if you don’t ask.

5. Only ask one focused, time-dependent question to reinforce that you respect their time.

While people do enjoy talking about themselves and sharing their stories, they do not like it when someone monopolizes their time.

Your message needs to make it obvious that you understand this.

Be specific about if you want to talk in person or on the phone, and for how long you want to talk.

You can even mention that you just have a couple of questions to ask them about their role.

For example:

Hi [Name],

I really enjoyed reading the post you made in the [XYZ LinkedIn group] about [ABC topic]. Thank you for sharing it with the group. I am interested in learning more about [ABC topic] and would value hearing your perspective. Do you have time for a brief 5-minute phone conversation where I can ask you a couple of questions about [XYZ idea/position]?

Thank you!

[Your Name]

P.S. I am also a member of [ABC LinkedIn group] where people often post insightful articles about [ABC topic] as well, so I thought you might like to check it out [insert link].

And remember, when you do have the conversation, stick to the time frame that you mentioned in your message.

It’s not a good time when you agree to chat with someone for 5-10 minutes and, instead of asking you a few questions, they just go on and on about themselves for 30 minutes.

Don’t be that person.

Instead, be polite, be respectful, and be genuinely interested in what the other person has to say.

As a PhD making the transition from academia to industry, you probably have a lot of questions. What positions are there? Who can I work for? What’s it like to work at a particular company? How do I move up the corporate ladder? These are all common questions PhDs have. One of the best ways to get insider answers is to conduct informational interviews. Although you might be scared at first, these interviews are a great way to learn about industry and simultaneously grow your network. To set up these interviews, start simple and reach out to people who you or your friends already know, send a short message (<100 words) with a simple ask that is focused on the person you are reaching out to, add value and then ask if they have time to meet up for coffee (for 15 minutes when talking with locals), don’t begin your message with, “Hi, I’m an XYZ PhD interested in…”, and don’t leave your ask open-ended. You’ve got the tools, now go set up some informational interviews!

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Vanessa Wood Braband Ph.D.

Vanessa Wood Braband Ph.D.

Vanessa has a PhD in Chemical and Biological Engineering, a Masters in Mechanical Engineering, and a Bachelor's degree in Physics. She is the Cheeky Scientist Radio production manager.Her expertise is in surface plasmon resonance spectroscopy, bioseparations, downstream bioseparations, and biomass degradation for biofuel production. Vanessa is passionate about disseminating science information to a variety of audiences and helping PhDs transition into industry. She is also a director for a non-profit that focuses on promoting STEM career options to young women, does research in sustainable energy and natural resources, and enjoys teaching and mentoring.
Vanessa Wood Braband Ph.D.