What Is An Informational Interview And How To Ask For One With An Industry Professional

Unnerving.

This is what it felt like when I realized I wanted to leave academia.

I knew everything about the academic system.

I had been through it all.

Yet, despite the stress and anxiety, the late nights and early mornings, there was comfort in the routine of it all.

Stepping outside of academia meant preparing myself for a world I knew very little about.

What’s more, I not only wanted to leave academia, I wanted to leave research altogether.

What companies should I apply to?

What types of roles would I be interested in?

Would they even want to hire a PhD with no previous industry experience?

All of these unanswered questions left me feeling ill-prepared.

I felt overwhelmed too.

I realized that if I wanted to find a new path, I would have to start talking to industry professionals.

It was hard at first.

So, I started small— I spoke with family friends.

I spoke with previous alumni from my lab.

As I gained more confidence, I reached out to people on LinkedIn and at networking events.

I asked them what a typical day in their position was like, how they felt about the company, if they felt like they had job security, and what their potential was for being promoted.

In short, I asked questions to find out if I could ever see myself in their shoes.

Don’t get me wrong—I was really nervous to ask these questions at first.

Over time though, I realized that most people like answering these kinds of questions.

Many people felt energized and organized after talking.

Many just liked talking.

I felt empowered.

These informational interviews really opened my eyes to all the possible options out there for me.

They helped me establish strong industry connections while learning more about the transferable skills I needed to transition into industry.

Then it happened.

One of the people I interviewed forwarded me an opening for a position at their company and asked if I wanted to apply.

I applied and secured the job shortly thereafter.

All because of an informational interview.

What Are Informational Interviews And Why Are They Important? 

The true purpose of an informational interview is two-fold.

First, you want to gather intelligence that might help you land a job at the company.

Second, you want to impress your individual connection within the company (that is, the person you’re interviewing with).

Most experts agree that over 80% of today’s available jobs are not advertised.

But these jobs are not hidden deliberately.

Instead, they’re just not being advertised because the ideal internal or external candidate has already been introduced to the hiring manager through a referral.

According to a recent survey commissioned by iCIMS, a provider of talent acquisition solutions, when an employee refers someone, that candidate is hired about two-thirds of the time.

A company only resorts to advertising a job when they cannot find the right candidate through other channels, such as ‘word of mouth’ or referrals.

Advertising jobs online is a painful process for hiring managers.

They wade through thousands of job applications from people they do not know.

By setting up an informational interview, you are able to learn about an alternative career as well as strategically place yourself within the hidden job market of the company.

Informational interviews allow you to develop contacts in your field.

They also allow you to become well-informed about the industry or company you’re interested in joining.

How To Set Up And Structure An Informational Interview

Information is power.

The time to start setting up informational interviews is now.

The most important thing to remember about an informational interview is that it’s NOT a time to ask for a job or an internship.

Instead, it’s an opportunity to have a conversation with an industry professional about their perspective on a specific career.

It’s a time to ask questions about a specific employer or industry and to brainstorm with experts about your career plans.

It’s a time to develop a relationship and set up a future referral.

People who enjoy their work are normally happy to discuss their careers with you as long as you are respectful of them and their busy schedules.

The key is to set up informational interviews that are both structured and effective. Here’s how…

1. Reach out to established connections.

The foolproof way of securing an informational interview is to start with people you already have within your network.

This can be friends of family, alumni, professors, or colleagues from internships.

Ask everyone you know for potential contacts in a field, company, or job that interests you.

In the early stages, keep your options open.

Don’t limit yourself to informational interviews with only ‘high-profile’ contacts.

Instead, get comfortable with the process by interviewing people you already know well.

Don’t limit yourself to setting up informational interviews for only the one or two positions you want most, either.

Even if someone’s position seems outside your area of immediate interest, it can prove to be helpful in the future.

You will learn first-hand information that can make a position more attractive than it seemed previously.

The goal is to slowly build up your experience interviewing other people.

Make sure you nurture these professional relationships both before and after you interview them.

Build up (or rebuild) rapport with them prior to the interview and follow up with them after the interview.

2. Target new connections at companies of interest.

Once you’ve exhausted your current network, it is time to do some research.

LinkedIn is the best platform to search for employees at companies that interest you.

However, BEFORE you reach out to anyone through LinkedIn, ensure your LinkedIn profile is complete, up-to-date, and professional.

Your potential contact will absolutely look at your profile before deciding whether or not to reply.

Lacking a professional LinkedIn photo or having an incomplete profile will immediately end your chances for making a connection.

Professionals want to connect with other professionals.

They do not want to connect with people who appear unprofessional.

The key to securing an informational interview is to properly display your industry credibility.

As noted above, this can be done by maintaining a highly professional LinkedIn profile.

It can also be done by using highly professional email and InMail templates to reach out to new connections.

Finally, you can display high levels of industry credibility by first adding value to another professional prior to asking for an informational interview.

For example, you can connect him or her with one of your other connections.

3. Use proper email etiquette and add value first.

Proper email etiquette will increase your chances of getting a response.

This is especially true when reaching out to professionals you have no prior connection with.

The key is to keep your requests short and to the point.

If your email is 100 words or less, it is more likely to be read.

No one has the time to read through a long-winded email describing your life story and deepest desires.

Be respectful enough to be brief and accurate.

Proofread the email multiple times, all the way through.

Go through several drafts until all the fat and waste is cut out of your email.

One grammatical error, one spelling error, or one long-winded turn of phrase is enough to motivate the other person to hit the ‘trash’ button.

Most importantly, give before you take.

Make sure the relationship is developed enough to make a request in the first place.

If you haven’t given the other person anything yet, you should NOT be asking for anything.

Every informational interview begins by adding value.

The value you add does not have to be work-related but it should show that you would like to build a connection with them through mutual appreciation.

4. Make time-dependent and topic-dependent requests. 

Clarity and politeness are crucial to setting up informational interviews. 

When setting up an interview, always be very clear in terms of how much of the other person’s time you’re going to spend.

Will you talk with them for 15, 20, 25, or 30 minutes?

Start small by requesting a 15-minute conversation by phone.

Then, stay in touch afterwards and set up a 30-minute in-person meeting.

Once the interview is secured, send the other person a few questions ahead of time—a day or two in advance is fine.

But again, start small.

Send them one or two questions or topics of interest, not a 3-page exam of their work experience.

5. Set proper expectations and follow up professionally.

Once you start sending requests for informational interviews, it’s important that you manage your expectations.

If you get 1 reply out of 20 messages sent—you’re doing well.

The key is testing and perfecting your message scripts.

At the same time, you must make every script specific to the person you are messaging.

For example…

Hi [Professional Name],

I came across your profile on LinkedIn and saw that we are both alumni of [school name]. Do you get back there often? Congratulations on your recent promotion. I am currently exploring new career opportunities and would value your advice on working in [area/industry/position]. Are you available for a 5-minute phone call next week?

Let me know what day and time works for you.

Sincerely,

[Your name]

Don’t expect an immediate response.

Again, remember to manage your expectations after sending each request.

People are busy and if you are reaching out to them through LinkedIn or another social medium, they may not check their messages daily or even weekly.

If you have not heard a response in a week, follow up in a week by phone or by email.

Yes, you can follow up by phone even if you haven’t talked to the person yet.

This may be rare in academia but it is normal and expected in industry.

Informational interviews are a strategic way to build meaningful connections with industry professionals while investigating which positions and companies are of interest to you.  Before reaching out to anyone, ensure that your online profiles are professional and your drafted emails are short and to the point. By making time-dependent and topic-dependent requests, adding value first, and showing a genuine interest in the other person, you will be able to successfully set up informational interviews with top industry professionals.

To learn more about how to ask for an informational interview, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the wait list for the Cheeky Scientist Association.

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Catherine Sorbara, Ph.D.
Catherine 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.

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