Informational interviews: 5 tips for effective career conversations

“Informational interviews” are one of the best tools to get insights into different career areas. They are informal 15-30 minute conversations with individuals working in a career area that interests you. The aim is to learn more about the career area, particularly to get first hand and up-to-date information that can help you better understand whether the career is for you, and how to get your first role in that field. However, as the following video, “The Informational Interview and how to do it well” from the Stanford Design Lab’s Online Course  – Designing Your Career, explains – an informational interview isn’t a job interview, and should not be about directly finding a job.

Designing Your Career: The Informational Interview – a video from the Stanford Design Lab / Stanford Online Course Designing Your Career. You can learn more about the course in a recent science magazine article  about a book “Designing your Life”, based on the course.

How to get started

Simply being curious about those around you and chatting to people informally about their careers can be a great start – particularly if you are in the early stages of career exploration and are not sure what career areas interest you.

However, more directed and structured interviews will help you to get the detailed information that will help you make a final decision – and help you break into the new career area. These can take place in person (e.g. at a conference), by telephone or by video call.

It can feel quite intimidating to contact someone out of the blue to ask if you can interview them about their career. However – particularly if you have something in common, for example, a mutual friend, a common interest or shared experience – people are generally quite happy to help and have a short chat. Alumni networks can be a good place to find people from a range of careers with whom you have something in common, and many institutions offer some mechanism to connect current staff and alumni with each other. This may be via a alumni directory and/or social media. LinkedIN is another powerful tool to find potential interviewees – some of whom may already be in your network.

“In my experience EMBL alumni are always happy to interact with and support EMBL fellows and staff. The EMBL Alumni Directory can be accessed by all staff across EMBL’s six sites. It can be used to identify people working in different career areas, or specific organizations, cities, countries or even according to expertise. Alumni have been very responsive when contacted via this channel” Mehrnoosh Rayner, Head of Alumni Relations, EMBL

We’ve  collected 5 key pieces of advice – from books, relevant articles, and our own personal experience – to help you schedule, prepare and carry out these interviews. Additional resources to help you implement these tips can also be found at the bottom of the article.

Our top 5 tips

  1. Leverage events & networks to identify people to talk to.
    • LinkedIN and alumni networks may help you find good people to interview.
    • Delegate and exhibitor lists for conferences & events you will attend are also a great resource –  a coffee break is a great time for such meetings.
  2. Show you appreciate the time the person is giving you.
    • Be specific, polite and concise when you request a meeting.
    • If you meet for coffee, offer to pay; and always send a thank you email.
  3. Prepare well* so you can ask relevant questions and make a good impression .
    • Think about what is important for you in your career, and what skills you can offer employers
    • Do background research on the person & career area
  4. Prepare & prioritize specific questions* that 1) address your queries about the career area 2) show you have done your research 3) focus on your interviewee and 4) are open-ended.
  5. Lead a structured interview*. Think about how to structure the interview to help you keep on time e.g. by asking related questions together. You should start with an recap of who you are, and why you wanted to meet the interviewee – and end on-time, with a thank you.

* Additional resources to help with these points are included in the resources below


Relevant resources

*Resources relevant for specific tips

  1. Prepare well so you can ask relevant questions and make a good impression.
    • Think about what is important for you in your career, and what skills you can offer employers
      • Stanford Online Course, Designing Your Career
      • Career books including
        • Richard Bolles, “What colour of your parachute” ISBN: 978-0399578205
        • Dave Evans and Bill Burnett, “Designing your Life” ISBN: 978-0451494085
        • John Lees “How to Get a Job You Love”  ISBN: 978-0077179540
        • Melanie Since “Next Gen PhD” ISBN 9780674504653
      • Online tools such as MyIDP, MyDocPro
      • Your local careers office
    • background research on the person & career area
  2. Prepare & prioritize specific questions

  3. Lead a structured interview.  One possible structure, suggested by John Lees in his book “how to get a job you love” is REVEAL:
    • Recap: Start the interview explaining who are you, and why you wanted to talk to them. Mention if you are aiming to talk to multiple people.
    • Explore  – ask your questions about the career area.
    • Vision – ask questions about the future of the sector, and longer term career prospects.
    • Entry routes- ask how the person got their first role, what the usual route is and whether there are also non-conventional routes in.
    • Action – ask their advice on your next steps. This can be a good point to ask for feedback on your CV.
    • Links *if* you mentioned that you will be talking to multiple people, refer back to that point, and ask if they can recommend anyone to speak to.
      • Alternatively/additionally, you can ask about useful resources, such as professional bodies or online courses, that might be helpful as you prepare to apply.

Internal resources for EMBL fellows / staff:

Related resources available to all:

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