How to Do an Informational Interview

March 24, 2009

Question: I'm a humanities Ph.D. who made the transition last summer into my first job in campus administration. Although I enjoy advising undergraduates and I have wonderful new colleagues, this doesn't feel like a vocation to me, and I'm hoping to move into something different (I'm not sure what) in the next few years. What's the best way to figure out my next step?

Question: I'm about to complete my Ph.D. in mathematics and am not sure what to do next. The toxic atmosphere in my doctoral program at a top university has really soured me on academe. I love teaching, but I'm not sure I can stand even one more year in this environment. I can't help but feel like it must be like this everywhere. What can I do to get out of my rut?

Julie: Here we have questions from two Ph.D.'s, both of whom are looking for some perspective. They both need information about career alternatives to help them decide whether to change direction or stay put.

Jenny: They could do all the usual things: Read about careers that interest them in books, magazines, and on Web sites; take one of the many career assessments, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or the Strong Interest Inventory, to learn more about their skills and preferences, and help them identify careers that might be a good fit. Those are certainly effective strategies for anyone looking to change careers.

However, we, and most career counselors, think informational interviewing is the best way to investigate your options, whatever your field of interest.

Julie: Jenny, have you noticed that some people seem to be very intimidated by the phrase "informational interviewing"? And yet, talking with people and getting information is something we all do all the time.

Jenny: When I talk to students, alumni, and postdocs, I often have to work hard to convince them of the value of reaching out to others during all stages of their job searches. They may view that sort of networking as something only done by corporate types. They may be hesitant to impose on others. Many graduate students, and perhaps some of our readers, are not even familiar with the term informational interview.

Julie: All it means is contacting someone who works in a field you're interested in and having a conversation about that person's work that is totally outside the context of a job interview. In fact, an informational interview is most effective when you make it clear upfront that you are not expecting the contact to help you with job prospects. Rather, you are interested in learning about the person's career, current job and employer, and his or her general opinions about the field.

Jenny: To have a successful informational interview, you will need to do your homework. You should know something about the person's organization and career field. Although you'll be asking the questions, you should also be able to talk about yourself and explain why you're interested in the field in the first place. If you're meeting in person, you might have a copy of your résumé on hand, but only bring it out if the interviewee asks to see it.

Julie: The most important thing you'll bring to the interview is the list of questions you've prepared. They can be as basic as: "What does a typical day look like for you?; what do you enjoy most about working in this field?; what is the most challenging aspect?"

Jenny: You might also want to ask about the interviewee's education: "What is your academic background?; how has your education prepared you for this kind of work?; if you had to do this all over again, knowing what you know now, would you do anything differently?"

Julie: If you already know something about the position and the career field, your questions can be more specific. A Ph.D. who is interested in becoming an academic librarian might ask, "I know that digitizing rare-book and manuscript archives is a priority of many academic libraries. Can you tell me more about the various software platforms that are used to do that work?" Or someone wanting to use social-science research skills in a policy organization might ask, "How are the projects you do here different from what you did in academe?" and "What is the best method of communicating findings to other researchers, policy makers, and practitioners?"

Jenny: Before the interview, take a look at the most recent Occupational Outlook Handbook and see what the government says about that career field. Then during the interview, you might ask questions such as: "In what ways is your occupation changing?; what is the employment outlook in your career field?; do you know if the field is growing?; and, how is the downturn in the economy affecting your industry?"

Julie: With informational interviews, you are not only learning about a type of job, career, or industry, you are also building a network of contacts. It is unlikely that your informational interviews will result in a job in the short term, and that can be frustrating. However, as you slowly build your professional network, you'll start to hear about openings from people you've interviewed.

Jenny: A few years ago, Susan Basalla May and Risa Nystrom McDonell wrote a great article illustrating this very principle; I often print it out and give it to students who need some encouragement about networking. "Coffee in 2002, a Job Offer is 2004" beautifully illustrates why it's important to conduct informational interviews. They won't get you a job, but they can help you find out about openings and position yourself well when they arise.

Julie: Let's return to the two questions from readers. Our first correspondent moved into a new position that is a good fit in some ways (a pleasant working atmosphere, opportunities to engage with students), but not in others (she lacks a passion for her work). Talking to people in a wide range of jobs will help her pinpoint what is missing in her own work, or it may inspire her to pursue a career path she'd never considered.

Jenny: Our first reader is not ready to make an immediate change, but wants to determine the best next step. This is really the perfect time to conduct informational interviews. She might even set a goal for herself — reach out to one new person or follow up with one contact every two weeks.

Julie: Our second correspondent is worried that the high-pressure, publish-or-perish atmosphere of his current department is the dominant mode in academe. He would do well to seek out faculty members teaching at very different types of institutions and ask about their work lives. It's never a good idea to conclude that all departments in your discipline will be cookie-cutter copies of your own department.

Jenny: It's not hard to identify professors to contact. Certainly this reader could use his own network of mathematics professors and ask them for suggestions of other names. Or, if he would rather avoid that, he could use the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education to identify different types of institutions, and then look to campus Web sites for the names of professors.

We strongly suggest that this reader not use terms like "toxic environment" in his informational interviews, especially when he's talking to people who might possibly serve on a future search committee. Instead, he should ask neutrally worded questions about what it's like to work in the department, what the expectations are for tenure, and how the professor likes the job. Talking to math professors at a wide variety of colleges and universities may point out that his department is unusually stressful (or not).

Julie: Be sure to thank the people who have helped you via informational interviews. Down the road, when you get a job, change jobs, or make a decision that uses some of the information you learned, send them an update and thank them again for their assistance. Faculty members, in particular, should do that; after all, the tenure process at many institutions involves soliciting the opinions of those outside the institution who know your work.

Jenny: Creating a network of contacts is an essential professional skill. The connections you make will serve you well, both as you begin your career and as you move forward. Connecting with others can be intimidating, but the knowledge and insight you gain will be the fuel that powers your career.


Julie Miller Vick is senior associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania, and Jennifer S. Furlong is associate director of graduate-student career development at Columbia University's Center for Career Education. They are the authors of "The Academic Job Search Handbook" (University of Pennsylvania Press), reissued in an expanded edition last summer. If you have questions for the Career Talk columnists, send them to