Informational interviews are a great tool to help PhDs learn about job and career options outside of the academy. They give you information about fields of work and careers you may otherwise have little access to, and they provide you with one-on-one connection to practitioners in that field. For any job seeker, but especially for PhDs who are transitioning to a new career path, informational interviews are king. However – yes, there is a however – informational interviews may swing doors wide open for you even if you’re not totally interested in the area you are learning about.
The people you interview may or may not understand your graduate studies or your degree, but they will often see the potential that you and your skill set bring to their fields or companies. You are a smart and hard working person in search of a place to land. What potential colleague or employer would not be intrigued?
True story: A former grad school classmate recommended that I speak with one of her mentors and former employers after an informational interview we had. She knew that this mentor was in desperate search of a new senior level researcher and faculty member to work on his team. (The hiring process can be daunting for any employer so recommendations like these are helpful in sourcing reliable, qualified applicants.) I met with her mentor who we will call Dr. International Big Wig. I found his work interesting, relevant and timely in the field. I could tell that he would be the type of colleague to give me space to be creative and drive my own work within the team setting. He was energetic and excited about his work. Even with all these pluses I could not envision myself working in this topic area or field and I was not very comfortable with the amount of turnover the institution was undergoing at the time. I wanted to want the job but it just didn’t seem like the best fit for me.
There were two things I knew I must attend to in this scenario so that my informational interviews with both my former classmate and Dr. International Big Wig would not be a bust:
1. Thank my friend and let her know kindly that this opportunity was perfect but that I was not quite in the place to make this move.
2. Follow up with Dr. International Big Wig to thank him for his time — practitioners in his field would give an arm to sit down with him for an hour like I had. Then reiterate that I was in the process of conducting several such informational interviews so as to temper his expectations that I would apply for the position.
I can’t say that I managed these two steps very well or in the most timely fashion. Quite frankly I was stunned that this door had opened so quickly for me, and bummed that such a great opportunity was not on the market with my personal search criteria. The positive and upbeat lesson here is that your first job will most likely come through someone in your network or through your informational interview circuit. Trust your gut — and your career criteria list. This list will have some flexibility but it’s a general guideline of your desired ways, places, and types of work that will satisfy you.