This is the sixth article in the weekly Transitioning PhD Blog Series, written by contributor Tracy Jenkins, PhD. If you’re contemplating a transition away from academia, sign up here if you want to be notified of these weekly posts.
The path to a career outside of academia can sometimes feel uncertain and rocky at best. Is it possible to land in a career that is aligned with what you do well and love doing? The answer is yes. It might not be the career you thought you were going to have, but it can be one you find deeply rewarding. One effective way to find a career of optimum fit is through informational interviewing. The process of conducting informational interviews will help you not only determine your career interests, but also realize opportunities you might never have known existed. And it ultimately can lead to a job offer.
What Is an Informational Interview?
In the big picture sense, an informational interview is a conversation between two people where one person, the interviewer (you), asks questions of the other person, the interviewee, in hopes of learning something new. The process enables you to learn more about a specific role and a person’s experiences in that role. It offers the chance to explore the career path, skills, and motivations of the person, while allowing you the opportunity to share your interest in the role, your career path, and relevant skills/strengths. One of the outcomes from this sharing of information is the development of a relationship that can serve both of you moving forward. Academics embarking on a career transition can derive great benefit from informational interviewing because it can offer a glimpse of a variety of options and possibly provide insight into how others transitioned.
Finding Your “Best Fit” Career
If you’ve been following along in this blog series, by now you’ve thought through your goals, strengths, and skills. Maybe you don’t have complete clarity on where you’d like to be heading, but at this point you will likely have an idea of the type of roles, companies, and sectors that interest you. For instance, perhaps you have a PhD in engineering but realize your extroverted, social nature does not fit well with long days of coding and staring at a screen. Or maybe you’re a historian who thrives when standing in front of a class but dreads the loneliness of the archives, and hours of quality time with rolls of microfilm.
When I was in the midst of a career transition, I had well-meaning friends and family suggest many possible “good fits” for me. However, it was only through informational interviewing that I figured out what suited me best. Through informational interviewing, I explored how my strengths, skills, and background were reflected in my preferred role. I gained a better sense of what companies and roles might truly be a good fit for me—and I strengthened my network in the process.
Step 1: Put Your Research Skills to Work
To begin informational interviewing, the process of deciding whom to interview is paramount. To do so, leverage the research skills that all people with PhDs possess. Search organizational websites, read up on various sectors and industries, optimize your use of LinkedIn, and tap into your alumni database(s). As you find people you would like to speak with, create a spreadsheet with each person’s name, job title, company/organization, and email address. Record their business email address before going the route of LinkedIn messaging because even though most business professionals are on LinkedIn, many don’t use it regularly.
Step 2: Request the Interview via Email
Once you have these key pieces of information, you’re set to request an interview. An email is the most effective means to request an informational interview. The goal is to compose a message that results in an invitation to meet. What you write in your email is of critical importance because it is likely the first time the recipient will be learning about you. For this reason, it is important that you share what role you are interested in and what you do well, while laying out what you intend to discuss when you meet. Set a time parameter for the meeting by indicating that it will not last longer than 30 minutes, and that you’ll follow up in a week if you don’t hear anything back. If you are open to meeting over the phone or virtually in addition to in person, you open your interview possibilities to people who live outside your geographic area or who find an in-person meeting challenging due to scheduling constraints.
If your message is well-articulated and authentic, the person you plan to interview will be more likely to trust the process and be willing to get together to learn more about you, share what he or she does, and help you. You will also likely learn meaningful information that can help direct your career decision and develop a connection that will last well beyond your interview.
Step 3: Brainstorm Questions to Ask
What questions would be most useful to ask during the interview? Generally, open-ended questions/statements provide the interviewee the opportunity to fully explore and share specifics about the role he or she performs in the organization. Some of the most effective questions to ask include:
Tell me about your career path. (If the person has a PhD, you can ask about his or her transition out of academia.)
What are your day-to-day experiences in your current role (or other related roles)?
What do you most enjoy doing in your role?
What do you find most challenging in your role and how have you handled these challenges?
Who do you suggest I connect with to learn more?
May I keep you updated on my career progress? (This is a key question that sets the stage for developing a sustained connection that can last for many years.)
Step 4: During the Interview, Remain Flexible
As you move through these questions during the interview, you will want to listen for ways your strengths and skills are reflected in your interviewee’s day-to-day work experiences, and what the interviewee most enjoys and finds challenging in the role. Be aware that the person you are interviewing is also watching and listening to your reactions to the information being shared. Are you feeling excited and conveying it? Are you confused because this role involves responsibilities and challenges you were not expecting? Ask for clarification. Are you able to see how your value will be reflected in this role? The interviewee may say something like, “I know you came into this interview to learn more about this role, but as we have been talking I am thinking that you might want to consider this…(another role). If you are interested, I can suggest several people who work in this role.” This presents an opportunity to explore another position that you might not have considered previously but that you now realize might better align with who you are and what you love to do.
To give an example from my own experience about how I benefitted from the above scenario, it was in mid-conversation during an informational interview when the person I was interviewing said, “I know that you have a background in training and development in the biopharmaceutical industry, have you ever considered academic advising at the university level?” (I have a PhD in educational research with a background in biological science.) At that time, I had not and was intrigued at the possibility. From there, my informational interviews began to take a new trajectory. I set up interviews with academic advisors in various departments at local universities and eventually landed a position as an advisor as a result.
Step 5: Follow Up with a Thank You
After the interview, follow up with the interviewee to thank him or her for taking the time to meet and share experiences by sending an email or a handwritten card. In your correspondence, share what you learned and how you intend to move forward. This interaction initiates what you agreed upon at the end of the interview: to continue to keep the person updated on your career progress. By keeping your interviewee updated (after having gained their permission to do so), you keep lines of communication open so that when positions become available your interviewee will be more likely to let you know and let others responsible for hiring know of your qualifications in advance.
Step 6: Stay in Touch with Professional Updates
Going forward, by continuing to keep your word to update the person you interviewed monthly or bimonthly, you also affirm that he or she made a difference in your career search and for this reason, you want to keep him or her in the loop. In your updates, you can simply share what you have learned from subsequent interviews and whatever else has shown up for you since you last communicated. Keep these emails direct and to the point.
To close, as you explore career options outside of academia, the process of learning from others can take many forms, including conversations at networking events, career fairs, and professional association meetings. Yet informational interviewing stands out because the process offers a more formal, structured, and deliberate way to connect with others and learn more deeply about the role you are considering. It provides the means to create your future by carving out a career path through roles that resonate with who you are—your core skills, unique strengths, and what is most important to you.
About Tracy Jenkins, PhD
Tracy Jenkins, PhD is a certified Career Transition and Academic Coach. She provides coaching that is based on an action-oriented partnership with a strengths-based focus to help individuals align with career and academic goals that reflect what they do well and enjoy doing.
Tracy currently serves as an Executive Leadership Coach to MBA students at the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. She has experience as a professor at NC State University and Louisburg College, and worked in research in the pharmaceutical industry. She is the current Vice President of the International Coaching Federation (ICF) Raleigh Area Chapter, and holds a PhD in Educational Research and Policy Analysis from North Carolina State University and coaching credentials (ACC) from the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (IPEC). You can learn more about Tracy at Tracy Jenkins Coaching and on LinkedIn.