What Informational Interviews Can Do for You

Ph.D.’s in the early stages of a career transition out of academe express frustration at how difficult it can be to find a nonacademic job. They don’t know what else they can do that will be interesting or where to look for job ads. They spend hours crafting résumés and job letters, send them out, and then never hear anything back. “What am I doing wrong?,” they ask.

My advice: Begin your career transition by setting up informational interviews. For most Ph.D.’s, that is news to them. What is an informational interview? It is pretty much what it sounds like: an opportunity for you, the job seeker, to learn about someone else’s job, organization, or company. It is not—and this is critical—an opportunity for you to ask for a job.

Informational interviews will introduce you, as a Ph.D. job seeker, to career paths you’ve never considered. As people who have been inside academe for upwards of a decade, we often have a limited understanding of the work force. Many of us chose academe because it promised an escape from the perceived dullness of the business world. As such, we have pretty limited imaginations when it comes to nonacademic careers.

Through these interviews, you will build a network of people who can help you land your first job. Most employers prefer to hire people they know or those who were referred by a trusted source. Networking will connect you to people who can recommend you for opportunities. Your new contacts can also give good advice on how to enter your new field: What experience should you acquire while you’re searching for a job? How can you tweak your résumé?

Ph.D.’s are simultaneously overqualified and underexperienced, and, on paper, may not look like a good fit for an entry-level or midlevel position. But when you meet, face to face, with people in an informational interview, you can showcase your talent and highlight your abilities. It may take 20 interviews, but you’ll eventually talk to someone who knows of an opportunity and can put in a good word.

How do you set up informational interviews? One key way is through alumni networks. Your Ph.D. department may not keep accurate lists of alumni (or share that information with students), but you can find them yourself. I obtained a list of recent Ph.D.’s in my department through an alumni database and tracked people through LinkedIn and company Web sites.

Conduct research on organizations and companies in your area, and contact people who work there. In seeking an informational interview, make sure you phrase your e-mail as an opportunity for you to learn, and not as a request for employment. Informational interviews are common, and most people will agree to meet with you.

You are probably already connected to people who can help you. Write a short e-mail that describes your education and background, and the type of work or opportunities you wish to explore, and send it to everyone you know. Someone will know someone who works somewhere who will agree to speak with you.

Within a few months, you will build a network, narrow your job search to a specific industry or field, and (with luck) land a starting position. So save yourself the frustration of applying for jobs online and start speaking directly to people. That is how you’ll get your foot in the door.