Leveraging the Untapped Power of Informational Interviews

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Pathways - Advice from Experienced Voices

Leveraging the Untapped Power of Informational Interviews


 Susan Martin, Program Director, PhD Career & Professional Development, University of Maryland

Susan Martin, Program Director, PhD Career & Professional Development, University of Maryland. Photo courtesy of Susan Martin.

“What kind of work do you want to do?” is a seemingly simple question that most undergraduates cannot convincingly answer for themselves, faculty mentors, academic advisers, or even potential employers. Students often hear that there are multiple career paths available to them, but many students do not have a clear understanding of the common areas of employment or job titles for those with physics or astronomy bachelor’s degrees. Based on years of experience advising and doing career development work with diverse STEM majors, I have found that informational interviewing is one of the most effective ways for students to gain in-depth knowledge about possible jobs and employment options in different industries. Students who conduct informational interviews expand their professional networks and make valuable connections that often lead to future internships and employment after graduation. Most importantly, I find that students at all stages of study who engage in a series of very purposeful informational interviews gain the confidence to make decisions about their own career direction and take actions that prepare them for specific jobs after graduation.

So what exactly is an informational interview?

An informational interview is a 15- to 20-minute structured phone or in-person conversation with someone about their career path, possible job titles, or a particular company or industry. You take the initiative to set up the interview in advance by email and are prepared with a short list of specific questions you want to ask. Informational interviews are focused on learning more about the day-to-day responsibilities of different types of jobs, typical career trajectories, and the challenges and rewards of different occupations and work environments. An extensive list of 200 possible informational interview questions can be found at: https://www.livecareer.com/quintessential/informational-interview-questions. Your school’s career center website is also likely a great resource for advice about how to set up and conduct informational interviews. At the end of each interview, be sure to ask if your interviewee recommends anyone else for you to speak with—acquiring and following up with this contact is how your network will expand.

The ultimate goal of each interview is to learn new information and gain a referral to someone new. They should NOT focus on asking for or finding a job.

I strongly suggest that you conduct multiple informational interviews throughout every year of your studies. Start with people you know—faculty members, high school teachers, family friends, parents of friends—to practice setting up and conducting the interviews. Over time, and as you become comfortable with the process, use LinkedIn and alumni networking tools at your school to reach out to people you don’t know at all.

For more information, explore SPS’s online Careers Toolbox: https://www.spsnational.org/careerstoolbox. It provides a step-by-step road map and eight specific tools for exploring common career options, effectively searching for employment, and choosing meaningful work. Tool #2 is wholly dedicated to informational interviews and is very user-friendly. Use these materials to get started. Faculty and advisers will also find these materials useful as they ask students that important question, “So what are your plans for after graduation?” //

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Pathways - Advice from Experienced Voices