The informational interview: a brief, informal meeting between someone interested in a certain line of work and an established professional. These interviews give you the opportunity to ask questions, make connections, and learn more about potential career paths. In academia, it’s particularly crucial to cultivate these kinds of contacts—a strong professional network can triple your chances of attaining a professorship and getting published.
Whether you’re a PhD student, an early career researcher, or simply want to explore new opportunities, academic informational interviews are a great way to enhance your network and get insight from those working in the field you’re interested in. Here are our top tips to make sure you get the most from these interviews:
Choose your interviewees carefully
It can be tempting to cast a wide net when you start to reach out for informational interviews. However, you’ll get the most value out of your meeting (and have the best chance of getting a response!) if you start by targeting the people most relevant to your field. Brainstorm a list of dream positions and/or institutions, compile a list of scholars you admire, or start researching the alumni of your program to see what they’re doing now.
Get your cold-email right
Once you’ve compiled a shortlist of potential interviewees, it’s time to start reaching out. Academics’ email inboxes are notoriously overloaded with messages, so it’s crucial to be succinct. You want to make it as easy as possible for people to say yes to your request. In How to Ask for an Informational Interview (and Get a “Yes”), Elliott Bell recommends stating a clear reason you’re interested in meeting—maybe you have an interest in their research, a mutual network connection, or recently heard them speak at a conference—and following it up with a specific request. Try something like: ‘Are you free for a quick chat over a cup of coffee next week?’ or ‘Would you be willing to schedule a 20-minute phone call? I’m free at x, y, and z times.’
Follow up, if necessary
If you haven’t received a response after a week’s time, you may want to send a gentle follow-up email. Reply to the original message, reiterating your request and asking if they’ve had a chance to see if they could fit you into their schedule.
Though Bell recommends being persistent, I wouldn’t send more than one or two follow-up emails—the last thing you want to do is make the wrong impression.
Prepare a list of questions
When you get a positive response, ensure you’re well-prepared for the meeting. Do your research and draft a list of key questions you’d like to ask your interviewee. These might include:
- How did get your current position?
- What do you do in a typical day/week?
- What do you most like about the work that you do? Dislike?
- What skills are most valuable to your work?
- What advice would you give to someone hoping to work in a similar role?
For more great example questions, check out Kate Shive’s post The Informational Interview on Inside Higher Ed.
Send a thank-you note
After your meeting, be sure to send a note (this can just be a quick email) thanking your interviewee for their time and insight—after all, they just did you a big favour!
Informational interviews are a great way to develop your career and build relationships in your field. By using our top tips, you’ll be well on your way to exploring your next career steps and establishing a vibrant network of mentors and collaborators.
Top Tips for Informational Interviewers – Connected Academics
5 Keys to Acing Your Informational Interview – The Muse
Top 5 Informational Interview Articles For PhDs Transitioning Out of Academia – Cheeky Scientist
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