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Careers Café

Getting the dirt on non-academic careers


Academia is good at preparing people to be academics. There are clear (if not necessarily readily available) opportunities to teach, design courses, network with professors, hone research skills, and seek advice from mentors.

If you’re considering non-academic careers, however, you may find a shortage of resources and mentors within your department. This is where information interviews come in.

An information interview is a meeting you set up with someone who likely has information that you don’t. When it comes to career exploration, this typically involves talking with people who are doing the sort of work you think you might like to do, to find information you can’t get elsewhere.

In other words, you typically don’t set up information interviews to ask questions you could answer through Career Cruising (if your university has access to it), the websites compiled by your university’s career centre, professional organizations, job postings, career books and other print or digital media.

Unlike those resources, information interviews can address your specific concerns. If you’re considering social work, but have read about the high burnout rate, you can ask what sets apart social workers who don’t burn out. If you’ve wondered about educational consulting, you can ask what someone with a PhD could do to be competitive for the role.  In fact, force yourself to ask about credentials. Within academia, it can seem like any closed career door can only be opened by a degree — especially by one we don’t have. When I conducted information interviews myself, I was shocked when an interviewee advised completing a 3-day workshop over a master’s degree. Had I pursued his field, that advice would have saved me a lot of time and effort.

As it turns out, I didn’t pursue his field, because information interviews led me to career advising instead. So, you don’t have to be 100% committed to a field to start interviewing people in it — and information interviewing is a great way to learn about careers you haven’t heard of yet by talking with people in appealing careers you already know of. Maybe you love the fact that your interviewee uses research and analytical skills. They also focus on a short part of one process, however, and you prefer to work on projects start to finish.  Wonderful—ask your interviewee who they know who uses all of your preferred skills.  Ask what their job title is.

This process sounds scary, and it is — at first. It’s also a great way to get accurate career information and to ask what next steps you should be taking, given your specific set of experiences, skills and education. My next blog will cover why interviewees agree to be interviewed, and how you can set up meetings.

Liz Koblyk
Liz Koblyk is the associate director of the Wilson Leadership Scholar Award at McMaster University.
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  1. Dawn / February 1, 2011 at 10:03

    Great post, Liz. Informational interviews are a tremendous source of insider info and there isn’t the same pressure (on either side) of having a specific job at stake. Good advice as well re: being open to what you are hearing and how this may differ from what you were expecting to find.

    • Liz / February 2, 2011 at 16:56

      Hi Dawn. It sounds like you’ve had experience with informational interviews. If you feel like sharing more with the UA Careers Cafe readership, please do! This is the type of career exploration activity that sounds daunting, until you hear from people who have tried it themselves and found it to be useful.

  2. Dave / February 10, 2011 at 13:25

    Can’t recommend information interviews enough, and not only for people in an academic career path looking to transition elsewhere. I think even for first year undergraduates there is a lot to be gained by seeking information interviews, in both information and in perspective. The only thing I don’t like about them is the name – I find the word “interview” has some connotations that don’t quite apply to something that in most cases looks more like an informal (albeit professional) conversation.

    Great article!

    • Liz Koblyk / February 10, 2011 at 14:01

      Hi Dave,

      Thanks for your comments. You’re preaching to the converted here–I think information interviews are a great way for undergrads or grad students to figure out what sorts of experiences they want to seek out during their studies, so that future career decisions and transitions are easier. And the “interview” moniker can be misleading. Potential mentors can be more open to meeting if people avoid requesting an information interview, and instead just ask to meet with the mentors to talk about what they do. More on the request in the next blog, though.

      Looking forward to the next installment of Dave’s Diary!