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From PhD to Life

Don’t shy away from informational interviews


Many academics, broadly defined, claim to dislike networking, think it is insincere, that it’s not something they’re good at anyway. Now, I have many thoughts about all this, but let me offer just one in this post.

I make a distinction between networking proper and informational interviews. The latter involves making contact with a person whose job or career interests you because it might help you figure out your own professional path. Informational interviews are primarily learning experiences, where you’ll ask questions like “What do you do when you’re at work?”, “How did you get to where you are now?”, “What advice do you have for someone looking to break into your field?” And so on. Generally, you won’t bring your resume or ask about job openings.

Conducting these interviews provide career explorers with wonderful, first-hand, up-to-date information about the world of work. When you ask someone for an informational interview, chances are that person knows what to expect: that you will ask questions about his or her professional life. The benefit you as the interviewer provides is being a curious, active listener. In my experience, professionals value the chance to give advice to someone outside their field or who are just starting their career, as well as reflect upon what they do. Your interviewees will likely expect you to be unsure of where you’re going, work-wise, which makes these meetings less stressful. Don’t let uncertainty keep you from reaching out.

With networking proper, as I define it, there will be more discussion and less interviewing. This is true even for me, someone who loves asking questions! When I’m in networking mode, I’m sharing ideas with people who are at least tangentially in my field. Yes, I may still ask about their day-to-day and how they got to their current position, but those questions don’t dominate the interaction.

If you’re thinking of changing careers or jobs at some point, or are trying to do so now, you’ve probably heard the advice to “get networking!” many times. If you’re reluctant for whatever reason, consider making the same distinction I do. It could be that conducting informational interviews is right for you; networking can come later, once you’re surer about your professional identity.

Now, who would you love to interview?

Jennifer Polk
Jennifer Polk is a career coach and entrepreneur. She earned her PhD in history from the University of Toronto in 2012. For more information and resources, check out her website:
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