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Cold emails and hot coffee, part 3

This is the third part of a four-article series on the Active Career Exploration (ACE) plan for career development created by and for Ph.D. students and postdocs at the University of Michigan.

If you’ve read the first two articles in this series and followed their advice, at this stage you should have researched one to three careers you find interesting and cold-contacted professionals in those areas. Now it’s time to move forward to the third step: the informational interview. The informational interview is an informal conversation between you and a person whose career interests you. Its purpose is to learn about a career from someone who is experiencing it firsthand, establish a professional relationship, and expand your network via referrals from your new acquaintance.

Always be ready and willing to learn. If you go in thinking you know all the answers, then why are you contacting this person? Be comfortable not knowing what to expect.

—a second-year postdoc

For introverted people—and that includes many scientists—approaching and then meeting with total strangers may seem daunting at first. But you get used to it—and better at it—with practice. Not all informational interviews go smoothly, especially in the beginning. Approach it as an experiment: Failure shouldn’t lead to quitting but to learning, optimizing, and trying it again.

“I was originally hoping it would just be an email chain because I’m not comfortable talking to new people. … But my fears were unfounded. We each allotted 40 minutes for the call but ended up talking for 2.5 hours because we both found it so rewarding.”

—a first-year postdoc

“It helped me with my job interviews. I interviewed with people without scientific backgrounds, like the hiring manager, and had to explain my research. The informational interviews were good practice.”

—a second-year postdoc

Remember, this isn’t a job interview. It’s a conversation with a person who genuinely wants to help you. So don’t overthink it—just dive in and be ready to learn. Cold E-mails and Hot Coffee offers more guidelines and tips on conducting informational interviews—but the best way to learn is to take action. Get out there and do it.

Setting up the interview

Research potential interviewees and find a person who can answer your questions and serve as a role model. As a starting point, look for people who were in your position 2 to 5 years ago, so you can see if you’d like to follow a path similar to theirs. Use this research to show that you are truly interested in their advice, and identify the key points you want to talk about (see the example email below). But don’t let research slow you down: Schedule the interview first and then make time to do the research.

In your email, ask to meet for coffee, or schedule a phone or Skype call if a face-to-face meeting is not possible. This request can either be in your first cold email or a follow-up email. Make it easy for them to say yes: Propose a time and place that is convenient for them, and offer a few choices of days and specific times. It is reasonable to ask for 30 minutes, but it is not uncommon for these interviews to run longer when you both are engaged in conversation.

Subject: Michigan student interested in consulting, referred by [person]

Hi [first name]

I'm a current University of Michigan cell and developmental biology student researching consulting careers. I read your article on [website] and it helped me on [project]. My goal is to cultivate a diverse career incorporating research and another field like consulting or entrepreneurship. I can see myself following a path similar to yours, so I'd like to learn more about what you have done.

Would you be willing to meet for coffee (or speak on the phone)? I will be in San Francisco this coming weekend and 5/21-5/23. Please name a time.

By the way, [person] sends his regards.

[first name]

After you set up the interview, take time to prepare five to 10 questions to promote discussion. Do further research on the person and her or his career, and reflect on your own goals. Here are some sample questions you can choose from or use for inspiration.

Be prepared to introduce yourself with a few sentences about what you do, what you are interested in, and what you would like to discuss. This will help your interviewer give advice and anecdotes that are relevant to you. Your introduction should be short—about 30 seconds. When you meet, give this quick intro and let them respond. You will likely find something in common to start the conversation, and you can then ask clarifying questions. This gets them—and you—talking, which leads naturally into a career discussion.

A human conversation

Each informational interview will be different, but it works best when they’re informal, flowing conversations. This helps achieve two goals: establishing a relationship by getting to know each other as people, and allowing you to explore freely and discover new topics relevant to your career.

A common mistake is to focus on your prewritten questions, which can result in a stiff question-and-answer session that does not build a relationship. If you only raise questions you prepared ahead of time, then you miss the opportunity to learn about things that you didn’t realize are important. Think, again, about the analogy to research: If you plan a series of experiments and adhere to that plan rigidly, you may miss interesting data that take you in a different direction. Career exploration should allow you to explore, so only use your prewritten questions when the interview is stalling or getting off track.

How do you keep the conversation flowing? One powerful strategy is to focus on stories rather than advice. Stories are a very natural way of communicating, and you’ll find that many other relevant topics arise naturally in the context of these stories.

As an example, you might elicit stories by asking open-ended questions like, “How did you get into this career?” They answer by spending 3 minutes discussing their path from Ph.D. to job, and they mention an intense 1-year internship that you previously didn’t know about. Work-life balance is important to you, so you follow up by asking if the internship allowed them enough time with family. They start talking about their kids, and now you are on a topic that lets you get to know them better.

“People really love talking about themselves, but don’t be afraid to cut them off … if they get off topic.”

—a second-year postdoc

“Always be ready and willing to learn. If you go in thinking you know all the answers, then why are you contacting this person? Be comfortable not knowing what to expect.”

—a second-year postdoc

The back-and-forth nature of story-driven conversation fosters relationships and brings up topics that you didn’t know to ask about ahead of time. So focus your full attention on the person. Watch for interesting topics, and when they arise, encourage the person to discuss them in further detail.

Every person is different, so every interview will also be different. Sometimes it is best to focus entirely on careers, and sometimes it is best to go off-topic. For example, if you discover you share something in common, such as a hobby, discuss that to foster a more personal connection. Also, you may find that focusing on stories doesn’t work with some people: Talkative people may go off-topic too often, and more reserved people may be reticent, offering only short answers. If that happens, adapt your approach to one that works with that person, returning to your prepared questions as often as you need. As long as you are responding to the other person, what they say, and their personality, the conversation will unfold in the best way it can.

A productive conversation

You want this conversation to be useful for both of you. It is true that one of the interviewee’s primary goals is to help you, but you are also capable of helping them. To figure out what value you offer, think about what unique things your position as a graduate student or postdoc allows you to do. Being at a university exposes you to cutting-edge research and ideas. If your interviewee talks about scientific work, offer your own ideas. Recommend a paper or technique to help them do their work.

Past ACE participants have found it particularly productive to use their university connections to help their interviewee. You have direct access to professors and other experts, so you can offer to put them in contact. Also, you may want to invite people to speak on career panels or scientific seminars at your university. This will give them an opportunity to recruit new hires for their company or organization, meet potential collaborators, or present their science to a new audience. If your contacts are alumni, they will likely be happy to have an opportunity to visit friends and mentors at their alma mater. A connection to an academic institution can be a powerful motivator.

In practical terms, what is your objective? You want to cover topics that will help you plan your career. So what career details are important to focus on when listening to the person’s story? To help you decide, we have created a framework (shown in Figure 1). Remember, these are not prewritten questions. These come up naturally in stories, so all you need to do is pay attention and guide the conversation.

This framework emphasizes the topics most important for intelligently planning your next career steps. In an informational interview, you can begin to assess if a career is a good fit for you by discussing what the career is like: Why does your contact find the career rewarding (or not)? What is the day-to-day routine like? Are people in this career generally sociable or introverted, laid-back or businesslike? In Step 1 of ACE, you identified three important things you want out of a career, so bring those up in the conversation.

More importantly, you want to know what skills are critical to prepare for this career. Discuss what opportunities like internships, grants, and research projects will enable you to build and demonstrate your skills. If you get this information early, you will be able to tailor your training to earn these resume elements that will make you the strongest candidate for the job.

“My informational interview was with the director of the molecular genetics diagnostics laboratory. He said molecular geneticists must be able to manage others well and answer frequent questions from genetic counselors, physicians, and patients. They also must approve every genetic test on a tight deadline. Each test includes a thick folder of data and paperwork, so one must be extremely organized. My research showed that to become a molecular geneticist, I need to complete a highly competitive 2-year fellowship. I sought out an opportunity to write a genetics-driven review of my field and registered to attend The American Society of Human Genetics conference to better gauge my interest in this career and improve my genetics background.”

—a fourth-year graduate student

“[My contact] clarified for me what the job actually entailed. ... He described his job as making the company more efficient—reworking assays, managing people, etc.”

—a first-year postdoc

“My contact talked about her job interview for an editor position at a major journal during our 30-minute Skype meeting. The interview sounded intense and impossible, requiring her to recall the names of scientific experts in every possible research topic, and then apply that knowledge under pressure. She suggested that I read broadly and start a journal club where we went over an entire journal. Those small steps taken early would make the big tasks easier later on.”

—a first-year Ph.D. student

Following up

After the informational interview, be sure to make contact once more to thank them for their time and ask any follow-up questions. Connect with them on networking sites such as LinkedIn. If they referred you to other professionals, contact them and mention who referred you. After that, the right time to follow up again is whenever you have new value to offer. For example, let them know if you found an article or resource that could benefit their work. If they gave you advice such as “read this book,” then read the book and report back to say if you found it helpful or to ask more questions. If you took a step closer toward your goal, such as starting an internship, update them and ask their advice on what skills you should focus on during the internship. You don’t need to contact them frequently to maintain the connection; if you offer real value each time you reach out, they won’t forget you.

Use the information you’ve gathered to plan the next steps in your career. This may be finding a nonacademic professional conference, bringing a new technique to the lab, or even changing career plans.

You will almost certainly need to build new skills, which can take a lot of time. This step is where the ACE plan diverges for different people. Next week’s article will discuss strategies to implement the lessons you’ve learned to plan out your career and take further action. In particular, we’ll focus on how you can give back to your community by helping others, which gives you a network of like-minded people that can support you in your next steps. Investing in relationships and skills now sets you well on your way to cultivating a career you love.

See the Cold E-mails and Hot Coffee guidebook or more tips on eliciting useful information in the interview.

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