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Maximizing your informational interview investment

Informational interviews are the ultimate information exchange and your best opportunity to learn about career tracks, employers, and the many differences between academic and nonacademic careers. They’re networking on steroids. But because they are an extension of building a network, many incorrectly believe that the two have the same casual environment. They don’t.

In an informational interview, you are judged much more critically than in casual networking. The questions you ask will determine your success, not only for your information gathering but for the impression you leave behind. So your questions must be appropriate for your situation: They must get you the information you are seeking and leave behind the (correct) impression that you’ve done your homework. Here are some pointers for setting the right tone and developing the powerful questions you need for this unique environment.

Getting started

One of your networking goals should be to convert as many of your casual contacts as you can into sit-down meetings over coffee or a sandwich—or perhaps even more formally, in that person’s office. Clearly, not everyone you meet will be willing to give you a half hour or more to help you with your transition. It is a rare LinkedIn contact that you can take this far! But there will be those contacts with whom you’ve become closer. In those cases, simply ask if it might be possible to meet in person. It’s worth every penny to treat them to a beverage or a light meal.

But what do you do when you sit down and have that person’s attention? Are you expecting her to just open up and give you the keys to the executive washroom? That won’t happen. She will probably say after the opening pleasantries, “Tell me how I can help you.” And it’s here that you’ll need a good introduction. Another way that the meeting might begin is with the famous “Tell me about yourself” request. Either way, it’s not a bad idea to have a brief, rehearsed response. Shortly afterward, the door will open for your powerful questions.

Asking the right questions

At a recent training seminar I attended, my favorite presenter was Andrew Sobel, a consultant who spoke about making the best use of our time when calling on new prospective clients. He’s a big believer that, with time in front of important people in short supply, we need to optimize our impact by asking the right questions. “A powerful question shifts the conversation back to the other person, putting the spotlight and the focus on the important issues,” Sobel said. “Powerful questions will create a deep, personal knowledge of the situation you’re discussing, because you’ll be bringing out emotions as well as ideas.” These principles apply to informational interviews as well.

Knowing that you need to ask powerful questions is the first step, but it doesn’t mean that actually doing it will be easy. The key challenges you’ll have in developing the right questions lie in two areas.

Challenge #1: Asking questions that build rapport, add to your credibility, and lead to a deeper knowledge of the field

Imagine that you’re interested in getting into business development (the same ideas apply no matter what career track you’re interested in). When you first sit down for your informational interview with your contact in this area, you might consider saying something like, “I want to learn about your career choice and what the business development track is like on a day-to-day basis. So, can you tell me what it is that you do?” But this classical start to an informational interview puts you on very weak footing. It doesn’t do anything to build rapport, and it makes you sound more than a little unprepared.

Instead of simplistic questions like this, I recommend to job seekers that they go for the finer points. By using this approach, you’ll get answers that fill in the gaps in what you’ve already learned by researching and reading about your career options. After all, questions aren’t powerful when there’s nothing to be learned from the answer! So use your questions to show that you’ve prepared well, and that you respect this person’s time. This makes the questions much more powerful and helps to build that needed rapport.

Try something like this: “In reading about business development careers, I’ve found it so interesting that you are working right at the intersection of science and business. I’d love to know more about how you juggle those two. I don’t want to stay at the lab bench, but I love my science education and would never want to lose touch completely. Can you tell me about how you use your Ph.D.? Or has the work moved you completely over to the world of business?”

Do you see how better questions can make you look more credible? You didn’t need to throw around a lot of self-promotion to get there, either. A bit of well-stated puffery is fine when you are asked to describe yourself, but remember that your meeting is an information-gathering exercise, and it won’t look good for you to blather on about yourself. Instead, keep in mind that, with every question you ask, you are either detracting from your credibility or building upon it.

For example, “Would you describe your typical day?” is so overused in this environment that it is almost guaranteed to be an annoyance, and adding it into the conversation isn’t going to impress anyone. Instead, rephrase the question to show that you’ve prepared: “One of the challenges of your job must be the variety of departments and disciplines that you work with. What types of people do you find yourself interacting with? And, if you don’t mind my asking, what’s interesting or challenging about working with those teams?” This more sophisticated framing gives your contact the opportunity to answer the same question about their day, and it doesn’t require you to ask an old turkey of a question to get there.

Challenge #2: Asking questions that seek to clarify your plan

By the time you find yourself at the informational interviewing stage, you’ve probably developed a career plan and started looking for information that will help you achieve that plan. At the very least, you want your informational interviews to validate what you see for yourself over the next year or two of transition. This is the perfect environment for asking your contact a few questions to confirm that you are on the right track. Some job seekers hesitate to ask personal questions, but in reality, people don’t mind talking about themselves. Here are some probing questions to help you calibrate your path:

  • Would you take a minute to run through the specifics of how you first moved out of academia and into your first industry job?
  • Is there anything you would have done differently in your early career or any cautions you’d alert me to in hindsight?
  • Can you share with me what you think the major ingredients for your success have been so far? What internal or mindset elements do I need to be thinking about?
  • What do you think the best next move would be for me to manage my way along a similar career path?

Don’t forget to listen

At the seminar where I heard Sobel speak, he asked us, “Do you ever interrupt people, or finish their comments for them? How about looking at your watch while others are speaking? Do you sometimes fake listening in order to prepare yourself for your next question?” These habits—all of which I know I’m guilty of at times—clearly are not conducive to a good informational interview.

Developing good listening skills is a topic all to itself. But for now, take Sobel’s advice and truly open your mind and listen well, because the information you get in your informational interviews has the power to put your job search and early career into hyperdrive.

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