We tend to think of networking as something that happens at structured events such as academic conferences, official meetings of professional organizations, alumni happy hours, and the like. And although these kinds of gatherings certainly provide excellent opportunities to connect with other professionals in your field, a lot of powerful networking happens through interactions you have to orchestrate yourself.
Knowing how to reach out to both people who are already working in your area and to people whose work and career path intrigue you can help you expand your professional horizons. This is where the informational interview comes in as your most powerful tool for network-building.
Informational interviews are a great way to learn about a new industry you don’t have direct experience in, what the next step is beyond your current position, or how to build a postac/altac career if you are currently working in the academic realm.
Intentionally building your network and making your interest and enthusiasm known to your new connections can also give you an in on new job openings before they make it onto the job bank. Even with all these benefits in mind, reaching out to strangers can feel awkward and stressful, so here’s what to keep in mind when using informational interviews to craft the awesome career you deserve.
Do your research
Whenever you’re reaching out to a new contact, the onus is on you to both understand and lay out the benefit of this connection. When establishing initial contact, it makes things significantly easier and less awkward if you have a compelling reason why you two should know each other.
Once you’ve identified a someone with whom you’d like to request an informational interview, make sure you know the following: where they work now and what their current title is, how long they’ve been in this position, where they worked beforehand, and where they went to school. LinkedIn is a great place to start, but you should also look into their company bio and investigate whether they have a professional website.
Don’t be afraid to connect with someone that is far outside of your area of expertise—as long as you have a compelling reason why their professional profile is interesting to you, and a strong set of questions to ask in your interview (more on that later), go ahead and reach out!
Offer to do the heavy lifting
Since you’re asking a relative stranger for their time and effort, be sure to always remain conscientious and courteous. After all, they are doing you a favor.
Email is the easiest and least intrusive way to establish contact. Start with a brief, specific message about why you’re interested in speaking with them, and suggest a short phone conversation. Offer to call them, rather than include your number and suggest they reach out to you.
If they are open to meeting in person, be flexible about providing multiple times and locations, and open to meeting at whatever time and place is most convenient for them.
Yes, it can be strategic to conduct informational interviews when you are actively searching for work. But you shouldn’t build your network only in the context of an active job search—any time is a valuable time to make a new professional contact.
With that in mind, if you are interested in working in academia in any capacity, not just faculty positions, be sensitive of the season: the middle of the semester is generally a much easier time to make connections than the start or end of the semester.
Remember too that many folks travel or are out of the office during holiday and winter/summer breaks, and many administrators work reduced hours, so they might take longer to get back to you.
Don’t overthink it, but be sensitive and attuned to others’ schedules.
Know what you want
This is perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind when conducting informational interviews. Your preliminary research should be undertaken not just to determine who to contact but also to establish for yourself what you want to out of the interaction.
When you make your ask to the person you’re hoping to interview, get specific about what you want to know. A generic “can we chat?” or “I’m building my network” is not likely to persuade a busy professional to meet with you.
You may only get a 10–15 min phone call, so be prepared to make the most of it to get the answers and information you’re looking for. Like with a job interview, come prepared with questions. Some good ones to have in your back pocket are:
- What is a typical day like at your job? What skills do you find yourself using most regularly?
- What is the most rewarding part of your job? The most challenging?
- Can you share a bit about your career journey and how you ended up in your current position?
- Is there anyone else you’d recommend I talk to?
Also come prepared to share your own career journey, goals, and aspirations to gain insight on translating your skills and experiences into your contact’s position or industry.
Remember you are a valuable contact too
Informational interviews are about reaching out and expanding your knowledge and network, but don’t forget that you also offer a valuable networking connection to your potential contacts.
Networking goes both ways, and you may soon (or already) be in a position to help others meet their own professional goals. It is worth it for you to get to know them, and for them to get to know you!
Ultimately, good networking is about making a genuine connection with someone, so try to be gracious, genuine, and authentic no matter whom you’re getting to know.