3 Informational Interview Mistakes

Many students are unclear how to conduct such conversations and are potentially sabotaging future career prospects, writes Thomas Magaldi.

July 2, 2018
 
 
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Informational interviews are candid, informal career conversations with professionals working in interesting jobs. But you probably already know that. A Google search for “informational interview” generates more than 700,000 results. Inside Higher Ed alone hosts 90 articles that mention informational interviewing.

Nevertheless, career advisers will continue to preach about informational interviews because we see students and postdocs use these conversations to learn about themselves, identify career paths and land job interviews. In fact, informational interviewing can have a greater impact on career development than any other career-exploration method. Personally, I have used informational interviewing at every career transition, including my upcoming move to assistant dean within the Gerstner Sloan Kettering Graduate School.

Fortunately, career counselors’ efforts to convince students to conduct informational interviews appear to be paying off. Over the last six months, I have advised more than a dozen students and postdocs who were interested in careers in career development.

But while students appear to have gained confidence to request informational interviews, many are unclear how to conduct such conversations. I can say from experience that many students are making mistakes that are hurting their professional brand and potentially sabotaging future career opportunities. Yaihara Fortis Santiago, the manager of MSK’s Office of Postdoctoral Affairs, who also advised on this article, shared the same assessment.

Even though this topic is overdone, I feel obligated to help students avoid common informational interview mistakes.

Flawed Requests

The first mistake occurs when students send email requests. In general, flawed emails fall into two buckets: emails that lack necessary information or those that are too long and make unreasonable requests. Consider one email that I recently received: “Hello Tom, I am interested in your career path. I would love to chat about how you got your job at MSKCC. My cell phone number is 516-000-0000.”

In a few sentences, this student frustrated me three times. First, although I never go by “Dr. Magaldi,” if you haven’t met me before, play it safe and use a formal greeting. Second, if you want to talk, make it easy by sending a few different times to talk, which will circumvent standing responsibilities. Finally, the student did not explain who they are and why they want to talk to me vs. MSK’s 15,000 other employees.

Other job seekers have sent me emails that take two pages to describe their entire career journey, along with several specific career questions and a request to review their résumé. Thanks to social media, I just don’t have the attention span to read long emails like that anymore.

Still, because I normally give students the benefit of the doubt, I always answer their requests. I suspect that those who send the short email are trying to telegraph that they think it’s best to be informal and those who send long emails worry that they are bothering me by asking for a phone call. But, alas, most professionals will either politely deny such requests or ignore your email entirely.

To avoid mistakes, I suggest you follow Adam Grant’s rules for email requests.

Here is an example of a well-written informational interview request following a connection on LinkedIn.

Fellow Ronald McDonald Volunteer and UW Alum -- Science to Finance Transition (Nail the subject line):

Dear Dr. Brown,

Thank you for accepting my request to connect on LinkedIn. I am currently finishing my postdoc at Memorial Sloan Kettering, and I am thinking about the next steps after my training. After reviewing your profile, I noticed that not only did we both receive a Ph.D. in molecular biology from University of Washington, but we also volunteered at the local Ronald McDonald House. (Demonstrate something in common.) I recently started reading about careers in equity research and would benefit from learning more about the field from an analyst who specializes in small-cap biotech stocks. (Show them why and that you've done your homework.)

Would you be willing to spare 30 minutes to share insight about transitioning from science into finance?

I propose the following times to meet for coffee at a location near your office: (Specific request)

  • September 10 @ 10:00 AM
  • September 20 @ 12:00 PM
  • September 25 @ 3:00 PM

If those times don’t work, I am happy to accommodate your schedule. Please send me a few times that work for you. We can also have a conversation over the phone.

Thank you in advance, (Gratitude)

Xi

Making the Interview About You

When I need to make an important career decision, I consult a group of mentors that I’ve assembled during my career. My cousin, a successful health-care executive, is typically the first person I call when I need advice. Recently, I spent the opening moments of our conversation framing my career problems. When I finally stopped to take a breath, he asked, “OK, Tommy. How can I help?” That simple question made me realize that I’d spent 10 minutes rambling about my problems instead of asking specific, well-designed questions that would leverage his expertise.

Some students know that good informational interviews could lead to actual job interviews if they establish a rapport with the professionals. Therefore, they feel compelled to spend a portion of their conversation talking about their background and experience. When having career conversations, you will impress those with whom you’re interviewing by asking targeted questions that you genuinely need answered. It’s not necessary to talk about yourself extensively unless you are asked.

To ensure that you spend most of the interview asking specific questions:

  1. Practice your introduction, which should quickly convey who you are and why you need their advice in less than 60 seconds.
  2. Research the person, their company and the field.
  3. Craft specific questions based on your research that will help guide your career journey.
  4. Practice the art of active listening.

Poor Timing

Ideally, you should have informational interviews well before you need a job so that you can use insight to make informed career decisions. That will also alleviate misguided pressure to impress the people you are interviewing. But many students do not have the luxury of conducting informational interviews in advance.

If you are trying to conduct informational interviews and search for jobs at the same time, you should employ different strategies depending on whether the company has open positions.

Scenario 1. Connecting with people within companies without listed positions. Request and conduct a traditional information interview with people at the organization. Ask specific questions about their path, the company and the field. At the end of the interview, it is acceptable to say, “After our brief conversation, I am even more interested in your company and field. What is the best way to find positions in your company?” Many professionals will offer to forward your résumé to those who are hiring or send you unlisted positions within their company. If they do not offer this service, don’t take it personally and move on to the next informational interview.

Scenario 2. Connecting with people within companies with listed positions. In this scenario, it might not be in your best interest to request informational interviews, because the open positions could close by the time you schedule a call. Moreover, some professionals are not happy when students use the Trojan horse of informational interviews to bypass the screening process. Most professionals would simply prefer students declare their intentions up front.

Instead, connect with any well-established contacts within the company to gain specific advice about the position. This conversation should not be structured as an informational interview. Rather, it should be a short conversation that focuses on specific information that will help you determine if the position is a good fit and provide perspective that you can use to frame your cover letter and résumé. At the end of the conversation, politely ask, “If you are comfortable, would you forward my résumé to the hiring manager?” Many contacts will either forward your résumé directly to the hiring manager or enter your résumé into a referral system or human resources database if they don’t know the hiring manager. In most cases, you also must apply via the route specified in the job description to comply with the company’s job-application practices. If you do not have connections at the company, apply online and then ask one person in your network who has connections there to forward your résumé. Do not ask multiple people to forward your résumé for the same position, because this might make you seem overly eager.

Finally, if you do not have primary or secondary connections in the company, apply via the specified route. Then attempt to identify the hiring manager and decide whether it is appropriate to send a cold email briefly explaining your interest and fit for the position. Note: this strategy must be used as a last resort, because cold emails are not universally appreciated.

Interviews That Help Your Brand

Informational interviewing is the most effective way of exploring careers. If you learn to conduct them well, you will not only gain valuable advice to inform your career decisions but also establish a professional brand that will help you land job interviews. While I am thrilled that more students and postdocs appear to be using this career tool, many make mistakes that hurt their chances of turning such conversations into meaningful professional relationships.

You should not feel guilty if you have already made these mistakes -- I myself still forget to ask specific questions when having career conversations. Fortunately, you can correct these mistakes by recognizing them early. With practice, informational interviewing can be a skill that aides all of your career transitions.

Bio

Thomas Magaldi is the manager for career and professional development at Memorial Sloan Kettering and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders. He will soon transition to assistant dean within the Gerstner Sloan Kettering Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.

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