The Importance of Informational Interviews

As we approach a new faculty hiring season this fall, given the uncertainty of how many positions will be available, you need to be proactive, advises Chris Smith.

June 1, 2020
 
 
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In the current climate of faculty hiring freezes, you may wonder how best to set yourself up for success when applying for these positions now or in the future. As a Ph.D. student or postdoc, how can you maximize your opportunities on the faculty job market? Even before the pandemic, the data showed an imbalance between the number of Ph.D.s wanting faculty jobs and the number of actual tenure-track job opportunities, especially at research-intensive universities.

A group of current and past postdocs, including me and 10 others from public and private universities around the country who met via Future PI Slack, collected data from more than 300 applicants mostly on the biological sciences faculty job market in 2018-19. Funding, research fit and networking came up as the most common responses to an open-ended question of what those candidates felt helped them in the application process. We plan to further investigate network metrics in our 2019-20 faculty application cycle survey, which is now accepting responses through July.

These data suggest your faculty job search could benefit from networking and informational interviewing. As we approach a new faculty hiring season this fall, especially with the uncertainty of how many positions will be available, you need to be proactive.

If you are a graduate student or postdoc seeking out career development resources, you have probably heard about informational interviews. Here’s a quick primer: informational interviews are conversations with people about their job or organization through which you can learn about their career and ask for advice. This includes talking to people with job titles that intrigue you as well as those working at a variety of companies and organizations. You can also use informational interviews to inquire about how those with backgrounds similar to yours made the transition and obtain advice on the skills and experiences in demand in their field.

When conducting informational interviews, be sure to avoid common mistakes and follow some excellent advice from Stephanie Eberle here on "Carpe Careers."

While informational interviews are often discussed in terms of career exploration for careers beyond academe, they can also be extremely useful for those interested in a faculty career. Start early by talking with assistant professors about what it is like working in a particular department and institution. Be sure to speak with those working at a variety of institutional types. Ask them what they enjoy most about working at their institution, as well as some of the challenges they have encountered. Also, ask them about the balance between their teaching and research responsibilities, as that will give you a sense of what that work distribution looks like at their particular college or university.

Nothing is more powerful in a job search than having an effective conversation with people who have recently navigated it -- in this case, assistant professors. They can tell you about any surprises or difficulties they’ve faced when interviewing. In addition, by speaking with someone in a role you aspire to, you will be able to begin visualizing yourself in such a role. Does it sound appealing to you? Is the role not quite what you thought it was? These are important thoughts and feelings to grapple with before applying to any job.

Is Now the Right Time?

While there’s much uncertainty around hiring at academic institutions, informational interviewing may help you learn how various institutions and departments are handling the uncertainty. Bringing up COVID-19-related impacts in conversations with faculty members in the fall or winter may give you more specifics on how institutions are working through the current crisis as well as their future plans for hiring. Having that information in advance will undoubtedly be helpful as you plan your next career move, right?

Also, given the current climate of remote work, you may be wondering how you can effectively conduct these informational interviews remotely. Aren’t people super busy and overwhelmed right now? Maybe, but people are also looking for connection, and most people enjoy talking about themselves. They might also feel flattered you reached out to them to learn more about what they do.

Don’t let the fear of your timing not being right prevent you from taking steps to build these connections now. See also these tips and advice on digital networking while social distancing.

Practical Recommendations

It is never too early to start talking to people working in roles that interest you. Within your first few years of graduate school, you should identify faculty working in a variety of contexts and find time to speak with them about their role. This process will help you realize what skills you need to be competitive for a position at that institution, like teaching experience for a liberal arts institution. In addition to your informational interviews, the Academic Career Readiness Assessment is a great tool to assist you in understanding what competency levels various types of institutions value in faculty applicants.

I’ve described below some other important aspects of successful informational interviewing.

Identifying potential contacts. One approach to finding faculty members to speak with is to ask your adviser or department chair for some names of past trainees who have made the transition to faculty. Alternatively, you can use Google Scholar to look for individuals working in research areas similar to your own and connect with them over shared academic interests.

The LinkedIn Alumni Tool is another great online resource. First, find your institution on LinkedIn, click on “Alumni” in the left menu and begin your filtering. You can look for those who studied in an area similar to yours or who live in a location you are interested in. (Hello, two-body problem!) You can also search by occupation “professor” to identify those working as faculty members. When you reach out, you can use your shared alumni connection to introduce yourself.

Your first-contact message might look like this: “Dr. XXX, I see you received your Ph.D. from University YYY. I am currently completing my degree (or completed my degree) there and am interested in learning more about your transition to faculty and how you like working at Institution ZZZ. Do you have about 20 minutes for a Zoom or phone call to chat about your experience?”

For more, see tips on navigating the informational interview process.

Preparing for the application season. When you are about one year from your target date of applying to faculty positions, you really need to accelerate your informational interview frequency with faculty. You can also use this time to build some rapport with those faculty whose research interests you, allowing time to discuss with them your current and future research as well as complimenting them on some of their work (maybe a newly published paper). Be sure to mention when you will be on the job market. They may be able to connect you to faculty openings that they become aware of through their networks. A bonus of these early interactions with faculty is that they may also lead to future research collaborations, regardless of whether you join their department.

Applying for faculty jobs. It can take a lot of work to create the documents required for a faculty application, and conveying your excitement about the role should shine through in your materials. Ideally, you can outline your enthusiasm for the position with confidence if you’ve done your homework in advance.

Too many applicants miss this opportunity, viewing the faculty application process as a procedural career step and applying to many positions using essentially the same documents. They think to themselves, “Surely my brilliance and hard work will speak for themselves and Institution X will want to hire me.” Such thinking ignores the fact that you are being hired as a colleague and member of a larger whole. You need to convey to the institution that you understand them, their mission, their challenges and their needs and are prepared to contribute your talents to them.

The best way to convey your fit for an advertised faculty job, then, is to know the institution and department well. The more you can learn by talking with faculty members in the department in advance, the better.

Closing Thoughts

Informational interviews are valuable for exploring all types of careers, including faculty roles. Informational interviews can help you identify your top-priority colleges and universities, tailor your application materials to those institutions, and begin building a network that will serve you well now and in the future.

Even the best preparation, however, may not lead to a successful faculty job search, and you also need to know when to move on. So be flexible in your career plans and explore your career options broadly. Remember that there are many career paths and you have a variety of marketable skills. Finally, realize the connections you are making during your career exploration will serve you well regardless of which path you ultimately pursue.

Bio

Chris Smith is postdoctoral affairs program manager at the Graduate School of North Carolina State University and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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