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Katie Shives is a PhD candidate in Microbiology at the University of Colorado. During her free time she writes about microbiology-related topics at and on Twitter @KDShives.

One of the best aspects of earning a graduate degree is obtaining a high level of specialization in niche areas of academia. However, this specialization can lead to a somewhat limited view of total career prospects with a graduate degree. Even though many of us have focused down to one or two areas so that we have well-developed skill-sets for our academic niche, making the jump to employment outside of academia can be difficult without knowing what to expect next. One action that graduate students can take is conducting informational interviews with individuals employed in areas where you might want to work after graduation.

When new to this idea, it may be difficult at the outset to identify people that you would like to interview. If this is the case, a simple first step is to check and see what alumni from your school, and especially program, are currently doing. This is a very simple approach but also highly effective, as you will be interviewing people who came from a similar environment and then made a successful jump to new ventures.

Still stumped on who to ask? Don’t be afraid to cast a wide net if you have diverse interests. Almost all professionals can make time for a brief interview, so if you are interested in government, non-profit, or industry positions seek out those individuals working in areas that interest you and set up a meeting. Even if these don’t lead you to that career path, you have generated good networking contacts that can still benefit you in your career as time progresses.

An informational interview is not an interview for a job, but rather an opportunity to gather information on a position or company that you happen to be interested in. These are great ways to get more information from others who have been where you are and successfully made the jump from academia to a variety of satisfying careers. Additionally, contacts made during informational interviews can expand your network to include more individuals which can be beneficial during the eventual job-hunt that students face.

Informational interviews are a different format than traditional interviews in that this time you get to ask all of the questions, usually in a much more relaxed setting than a traditional interview. However, since you are the leader of the informational interview it is important to keep a few things in mind before your first meeting.

Develop a set of questions: What do you really want to know about the company, position, industry, or how that particular person made the jump from a graduate student to having this career path? Compile a list of questions that matter deeply to you, and the answers will help you make more informed decisions about your career options. Even simple questions such as the following can be extremely revealing:

  • How has your work/life balance changed since leaving graduate school for position X?
  • What’s a typical work week look like for you?
  • What skills that you cultivated during your graduate education have been the most valuable while working at company X?
  • What kind of additional training did you have to (or opt to) take for position X?
  • Are the jobs prospects for this field or industry growing, declining, or holding steady?
  • Do you get to collaborate with other departments, companies, or organizations?
  • What do you like most about your current job?

You CAN ask about money: Polite questions about pay levels are also appropriate in this venue and being able to comfortably speak about salary levels is extremely important no matter what career path you take. You can always ask “what is a representative pay range for this position” if you are worried about being too forward.

Have a time limit: Usually informational interviews run from 15-45 minutes. This will have a lot to do with the schedule of the person you are interviewing, so try to respect the person’s time by keeping your questions brief. You can always follow-up with a few more specific questions in an e-mail if you want more information in the future.

Do your homework: Take the time to research the company and the person that you are interviewing. What does the company do? What does this individual do? Do you come from similar academic backgrounds? Knowing the important key points of a business or job will allow you to ask specific questions that can provide good insight into that specific line of work.

Don’t ask for a job! This is not the best venue to ask for a job and may leave your contact feeling misled or leave a bad impression, so stick to gathering information.

Be sure to send a thank-you: This is a very simple, yet often overlooked, way to let the other person know you appreciated his or her time. It doesn’t need to be an actual card—a simple email will do if that is how you communicated initially.

How have you used informational interviews to evaluate prospective career paths? What questions or concerns do you still have about the process? Share your experiences and questions in the comments section below!

[Image by Flickr user Aidan Jones used under creative commons licensing.]