Informational interviews: Four ways to transform weak ties into a strong network

Early on in my graduate career, I did a few informational interviews to learn more about different career options. I also helped design a “protocol” for conducting informational interviews, which we published at Science Careers (check it out for sample emails and lists of questions). Now as a late-stage graduate student, I still find myself conducting informational interviews. The informational interviews you have in your first year will be drastically different from the conversations you have in your fifth year, even if you are talking to the same person. As you approach graduation and job applications, it may feel like you’re asking for more (if they know job openings, etc.), but you are also able to contribute more (your connections, etc.). By the end, your goal is to have built a network, no matter how small, that you can leverage. Informational interviews shouldn’t feel like an awkward, forced conversation, but rather a quick, enjoyable way to engage with someone new.

From my own experiences and talking with peers, informational interviews can come with a lot of mental and logistical barriers. Here, I discuss some hurdles and how to reframe or approach them.

  1. It’s never too early to have an informational interview: The first barrier is asking yourself, do I need to do one? Yes you do, even though it can be hard figuring out what to talk about with this stranger or loose acquaintance that you have contacted. The great thing about informational interviews is that each conversation is unique and you can direct the focus of the conversation depending on your career stage. Whether you are exploring career options and want to know what their day-to-day looks like, or thinking of applying to jobs and want to know insider information about specific companies, an informational interview is for you. Talking to people in your early graduate school years can truly help direct your professional development, such as by learning about courses and internships you can apply to later on in the process (completely useless info if you learn about it as a fifth-year student). After talking to a few people, you might learn that you don’t like that career option at all—information that is also more useful if you’re not a week from graduation.
  2. It’s more common than you think: The second barrier to an informational interview is actually asking for one. Who do you ask? How do you contact them? What do you say? Informational interviews are common in many fields, such as industry and consulting, and sometimes expected when you begin applying for jobs. In the beginning, you may want to start with professionals you know, such as a former lab mate who now works in industry. You don’t even have to call it an informational interview; instead, just ask if they can set aside time to talk to you about their new position. When contacting someone you haven’t met before, it could be beneficial to call it an informational interview. This term lets people know right away what you’re looking for, and can help the conversation stay on track. Ultimately, you shouldn’t feel weird about asking, politely, for an informational interview.
  3. Keeping in touch doesn’t have to be creepy: The third barrier is how to keep in touch without feeling awkward. Informational interviews are as much informational as they are relational. I’m not saying you should send all of your contacts a holiday card, but beyond thanking them for their time, most people do want to hear positive outcomes from their advice. It’s important to be genuine, so keep in touch in a way that works for both of you and won’t come across as forced. If you’re unsure of how your follow-up email might come off, have a friend read it or talk to other resources at your institution, such as the career center. Taking the initiative to keep in contact can help someone build an image of you in their head, making it more likely for them to reach out when they encounter something you might be interested in. It’s a type of personal branding, sometimes called a “projection,” which you will want to work to your advantage.
  4. Weak ties, strong network: Another mental barrier you may face is deciding whether the emotional and time commitment of making a connection is even worth it. Even if someone is not directly able to help you in the moment, or you end up not wanting to go into that field, it is not a wasted connection. It’s possible and likely that the loose network you build from informational interviews will help you in the future. “Weak ties” can help you get jobs, period. It’s also possible that you may find a mentor, someone who is invested in your professional development and can help you in more actionable ways, such as by editing your CV or helping you understand your job contract. These mentors are exceptionally helpful if you don’t have personalized resources in your lab or institution.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the views of the author(s) and do not represent the official policy or position of ASCB.

About the Author:

Sara Wong is the current co-Chair of the ASCB Committee for Postdocs and Students (COMPASS). She is also a postdoctoral fellow in the Hughes lab at the University of Utah, studying mitochondrial-derived compartments.