Informational interviewing: make it a lifelong habit

What is informational interviewing?

Informational interviewing is simply the practice of conversing with someone with the goal of learning about their professional life, job, and industry. It is by far the easiest way to invest in growing your career. Yet, most people don’t do it with any regularity, because it takes time, it’s awkward, or some other excuse. That’s their mistake. Don’t let it be yours. 

Why is it important?

The benefits of a regular informational interviewing practice are immense. Let’s explore some of them. 

Informational interviewing has numerous benefits--especially for industry scientists.

Increase your understanding of industries and jobs within them

Perhaps you are looking to transition from academic science to the pharmaceutical industry. If you haven’t personally talked one on one with a large, diverse group of people from that industry, I’d bet that you’re very uninformed about the industry and day-to-day life within it. You can’t learn these things online through websites, blog posts, or job postings—you have to converse with a human. They might tell you that they’re really looking for someone who’s “not a know-it-all.” They could never say that in a job posting or other official forum, which would give you the opportunity to leave an impression as a team player and tailor your resume to highlight collaboration. 

Grow your professional network

Every person you interview has hundreds of contacts that might be useful to you. As your professional network grows wider and deeper, you will increase your chances of finding better job opportunities and increase your effectivity in the job you have. Additionally, you’ll boost your perceived expertise, credibility, and ultimately value. Finally, you’ll learn that informational interviewing can gain you access to a relatively senior audience. If you’re in your first job, you probably don’t get to talk to senior vice presidents in your company. However, you may very well be able to land informational interviews with people of this elevated stature. 

Practice presenting yourself

How do you want people to see you? Is that how they actually see you? You are largely in control of your narrative, but you probably need practice to realize that goal. Informational interviews are a low cost, high value method to hone your self-presentation. They’re low cost in that points one and two above are valuable goals of an interview by themselves. Additionally, if you’re going to be trying out new methods of presenting yourself, this is a much lower cost way to experiment than in an actual interview. Informational interviews are high value opportunities in that you’re talking to a real person with a real industry perspective, not just practicing in the mirror.

I can’t overestimate the value of a lifelong practice of informational interviewing. Remember that informational interviewing is a long-term game. While it can and will help with an urgent job search, the real impact will play out over the course of your career when you’ve accumulated hundreds of interviews—not next month after you have three under your belt.  

When and who should I interview?

Regularity and scope are key. You need to set a schedule and hold yourself accountable. I recommend starting with at least once a month and striving towards a once a week habit. Scheduling difficulties will likely result in multiple interviews in some months and none in others, but try to maintain your average frequency. Don’t worry: I promise that you will not run out of interesting, valuable interview subjects.

Be expansive in your interviewee choices: exploring deeply, widely, and randomly. You should aim to go deep within your chosen subject of interest. If you’re interested in locating a position in medical device marketing, you should conduct a lot of interviews in this space to make sure you get a lot of perspectives and probe all the aspects of that function within that industry. But you should schedule some wider interviewer subjects too. That could mean swapping the industry and functions by identifying interviewees in pharmaceutical marketing or in medical device research and development. Finally, you should mix in some slightly random interviews. Maybe find a machine learning expert in the consumer advertising space. Let your interests guide you. These connections which no one else thought to make can eventually lead to your development of a truly unique skill set and professional identity.


Some online research is the best way to get started. Use LinkedIn, perform some Google deep dives, be creative. Once you identify someone, spend a few minutes carefully crafting a personal message. Keep it to a few sentences: One explaining who you are, one explaining what you want, and a third giving a clear plan for action. For example,

Hi Anna,

I’m a physics Ph.D. student from University of X. I noticed that you made the leap from physics to pharmaceutical manufacturing, and I’m interested in learning more about your experience. Let me know your availability for a 30 minute chat during the month of March (I’m available anytime other than Tuesdays 1-4, Thursdays 1-4, and Fridays 11-2).

Thanks in advance,

This is not an exact formula—just a starting example—and you’ll figure out what works for you. As the sender and recipient of many of these messages, I have some general guidelines and suggestions.

  • Understand that your success rate on these messages is going to be low. If you schedule one interview for every 3 messages you send, you’re doing pretty good. (If you convert 100% of your requests, you’re probably not aiming highly and broadly enough.)
  • Try to make a point of connection between you and your target: a shared university, home town, or connection. Make them see a bit of themselves in you (maybe they remember struggling to make the career transition you’re pursuing).
  • Remember that you’re asking a busy person for a favor, so be gracious, deferential, and flexible in your scheduling. People will need to reschedule at the last moment. Don’t take it personally.
  • Keep it absolutely clear that you are NOT asking for a job or a reference.

If you follow this method, I promise you will get some interviews. Over time, you will figure out how to get more than enough interviews scheduled and can focus on the interviews themselves.


You should spend at least 30 minutes preparing between the time you schedule and the actual interview. Lay out a template Google doc or paper notebook page to populate during the call. I like to put the date, name of interviewee, company and job title at the top of a page. Then fill a page with a variety of questions (leaving space between them) in the rough order I plan to ask them.

The questions should be open-ended to encourage complete, unbiased answers. However, they should not be generic. You should tailor your questions to the interviewee to demonstrate that you’ve put some thought into preparing for this call and make the call more conversational. For example, instead of asking “How did you get your current role?”, you might say “I know you worked in the medical device field after grad school. Can you explain how you transitioned to the banking industry?” Finally, if there are very specific data points you’re looking to gather from the conversation, think hard about how you might introduce them naturally to avoid putting off the interviewee.

Starting the informational interview

At the start of the call, it’s crucial to take the initiative and lay out a plan. I start with something like the following:

 “Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule. I really appreciate it. Here’s what I had in mind. I’ll take one minute to introduce myself and give you a sense of what I hope to get out of this call. Then I have some questions I’d like to ask, and we’ll make sure to wrap it up at half an hour. Does that sound okay?” 

I’ve never had anyone say no to this proposal and it takes the burden off the interviewee who now knows that you’ll drive the call. Next, you get a chance to give your one-minute bio and mission statement. This is a really important storytelling opportunity. Of course, you should stick to the truth, but you get an opportunity to paint a picture that can serve you. If you do this well, your interviewer will perceive a confident, intelligent, charismatic, achiever that they would hypothetically want to work with or feel good about recommending. They’ll form this first impression very quickly and it will determine their engagement level during the conversation.

Don’t steam roll directly into your questions. The interviewee will likely want to reciprocate with a quick bio of their own, so pause and give them the opportunity. Let them finish and assess how to transition into a more natural, less formal conversation. At this point you’ve entered the body of the conversation.

Middle of the informational interview

This should really be the easiest part. You’ve gotten past the weirdness of online invitations and cold start bios, and now you get to have a conversation like a human. Just keep them talking and providing useful information. Pay attention to the tenor of the conversation. Are they starting to provide a bunch of one word answers? Maybe your questions are too specific or you’ve somehow put them off. Try to adapt on the fly (this is a useful skill to practice for any career).

Are they asking a lot of questions about you? Maybe they’re trying to tailor their responses very specifically to you. Alternatively, they might be using you as a research source—perhaps to understand how applicants perceive their company or even just to satisfy some personal interests. If so, not only have they helped you but you’ve helped them. This mutually beneficial interaction is really the ideal outcome of informational interviewing.

Just make sure to keep them talking and providing useful information. Remember: people generally like to talk about themselves, so prompt them then get out of the way. However, if the interviewee starts to ramble, try to redirect the conversation to ensure you get the maximum value out of your short 30 minute window.  

Make sure you’re taking good notes. You can fill in the template you prepared prior to the call. (If you’re typing, make sure the clacking of your keyboard isn’t audible over the phone.) While keeping good notes is important, you must absolutely stay present and engaged in the conversation. Immediately after the call, you should spend a few minutes filling in any gaps in your notes while the details are still fresh in your mind. Additionally, you should make an effort to synthesize your learnings. Develop a system to catalog these interactions and notes, because you should plan on revisiting them. 

Ending the informational interview

Your final question should always be: “is there anyone else you think I should talk to?” You want them to reach into their network and provide a name or two to keep your informational interviewing queue full and potentially reveal the crucial contact that will change your career trajectory. (If they provide a name, you better reach out to schedule an interview and acknowledge the recommendation.) Make sure that you don’t run over the scheduled time. Tell them that you “want to respect their time”, thank them profusely, and wrap it up. There’s no need to send a formal thank you email immediately. However, sending an out-of-the-blue note 3 months later is a good way to cement the connection.

Practice presenting yourself

One of the most crucial aspects of an informational interview practice is sculpting your persona. How do you want people to see you? Confident? Humble? An expert? A leader? Are you sure that’s how you present yourself? Informational interviews are the perfect opportunity to hone your skills. The interviewee has never met you and hardly knows anything about you. You get the opportunity to give them the essential facts and deliver whatever image you desire. For example, maybe you had a terrible time in grad school, switching labs three times, leaving you demoralized and unconfident. You could choose to project confidence and tell the marketing executive you’re interviewing that you “had the incredible opportunity to work in three different world class labs, developing a one-of-a-kind skill set.” Of course, you should always be genuine and truthful, but you should own the image you project and make it work for you.

The great news is that you’ll have plenty of opportunities to hone these skills as you regularly have informational interviews. You don’t want to fine tune a single “elevator pitch” down to the syllable; rather, you should flexibly adapt your projected image to your purpose and the diverse backgrounds of your interviewees. While you are getting as much information from them as possible, you should also seek to leave an impression.

Informational interviewing should become a way of life for you. You shouldn’t only pick it up when you’re ready to start looking for a job. It should be a regular activity for the rest of your career. Imagine the impact a regular practice will create for your network, conversational skills, projected image, and wide-ranging knowledge in 1, 5, and 25 years. Make the investment in yourself. 

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