I’ve conducted a couple dozen informational interviews and learned a few things along the way. This post is the first in a five-part series about informational interviewing.

I started meeting with people to ask about their careers before I knew that this type of conversation is called an informational interview. The term threw me at first. After all, no one had asked me to talk about a time I performed well in a crisis, and no one inquired about my biggest weakness. But that’s because – and this is a crucial point – an informational interview is in no way a job interview. If someone offers you a job after an informational interview then congratulations, you must be quite charming and impressive, but getting a job is not the goal and the conversation shouldn’t be used to inquire about one.

Instead, an informational interview is an informal meeting with someone who is willing to give their time to answer questions about their career. I approach it as an opportunity to learn about the realities of working in a particular field/company/position. This can be as basic as what a typical day is like for that person. For lab scientists it can sometimes be difficult to imagine a working life that doesn’t involve physically handling  things (“Just a desk and a computer? But where is your soldering iron?”), so even seeing a workplace environment can be informative.

The most helpful part of the process for me has been learning about the various paths people take to reach different careers. We all know the progression of steps required for a grad student to become a professor (post doc, impressive publications, etc.).  Even though it is a difficult path, we’ve been surrounded by academics for years, so that kind of life has a sense of familiarity to it. But the trajectory to become a project manager in public health, for example, is not so laid out, which can make the distance from grad school to that world seem vast and impassable.  Just hearing the story of how one person reached a particular career can make that path suddenly seem feasible.

There are several other benefits to informational interviewing: building a network, improving communication skills, learning what looks good on a resume for a specific job, etc. But for me, these have been tangential to the exposure informational interviewing has given me to the many possibilities for careers after grad school.

Next in the series: Part 2:  Finding people to interview