10  – Find a job 16 times faster thanks to informational interviews

10 – Find a job 16 times faster thanks to informational interviews

Tap into your extended network to find suitable professionals; Express interest in their story; Ask for insider tips & contacts 



Informational interviews are simply going out and meeting professionals who hold a job you’re interested in, to find out how they got there and how you could, too. I wrote ‘simply’, but most researchers are terrified of leaving the safety of their computer and of contacting real people.

Worry not, we'll learn a simple 3-step procedure for obtaining informational interviews and making the most of them. But first, let's see why they are so much more efficient than replying to job ads.


If you only apply for advertised jobs, you’ll only have access to 10% of jobs 

Job ads are the worst recruitment method, both for recruiters and candidates. If you don’t understand why, imagine you had to decide to get married and have kids with someone you came across on a social network, just on the basis of a 40-min interview…

You’d hate that, wouldn’t you? Well, hiring someone is almost as sensitive – your well-being and safety depends on them.

This, in a nutshell, is why only 20% of job openings are advertised. Recruiters prefer to hire known quantities, identified thanks to their contacts.

To make matters worse, of the few people who are hired through job ads, half come recommended.  So, if you don’t know the recruiter and don’t come recommended, you only have access to… 10% of jobs

As you can see, replying to ads is a much worse strategy for finding a job than most people realize. Fortunately, there’s a much more efficient strategy: informational interviews. 


Informational interviews are 16 times more efficient than replying to job ads


George Clooney, Bradley Cooper and Brad Pitt

Here's the competition when you reply to job ads


There's no competition when you do informational interviews - come as you are :-)


Here’s a question for you. Where would I stand the most chances of finding a date:

   A) At a night-club where Bradley Cooper and George Clooney came along with me?
   B) At an artistic retreat where I’m the only man?


If you answered A), you’re very kind (I’m happily married, by the way :-).

If you answered B), you get the picture: replying to job ads is like being in a night club with a lot of competitors. In contrast, with informational interviews, there is no competitor, since you’re the only one who made the effort to visit. Accordingly, informational interviews are 16 times more efficient than replying to job ads.

You can see why intuitively: a job posted online routinely attracts 200 CVs… So even if you replied to one ad a day, it'd still take you 200 working days (i.e. a year) to find a job. Whereas on average after meeting only 12 professionals for informational interviews, you’ll hear about a job opening and get the job.


That’s the reward for leaving the safety of your computer. So, let’s see 3 simple steps for obtaining and carrying out informational interviews:

  1. Identify suitable professionals by working your way up your acquaintances’ contacts;
  2. Send them a brief e-mail expressing an interest in their career path;
  3. During the interview, ask about your suitability, insider tips, and other contacts. 


1) Identify professionals in your desired job by working your way up your acquaintances’ contacts

Finding professionals willing to be interviewed is much easier than you’d think. Here’s why.


You’re connected to most professionals by no more than 3 mutual acquaintances

Graph showing that any two people are connected through at most 6 mutual acquaintances
Any two people are connected through surprisingly few mutual acquaintances


Have you heard of the phrases ‘6 degrees of separation’ or ‘Small world’? They mean that any two people on earth are separated at most by 6 mutual connections, as studies have found.
But these 6 degrees are between you and someone very remote (say Papua New Guinea). In a professional environment, there are generally at most 3 degrees of separation. LinkedIn makes it apparent: have you noticed how you’re sometimes separated from rather powerful people by only 3 connections?


You’re connected to Bill Gates by only 3 degrees

As an example, I’ve worked at the Wellcome Trust, the largest research charity after the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation. I knew the Wellcome Trust’ boss in passing. He knew Bill Gates. So, if you know me through a course… you’re only separated from Bill Gates by 3 degrees! :-).

Of course, in general you don't know who these connections are. Here's how to find them.


Start by identifying professionals who match a few of your criteria, then progressively narrow down your search 


First identify interviewees in your desired sector - they will direct you to other interviewees who match more, and ultimately all, of your criteria...


First, choose a job you want to find more information about. Let’s imagine you’d like to work in a bioremediation start-up, doing R&D (research & development), in California.

That’s very specific, right? It consists of 4 criteria:

  • sector (bioremediation)
  • type of company (start-up)
  • job category (R&D)
  • location (California)


Of course, it’s unlikely that your entourage knows someone who works precisely in such a job. Therefore, you should first try to identify professionals that only match a few of these elements, and progressively narrow down your search until you find one that matches all these criteria.

For example, imagine your former supervisor knows someone in a bioremediation start-up in Germany. They match two criteria out of four, so interview them, following tips #2 and #3 below. Since it’s a small world, they're bound to have a contact in a bioremediation start-up in the US, say in Chicago.

You get the picture: interview that second contact. Since they're in the US, they will most likely know someone in a bioremediation start-up precisely in California. Bingo! You can now do an informational interview with someone who works in your dream job.

Now let’s see how to harness your entourage to get informational interviews.


Ask literally everyone you know if they know someone who works in your desired job 

To find suitable interviewees, you should rely on your entourage (on average about 200 people). That is, ask all your friends, colleagues and acquaintances if they know a person who matches at least one criterion of your desired job, as explained above. More likely than not, one of them will.

To increase your chances, also ask people you meet at social events (parties, congresses). It’s a great icebreaker in reply to the question “What do you do?”, and people love to help, as it makes them feel good about themselves.


If you don’t know where to start, approach people like you

If you did not manage to identify someone suitable and really don't know where to start, approach people who have something in common with you.

For example, if you're Scottish or Armenian, contact somebody in your chosen sector who’s from Scotland or Armenia. If you're a woman, contact a woman. If you've worked in an NGO before, approach someone who's also worked in an NGO. And of course, approach alumni from your university.

Why? It's human nature – we want to help people who are like us. I'm not saying to not approach others, on the contrary – but if you have no network to call on, start with people who have something in common with you.

OK, once you’ve found suitable prospects, here’s how to contact them.


2) Send prospects a brief email expressing interest in their career path

Ideally, your interviewee should be 2 to 5 years more senior than you, so they will relate to your case and be happy to help. Write them a very brief email (5-8 sentences, as below) to ask if they'd have time to answer a few questions about their job during lunch, coffee, or on the phone. Click ‘send’. That's it! :-)


 Example of mail to solicit an informational interview

 Contact following the advice of X, for lunch/coffee to learn about your position

Hi Dr. Z. I'm contacting you following the advice of X, who sends her regards.

I am a PhD candidate at Berlin University working on... I want to work in an R&D position in a bioremediation start-up. I’d like to learn more about how others – including you  have made this transition.

I noticed that after your postdoc, you moved to industry, and your work focuses on [same topic as me]. I would love to hear your story, learn a little bit about your job, and how R&D is carried out in a start-up like yours.

Would you be able to meet for lunch or coffee, perhaps Thurs or Fri afternoon this week or next week?

Thanks in advance, looking forward to hearing from you."

This template works very well because it offers value to the recipient, in the form of interest in their story, so don't agonize about it – writing it should take you only 10 minutes!

If they don’t reply, resend exactly the same email 3 weeks later. You’ll be surprised by how often they reply this second time – they were simply busy and let your email slip.


Say you’re looking for advice, not a job

When contacting someone for an informational interview, NEVER say you're looking for a job (even if you are). Instead, say you want to understand what's out there. This is because everybody hates to say "no" to someone, so they'll be a lot more willing to meet you if they know you won't ask for a job.


Mention in the header the contact who introduced you

If the contact who introduced you gives you permission, mention their name in the email header, as in the example above, and cc' them. This almost guarantees a reply, often within 48h. That’s how much people want to be seen as serviceable.


Now let’s see what questions to ask during the interview.


3) Ask about your suitability, insider tips, and further contacts

Informational interviews are enjoyable - they're also called 'coffee chats'


Here are some examples of questions to ask. If the interview is meant to be short, e.g. a phone call, send 5-7 select questions in advance, so that the interviewee has time to think about them.


Your suitability

The informational interview is a fantastic opportunity to get feedback regarding your suitability and to fine-tune your CV.

Some questions you may ask:

  • What are the pros and cons of the job (e.g. lifestyle, career development)?
  • How can one land in this job?
  • Would you mind looking at my CV and giving me feedback?
    • Is my profile suitable?
    • What in my experience should I emphasize?
    • What skill needs developing?


Insider tips

During job interviews, there are often questions related to your knowledge of the sector. If you’ve never worked in it, you will struggle to answer them. Again, informational interviews are a great opportunity to gather answers about these questions, so you can ace future job interviews.

Some questions you may ask:

  • What are the main opportunities for the company in the next 5 years?
  • What are the main threats in the next 3 years for your star product?
  • What range of salary can I claim?


Further people to contact for informational interviews

At the end of the interview, ask about other people you should meet based on your interests and profile. You may also ask about job openings they’ve heard of in their sector, but refrain from asking specifically about job openings in their company; if they like you, they’ll share that information.

Some questions you may ask:

  • Would you suggest a few people who might be willing to see me and provide additional information?
  • May I use your name when I contact them?

For most interviews, you'll leave with one or two contacts, meaning you'll soon have an exponential number of contacts to interview. After meeting 12 professionals only on average, you'll hear of a job opening, apply, and get the job!

(Of course, ask the interviewee who tell you about the job opening if you can mention their name when you apply – this doubles your chance of success).


    Informational interviews also work for academia

    The example I used is non-academic, but informational interviews work just as well for academia. For example, imagine that you’re in the interview panel to recruit an assistant professor. Wouldn’t you be impressed by a candidate who would say:

    “When researching this career, I have met 12 assistant professors and professors over 2 years. From discussions with them, I have understood that the main qualities to succeed in this job are: …”

    This statement would prove both the candidate's interest in being a professor and their knowledge of the corresponding requirements, wouldn’t it? Yet in case you’re still hesitant, let’s deal with a few common objections.



    Objections corner

    “I’m afraid of bothering people”

    Wouldn’t you help people if they approached you? Of course you would, right? Same for the people you will contact.

    “Won’t people I contact remember me and hate me for life?”

      Would you remember someone who contacted you for advice if you didn’t reply to it? Of course not. The worse that can happen is that they won’t open your email. 


      If informational interviews are so easy and efficient, why isn't everyone doing it?

      Why, on a CV, does almost everybody write their name larger than the CV’s title, when they should obviously do the opposite? Because that’s the academic way of doing things and most researchers never give it a thought!

      That’s why this blog gives you a genuine competitive advantage: it provides you with out-of-the box methodologies derived from what works, not just what’s always been done.

      So, leave the security of being behind your computer and contact people for informational interviews. It’ll get you closer to the job of your dreams, I promise :-).


      Image for 6 degrees of separation: Wikimedia Commons
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