You're finishing your program and want to find a rewarding job, but nothing seems to work. How can you improve your chances?
If only there was something to be done between filling out forms and waiting for replies, something that could help you in your pursuit. The job application process can be arduous. It doesn't help that online applications can make the process seem faceless. Maybe your strengths aren't reflected well on paper. Maybe you find your strength lies in conversation, but the job interview seems too confined and canned for you to really shine. If "networking" and "job interview" seem like mutually exclusive concepts, it is time to reconsider.
Interviews can in fact serve both of these roles. Enter: the informational interview. An informational interview is a face-to-face meeting that can be arranged even in the absence of a current job listing to which the candidate can apply. In one sense you and the employer are interviewing each other, and in another sense you are introducing yourself to a potential colleague in your field of interest. The conversational nature of this type of meeting can address the difficulties a lot of people have with the traditional job interview, while providing potential valuable insight and a connection in their chosen career. This approach can be applied in virtually any field.
A successful informational interview necessitates that the job seeker address at least three topics:
1. A summary of your professional interests, background, and intent in meeting: You will need to relate, succinctly and clearly, both what you know and what you hope to learn. In my case, I want to work in bioinformatics. Towards this end, I am developing my computational and programming skills. I could even envision what type of position would fit my needs at this point, but you don't want to let this blind you to new opportunities that may present themselves. You will also need to be able to convey why a meeting would further your interests, even without the pretense of a current job opening.
2. Identification of the parallels between the professional's career and your own: Draw connections and parallels between your goals and those of the employer or professional you are looking to sit down with. Ideally, their current job is a good answer to the question: "Where do I see myself in five to ten years?" For my part, I came into bioinformatics with a background in basic research. Recognizing this, I was able to identify others with similar career arcs, and accordingly I could ask practical questions that they themselves could identify with such as: Do you conduct your own research or do you provide core services to other labs? What resources were particularly helpful for improving your programming skills? And what programming language do you work with the most? Remember, you are building a personal relationship even though, at the end of the day, you are also angling for a job.
3. The ability to talk shop and demonstrate your knowledge of the work being done at the company or lab: Address what the lab or company is working on, and why it is of interest to you. It is always valuable to convey you have put in the time to research what the employer works on, but this can also nudge the conversation towards other labs or departments and broaden its scope to the organization or field in general. This provides you with valuable information about local opportunities in your field, and it can increase the chances that you are referred to someone else in a related position. Finally, being able to "talk shop" about your field in a convincing manner can be the unheralded skill that makes your meeting more candid and subsequently more insightful. Knowing some of the jargon, and being careful to use this effectively within the scope of your own understanding, can demonstrate you already have some awareness of or at least interest in what issues are topical, what the trends are, and where field seems to be headed.
One of the unique strengths of the informational interview is it gains momentum quickly. One meeting leads to another as you are referred to new professionals in your field. As you navigate this process, be strategic about the impression you make. Have your CV handy for the end of the conversation, as they may be interested in seeing this, or they may have a colleague to pass your CV on to.
E-mail may be the only way to reach an employer initially, and for the informational interview it should have a few specific features to maximize your chances of hearing back. Inclusion of the simple sentence: "[Name of reference] referred me to you based on my interests in [your field]" in the first opening lines of an e-mail can do wonders to warm a cold correspondence. This becomes easier as the people you meet with refer you to others. Additionally, make it clear that even if there is no predefined job to which you can apply, you want to meet with the recipient, and this meeting will invariably further your interests. The inclusion of a resume or CV should be considered carefully, at least with the initial e-mail. If the recipient is busily scanning his inbox, it can leave him or her with the wrong impression and they won’t bother responding they aren't looking to hire. But certainly have a CV or resume handy when you go in for the interview itself.
While it can take some time to reflect on and address the points above, it is likely you will find the informational interview strategy a great time investment for the effort you put in. You don't have to stop applying to jobs via traditional applications, but bear in mind there are other ways of working towards the same end. People tend to be receptive if you show interest in their work, and furthermore that a sit-down will be beneficial no matter what. And who knows, it may turn out there is in fact need for a new hire that hasn't been posted yet, in which case you can benefit from advance notice or, if all goes well, they may even tailor the listing to your individual skillset when they realize you are in fact the team addition they didn't know they needed.