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Career planning as a graduate student can feel overwhelming, particularly if you’re interested in multiple career paths. Investigating and exploring what’s out there is something you can do alone, but a powerful way to save time and gain first-person insight into different lines of work is through informational interviewing.

An informational interview is basically a conversation with someone whose career trajectory you’d like to emulate. Unlike a job interview, the goal of an informational interview is not a job offer but simply an exchange of information. Do you have questions about a particular industry, what skills are needed in particular positions, or about a typical career progression for a certain type of job? An informational interview is where you can ask those career-related questions to the people who know best.

Identifying someone to conduct an informational interview with is the first step. It’s often easiest to start with someone you already know, such as a recent alum, a former supervisor, or a fellow member of a scholarly organization. Don’t be discouraged if you think your network feels small–it’s probably bigger than you think, and each person in your current network is also a potential source of referrals.

So how do you reach out to members of your network (or their referrals) to set up an informational interview? Be sure to keep your initial communication short — a brief email is usually your best bet. Indicate who you are (think of a tailored “pitch” about yourself), how you have a connection with them, and why you are reaching out. You need  not call it an informational interview in your email, but instead request a chat, a chance to hear about their experience, a conversation about their career path, etc. Most people are happy to talk about their career paths and respond positively to such requests!

If you’ve never done an informational interview before or are nervous at the prospect of doing one, it’s useful to break the process  into three steps: preparation, the interview itself, and follow-up

In preparation for the interview, create a list of open-ended questions and prioritize them. (The Career Center has a list of Questions to Ask During an Informational Interview if you’re not sure what to ask.) Do some research about the person and the organization they work at–this is key to making a good impression and can make the interview more like a two-way conversation. Think about how to succinctly introduce yourself, verify the time and place (or platform), and be on time.

During the conversation, be sure to thank the person for their time and effort, use your tailored pitch to reintroduce yourself and explain why you reached out (i.e. what knowledge or experience they have that you’re looking to learn more about). Be sure to stick to the time you agreed on, and most importantly, always end the conversation by asking, “Is there anyone else you think I should talk to?” This person is or has just become a contact, so let them give you referrals to grow your network even further!

The part after the interview (the follow-up) can feel the most open-ended and uncertain. Of course you should send a personal thank-you email, but how do you meaningfully stay in touch? Connecting on LinkedIn is important but not sufficient. Keep a record of contacts and when you spoke last. You might stay connected to them through common interests. For example, you could send a contact an article related to your conversation (“I thought of you when I read this article because…”). Let them know any updates about you, and tell them about events you’re interested in that they also might be planning to attend.

If you’d like to strategize or get help with networking and informational interviews, there are many campus resources for you. Consult a PhD counselor from the Career Center or schedule a consultation with GradPro. Read the Career Center’s page on Informational Interviewing. Use this tracking sheet designed by QB3 and GradPro to keep a record of your contacts, get ideas for interview questions, and keep track of your pre- and post-interview checklist. Use the @cal Career Network to find a database of Cal alumni who have volunteered to share their experiences through informational interviews.

There are many people who are interested in helping you as you forge your path, so take a deep breath and reach out!

Alicia Roy holds a Ph.D. in German from UC Berkeley and is a Hitchcock Postdoctoral Fellow in the GradPro office of the Graduate Division.