Melissa Dalgleish

Professional and Career Development Specialist at The Hospital for Sick Children

Try on Someone Else’s Life

Full coffee talks

Image, Anna Levinzon, Creative Commons

When it comes to career exploration, the one piece of advice I give to my grad students and postdocs more than any other is: Go on lots of informational interviews.

For those of you who aren't familiar with the concept, an informational interview involves buying a coffee for someone who works in a job or field in which you're interested with the aim of learning more about said job/industry and how people typically end up in it. It's no secret (or it shouldn't be) that more than 70 percent of all jobs are never publically posted — because they go to people within the hiring manager's network.

Meeting people in the field you want to move into is pretty much the only way to tap into that hidden job market. My students and postdocs know that, and yet many of them have a hard time with the idea of informational interviewing. Some are reluctant to reach out to people in the first place. Others set up meetings, but then feel like they've bombed because they don't know what questions to ask in order to learn something useful from the conversation and leave their interviewee feeling like they've been helpful. Others have conflated informational interviewing with the icky impressions they have of networking — being schmoozy, asking people for things, treating relationships as transactional. Maybe you think some of these things, too.

But what if we thought about informational interviews differently? What if we thought about them as a series of "prototype conversations"?

That term was coined by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, authors of Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life and professors at Stanford University. The big question Burnett and Evans pose in their book: What if we think about informational interviewing not as research, or as networking, but as trying on a new life for an hour? Informational interviews — or "life design interviews," as the book also calls them — become a way to prototype a career change, a way to imaginatively try on, and try out, a new career or a new life that you're interested in exploring.

The key thing about prototypes is they're iterative. You try out one thing, gather data, see what works and what doesn't, and then try out a slightly different version the next time. Say, for example, you hear through the grapevine that “Janelle,” who was a few years ahead of you in your Ph.D. program, is working as a management consultant for one of the big firms. You know a little about management consulting (great money, lots of travel, lots of Ph.D.s). You've always thought that the creative, problem-solving aspect of consulting sounded like a lot of fun and like a good fit with your skills.

So you ask your mutual friend “Tom” to connect you, and you send Janelle a quick note. Here's a script for that note, suggested by Burnett and Evans: "Hello, Janelle, I'm so glad to connect with you. Tom said you were just the person I needed to speak with. I'm very impressed with what I know of your work, and I'd love to hear some of your story. Might you have 30 minutes to spare, at a time and place convenient to you, where I can buy you a cup of coffee and hear more about your experience?" (All I would add here is that you should tailor the note to your personality and to the person you're approaching.)

You spend 30 minutes learning about Janelle's work and how she went from a doctoral program to her current job. Your conversation goes really well, and you have a great time imagining what it would be like to be Janelle the Management Consultant. You like the idea of a career path that allows you to come up with creative solutions that could have an immediate impact — especially because Janelle shares that you might have opportunities to work specifically with organizations within your field of academic expertise.

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But what you hadn’t known until you talked with her was that Janelle, like many of her consultant colleagues, is ready to get out of consulting after only five years in the field. She tells you the hours are unsustainable, there's not a lot of room to grow in her company, and some of her clients are less than admirable.

Hearing that sobering bit of information, you ask Janelle if she knows anyone who does something similar to what she does, but in a different context. She offers to put you in touch with her friend “Adil.” He works in process improvement for a pediatric hospital and research institute, and gets paid really well to collaborate with other people in the organization to solve problems. Even better, he works 40 hours a week, only travels for work a couple of times a year, and works for an organization with a mandate that he totally stands behind. You meet him for coffee, and you learn more about his work and life. And that, you think while imagining yourself in his job, sounds a lot more like the work life you’re looking for.

After a series of these life-design conversations, Evans and Burnett argue, you will eventually have prototyped your way to a career (and a life) that feels right to you. You'll sit down with someone, and find that imagining doing what they do — living how they live — feels … right. You'll have landed on the career path you want to pursue in earnest.

Even better, all of this life-design interviewing will have given you what you need to make that life real:

  • The skills to build a network and enter the hidden job market.
  • Information about how people moved into the field that you can use to craft your own entrance.
  • And an understanding of how the industry works that you can deploy when applying and interviewing for jobs.

Whatever name you use for them, informational interviews work. So if you're still wary, reframe those interviews as prototype conversations and try on someone else's life for size. You never know where a little imagining, and a few cups of coffee, might get you.

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