By Lori Brister, PhD
There are a lot of things they don’t teach you in a humanities grad program. Despite the realities of the academic market, PhD programs still train students to compete for that handful of jobs in any given field. As I was beginning to explore paths outside academia, I realized that I lacked many of the basic professional development skills for nonacademic jobs. I could craft an impressive ten-page CV, but a one-page résumé seemed impossible. I felt confident presenting papers at conferences or defending my methodologies to my committee, but I had no experience with the pressures of nonacademic job interviews.
In order to gain solid professional experience outside the classroom, I applied for an internship with the US Department of State, where “informational interviews” are an essential part of networking. I had never even heard of informational interviews and had no idea where to start, but soon I was doing three or four per week. It was, quite honestly, exhausting, but eventually this intensive course in informational interviewing led to my first post-PhD job offer.
Here are a few things I learned over several months and dozens of informational interviews.
Make a list of people, organizations, and industries that interest you. If academia is the only path you’ve ever considered, trying to imagine yourself in other roles can be incredibly stressful. So I thought about people I admire who aren’t academics but who do meaningful work. Consider all the companies and nonprofits that share your values, even those unrelated to your field or previous experience. You’re just exploring. There’s no need to worry right now if you’d be unhappy in that job or miss teaching. Find people who have advanced degrees in your field. Try reaching out to your professors, department, alumni association, or professional organizations.
Ask someone from your list to have coffee with you to talk about his or her experiences. If you ask someone for advice right away, people will often answer, “Oh, I’m not very good at giving advice.” Instead, ask them to talk about their own experiences. People (myself included) generally enjoy talking about themselves, and it takes the pressure off being helpful or producing some kind of result. It’s just a chat over coffee.
Have a few prepared questions. Keep the list short; you’re not a reporter. Informational interviews often work best when they’re more conversational, but you don’t want to seem unprepared. Try asking how they got started in their careers. If they have advanced degrees in an academic field, ask how they transitioned from academia to corporate, nonprofit, or government positions. Then you can ask what advice they’d give to someone just starting out.
Don’t expect anything more than information. It’s not a job interview. Of course, you hope it will somehow lead to a job, or else why would you be going to all the trouble? If you expect a job offer from every informational interview, you’ll quickly get burned out. This is only preliminary research for information. If it does lead to an actual job interview, this will have helped you feel comfortable talking about your strengths, goals, and what you can bring to the table.
Ask for the names of two or three other persons you could talk to. This is the easiest part of the entire process: every time you meet someone new, ask them to suggest two to three people you could talk to. As in any other type of networking, contacts multiply exponentially.
Send a thank-you note. After the interview send a nice note or e-mail thanking the person for his or her time. This rule still stands even if the meeting was a waste of your time … and even if the person seemed rude or condescending (it happens). Try to make the note personal—if there was something that you thought stood out, write, “I’ve been thinking about what you said about….” Ask follow-up questions and keep the lines of communication open because you never know where they could lead.
Don’t lose heart. After a few months, I started to think I was wasting my time and everyone else’s, but in the end, when I did find a job, I realized there were only four degrees of separation between my initial contact from my internship and a new, rewarding career as a writer for an international humanitarian organization.
Lori Brister is a writer and donor communications officer for International Medical Corps, a global humanitarian organization. She holds a PhD in English from the George Washington University. Lori’s dissertation explores the interstices of tourism, travel literature, and visual culture from the mid-nineteenth century to the First World War. Although she has pursued a career outside of traditional academia, she continues to research and write critical essays and scholarship. You can find more about her work at www.loribrister.com.