Informational Interviews: More Than a Career Mapping Tool

Leverage the student card and the kindness of strangers in your learning

By Derrick E. Rancourt 

Professor in the Department of Oncology, Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, University of Calgary & University of Calgary Teaching Scholar

Universities do not adequately present students with an understanding of career opportunities beyond graduation1. Many students feel that they are ill prepared to approach career from a networking perspective2. To help address this issue, I have been using the informational interview as an experiential learning approach in both my undergraduate and graduate teaching to encourage students to explore career mapping. Traditionally the informational interview involves talking with people who are currently working in a career interest area to gain a better understanding of a career path or industry. It can help the interviewer to seek ideas and advice from others about career opportunities and what they need to do to get themselves ready. It is a form of networking that helps one build a network of contacts in a specific professional area. Typically, questions are asked in four general areas: Personal, Qualifications, Landscape, and Leads. Importantly, the interviewer does not ask for employment, although an informational interview may lead to an offer.

I use the informational interview in my biotechnology and bioengineering courses to help students understand the employment landscape beyond academia. I assign various career paths for students to research and to present to the rest of the class. Most of these appear in the top 20 non-academic careers (cheekyscientist.com/phd-jobs). Part of the students’ research includes identifying individuals who work in their assigned career. To assist with their networking, I introduce them to using LinkedIn as a networking tool. They are encouraged to “play the student card” and to leverage the kindness of strangers who are asked to help3. Response to this exercise has been overwhelmingly positive and has led to job and internship offers (https://cumming.ucalgary.ca/gse/professional-development/informational-interview-delivers-lucky-break).

As an experiential learning process, informational interviews are meaningful because they are motivating4. Students pay more attention while participating. Experiential learning activates both sides of the brain. it appeals to multiple intelligences and creates episodic memory. Students’ personal associations form the basis for remembering and understanding.

Based upon my experience, I would like to suggest that we consider using informational interviewing more in our teaching beyond career mapping. Many students find informational interviews especially challenging, because their comfort zone often lies in independent studies and not networked problem solving. However, I believe that it is crucial to constantly push our students out of their comfort zone and encourage them to interact with people within and outside of their disciplines. The university is rich with expertise that students often neglect. Moreover, networked problem solving can help significantly with community engagement. By pushing students outside of their comfort zone, they will grow as peers and as people5.

References 

Tomlinson M (2007) Graduate employability and student attitudes and orientations to the labour market. Journal of Education and Work 20: 285–304.

Stanbury D (2010) The kindness of strangers: how careers educators and the wider academic community can help each other. Journal of Education and Training, 52: 100–116.

Mitchell KE, Levin AS and Krumboltz JD (1999) Planned happenstance: constructing unexpected career opportunities. Journal of Counselling and Development, 77: 115–124.

Kolb DA (1984) Experiential Learning. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Simon and Schuster.

Warrell M (2013) Why Getting Comfortable with Discomfort is Crucial to Success. Forbes Online.

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