Information interviews — tips on how to make the most out of them

Here’s a follow-up to last week’s post about information interviews and how they can be an important part of a job search strategy.

Heather Krasna describes herself as a career coach, author, and speaker, specializing in finding “meaningful careers.”

She’s a strong believer in the usefulness of information interviews in the job seeking process as a way of building up a personal network while expanding your knowledge about organizations in the field you wish to enter.

At (April 8/11), she discusses the etiquette that governs such meetings.

As we noted last week, information interviews are not intended to be about getting a job, directly, but about finding out about how things work in an organization that aligns with your interests and values.

Two things that Heather says to remember are

  • the importance of you setting the tone as an information-seeker
  • remembering that it is your job to keep the conversation flowing

She then goes on to suggest the kinds of questions you can ask at an information interview in order to maximize the brief time that you have asked for when setting up this meeting.

Go to her website to read, “Questions to Ask During Informational Interviews”  — Heather has 18 suggested questions and conversational openings to help you prepare.

I continue to be amazed at the generosity of the career coaches I meet online. While they provide for-fee individual counselling, they also offer a great deal of free advice online, that’s available to the rest of us at the push of a button. Why not take advantage of the kindness of strangers when it comes to online coaching? —750 registered users and counting

Earlier this month, we shared news about the launch of — a free online learning platform designed to help graduate students at Ontario universities develop professional skills – no matter what profession they may choose.

The platform offers graduate students access to 18 free, self-paced modules on topics such as research management, converting a CV to a resumé, mentoring undergrads, mental health and wellness, and intellectual property. went live on Sept. 7. In the Sept. 17 issue of Canada’s University Affairs, Natalie Samson reports that in the first week of its launch, the online tool had attracted over 4,400 visitors, more than 26,000 page views and 750 registered users.

The site developers must be pleased to see such strong interest in the early going. Clearly students are voting with their feet in flocking to this site.

According to Allison Sekuler, associate vice-president and dean of graduate studies at McMaster University and one of the developers of the site, the goal of the platform is to give graduate students the opportunity to develop the skills they need to succeed “both in their graduate programs and beyond.”

She notes that, in her experience, many graduate students are “afraid to tell their faculty advisers that they don’t want to go on in academia.” Yet it is unrealistic for every graduate student to aspire to academic positions in a poor academic job market and “frankly,” she says, “a lot of graduate students don’t want those jobs anymore” anyway.

I think that Sue Horton, former associate provost of graduate studies at the University of Waterloo, is right in seeing as a supplement to, rather than a replacement for, on-campus career services, as indicated in Samson’s article.

However, it is good to know that so many students are sampling this new site and figuring out how to use it to their advantage. Self-reliance is a soft skill in and of itself, after all.

Information interviews — a job search strategy that really pays off

“Information Interview” is a term coined by Richard Bolles many years ago in his perennial job-search handbook What Colour is your Parachute? (Berkeley, CA: 10 Speed Press).  By “perennial,” I mean that Bolles has put out a new edition of this book almost every year since its first edition in 1972 and is currently at work on the 2015 edition: in one of his recent tweets (April 25/14), writes: “It’s that time of year again — working on What Color Is Your Parachute? 2015 ed. with all-new updated research!” He is both sensible and indefatigable, an enviable combination.

The information interview is just that: an interview you request with someone who is working in a field that you are interested in – in order to find out what you can about this kind of work, its greatest satisfactions (or challenges), and pathways to attaining it.

You are interviewing in order to make a networking contact, but first and foremost to find out what you would like to know about the kind of work this individual is doing. An information interview is not an attempt to wangle a job or a job interview from the person whose time you have requested. Instead you are looking for a good conversation that will provide advice and research leads as you continue your job search.

Many successful people will quite happily make time for this kind of a conversation if you mean it when you say you are interested in meeting them, are looking for information about their field, will take only a half-hour of their time, and can meet at their convenience.

For further advice, you might take a look at GradHacker columnist KD Shives’s post, “The Informational Interview: The Tool for Taking Your Career to the Next Level” (posted January 31/14).

What I especially like about this piece is Katie’s emphasis on casting a wide net, on doing your research and preparing some questions before you take up anyone’s time – and taking care to observe the time limits – i.e. if you’ve asked for 30 minutes, finish in 30 minutes!

Why bother with blogs?

It’s worthwhile thinking about the blogsphere and its utility for grad students. Blogs produced by graduate students may be highly personal and experiential in focus – useful for finding kindred spirits and especially useful when reflecting your field or area of studies. Other blogs, produced by coaches or mentors – like this this one – can be useful for accessing information and coaching tips from a professional perspective.

To get started, it’s probably worthwhile to check out a few of the more well-known and substantial blogs. Sites such as GradHacker and The Thesis Whisperer offer stories and advice from graduate students, and provide all sorts of links to other sources that may be of specific interest to you. One of the most active Canadian sites is career coach Jennifer Polk’s From PhD to Life. And there are many more out there.

The key is to search “grad studies and blogs or blogging” and identify the few that are of special interest to you and might be worth bookmarking and following with some regularity. However, time management matters here. As with any kind of research, a lot of time can be spent floating in cyberspace and tasting the fruit – while not getting a lot of other things done.

What I like to do is to follow a few that make particular sense to me at any given time. I save those links in my “favourites” bar, adding new sites as they crop up – constantly editing my favourites list as I tire of some sites and discover fresh ones. It takes me only a few minutes every day or so to check out my favourites, a little longer if I want to list or de-list items.

When I run across something I want to read in depth but don’t have time for at the moment, I send an e-mail to myself with a link in its body. On a slow day or when there is a little pocket of time (waiting rooms are good for this), you can pull up and enjoy these mini-reads – much better than those dog-eared magazines from yesteryear that waiting rooms seem to favour!


Inspiring story: Kristen Gwinn-Becker, CEO HistoryIT

At grad launch, we’re always on the lookout for stories about individuals who have carved out interesting and unexpected employment paths for themselves after completing their degrees.

In this post from the phds at work website (May 19/14), Kristen Gwinn-Becker speaks of putting her PhD in History to use by founding a software and services company that works with institutional clients in creating accessible digital archives.

Kristen sees her work as “transforming and expanding the way history is viewed, accessed, and utilized.” She characterizes her life as “the coolest” as she spends her weeks “jetting around” to view historical collections and helping to make them “really meaningful to the broader public.”

It is this last that most interests me in Kristen’s narrative. While she sees doctoral research as a great privilege and appreciated having the time to immerse herself in archives, she became uncomfortable about the way that archival records tended to be seen as only of use and meaning to researchers like herself. In her own words,

“… the more I interacted with these materials, the more I understood that this great wealth of content would be incredibly meaningful if the general public — the big, wide world of non-researchers — could search it in the same way that they search Google.”

The business that she eventually established is rooted in a mission — the alignment of personal goals with academic credentials in order to make a difference in the world at large.

Kristen does not characterize her journey as being easy or direct, but after exploring the world of academic publishing she slowly found her specialized niche, moving from a general consultancy focused on technological solutions for humanities projects to a direct focus on the world of digital archives.

Kristen’s description of a single week in her working life is remarkable — hers is a fast-paced, varied and exciting world of work.


New online site offers pro-dev tools to grad students at Ontario universities

Earlier this week, was launched to provide all Ontario graduate students with a set of free online professional skills training tools.

The Ontario Consortium for Graduate Professional Skills, a group of seven Ontario universities, developed the initiative and funding for the project was provided from the Ontario government.

According to a press release from the Council of Ontario Universities (COU), by using their university email accounts students can now “log in to view 18 short, self-paced training units.” Topics include how to write a resume, how to conduct a job search, the art of entrepreneurship, teaching and learning, and academic and professional communications. is designed to meet the needs of “those interested in a career in academia, as well as those seeking to put their credentials to use in business, government or non-profit organizations.”

The COU press release quoted PhD student Coleen Even, of the University of Waterloo (one of the universities involved in the consortium), who says:

“One of the real advantages of this modular program is that the modules are self-selected (you choose what to use) and can be pursued on a students’ own time and in relation to their own schedules. As graduate students, we don’t always have time for in-person workshops — we’re often immersed in research, traveling for field work or conferences, and teaching undergraduate students. So being able to access this sort of information online is a real plus.”

Allison Sekuler, Associate Vice-President and Dean of Graduate Studies at McMaster University and past chair of COU’s Ontario Council on Graduate Studies, led the initiative. In a post on the blog, Allison invites students to share feedback about the modules and provide ideas on future courses and site content.

For those of us dedicated to graduate student professional development, this new initiative is welcome and gratifying. It represents an important consensus on the part of Ontario universities about the need for professional training for graduate students, and demonstrates the willingness of institutional partners to invest in providing skill-building opportunities for graduate students.

It will be interesting to see how students respond to the site and its course offerings

Why graduate students need social media

We all use social media all the time: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Flickr, blogs and so on. Such sites are virtual villages, hives of social interaction, and we flock to them for fun and for information that matters to us. For the most part we use such sites as personal tools, sharing our lives with friends and finding like-minded others to connect with through our ever-growing electronic networks.

However, grad students need to become more aware of how useful social media can be for their own professional purposes, especially when it comes to connecting to those sharing research interests — and, ultimately, to those who might be interested in hiring us some day.

In a post, featured in University Affairs (November 22/13), Leah Devellis wonders why graduate students “shy away from using social media to promote themselves and their research.” Leah at that time was the coordinator of Graduate Services and Professional Development at Carleton University’s faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral studies.

She outlines five reasons why graduate students need to use social media:

  • To connect with others because “Grad school can be an isolating experience” and you need to connect with others in your field. Twitter offers countless opportunities for connecting with others who are eager to discuss research and the grad school experience.
  • To make your research accessible without waiting for publication in academic journals – a one-minute YouTube video can make what you do available “to millions” immediately.
  • To mobilize your research – how many people are going to read your thesis or dissertation, really? Leah offers tips on how to discover groups and people working in your field who will want to know about your work.
  • To establish yourself as an expert – by focusing “your social media engagement in one or two general areas.”
  • To discover alternative- or post-academic careers by identifying key players, organizations, and opportunities outside academia.

Leah advises using Facebook, Google+, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, YouTube, and other sites which provide great opportunities for enhancing your professional identity. You just need to figure out the “social media platforms that work best for you” and jump into the pool.

There’s more to read in her full post, “Grad students need social media,” as Leah expands on these points and offers some interesting examples of grad students using social media in this way.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.