I am a sucker for an online personality quiz. They are about as accurate as a newspaper horoscope, but they’re a fun way to reflect on what I already know about myself—or would rather not admit. I was chagrined recently when I took a long personality quiz only to discover that my TV-character match is Chidi Anagonye, the extraordinarily indecisive but rules-bound philosophy professor from the sitcom The Good Place. This match makes sense. I like order, and I like to understand what makes people tick. I’d like to think that I’m not as indecisive as Chidi, although my family might disagree.
But how do we answer deeper questions, such as what we really want to do in our careers? As chemists, we might ask questions such as: What kind of chemistry do I like best? If I hate the project that I am working on as an undergraduate, does this mean that I am not cut out for laboratory research? Am I too outgoing to work in chemistry? What if I don’t enjoy writing grant proposals—what does this mean for my potential as an academic researcher?
I think that informational interviews—conversations for learning about a job or potential career path—are a phenomenal tool for figuring out what we want to do. Talking with someone for 30 min–1 h about their job is a great way to gain insights into how knowledge, skills, and personality fit into a role in an organization and also helps build a relationship with a person in your field of interest.
If you are a student or a postdoc, a great place to seek out informational interviews is through your professors. If you’re interested in an adjacent field of chemistry, ask your professors if they know anyone who might be in that field, and get that person’s contact information. Better yet, ask your professor to make an email introduction for you. Ask your interviewee for 30 min of their time to share how they got their job and what recommendations they might have for someone who’d like to follow the same path. Most people will be honored to be asked to do this. They may also have asked others for informational interviews and will enjoy the opportunity to pay it forward.
Go into the conversation prepared and curious. Remember that you are the interviewer, so you get to ask questions, and you can control the pace and focus of the conversation. Pay close attention to the intangible aspects of a job, such as your interviewee’s level of work satisfaction and their aspirations beyond their current role. Ask them about the most difficult aspects of their job and what causes them the most stress. These insights could help you determine whether your personality might fit into such a role.
As I have moved from being an entry-level industrial chemist to the midcareer space, I’ve found that informational interviews are indispensable. Before I transitioned into a new role at my company, for example, I spent hours talking with people who had many years of experience in a similar role and got their advice on what pitfalls I should avoid. Three years later, I still remember the advice of a senior director who told me about disagreements he had with his supervisor. His anecdotes prepared me for future conflicts with my own leadership and how to navigate them.
My final recommendation for informational interviews is to always treat them as the beginning of a relationship and not as a single event. While it might be tempting to ask your interviewee if they have an opening, this diverts your attention from the point of the conversation, which is to draw out the wisdom and the experience of the person you’re interviewing and to help you determine whether their career path might be one that you’re interested in pursuing. Treat these interviews not as a way to get a particular job but as an opportunity to learn something about a new career path and to expand your network. I promise that in the process, you’ll also learn something about yourself.
Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.