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What's An Informational Interview?

Submitted by peryan79 December 5, 2011

As we continue to post success stories from NIH alumni in our “NIH Alumni: Where are they now?” series, readers of this blog have seen and will continue to see the term, “informational interview.”  While aptly named, many readers may be asking:  What is an informational interview?  How do I set one up?  What type of questions should I ask?  What, besides information, should I expect to get out of an informational interview?

First you should understand the purpose of an informational interview.  It is to gain information, not a job.  You are asking a person who works in a field, a position or a company of interest to you about their job and career path.  The interview is not about you and your aspirations.  It is about the person you are interviewing.  However, a successful informational interview will build your knowledge base and your network by at least one person. 

So, how do you set up an informational interview?  The first step is to identify someone you want to interview.  Once you have done that, you will need to make contact with them.  The current convention for first contact is an e-mail.  In general, make it concise and to the point.  You want to respect their time.  State clearly that you are writing to ask them for an informational interview to learn more about them, their work and their career path.  Ask to meet in person or to speak on the phone for fifteen to thirty minutes.  Assure them you will not take up any more of their time and then be sure to honor that. 

Once you have set up the interview, take some time to write out your goals for the conversation and some key questions to ask.  A good list of objectives and questions can be found on the OITE website by clicking here.  However, do not go into the interview set on asking the questions in a precise order.  Let the conversation flow naturally.  If they give an answer that really intrigues you, ask them to elaborate on that particular subject.  Let the flow of the interview dictate the direction it takes.  The more comfortable the person you are interviewing is the more forthcoming and honest they will be. 

Ending an informational interview often can feel a little awkward.  A good transition to ending the interview is to ask them if they know anyone else whom you would benefit from talking to.  If they do, ask them if you can use their name when introducing yourself.  As obvious as it sounds, be sincerely appreciative of their willingness to share with you and express that gratitude at the end of the interview.  Also, send an e-mail after the interview to say thank you. 

Note:  It is often helpful to have a mutual acquaintance that can connect you with the person you wish to interview.  That is not always possible and certainly isn’t necessary.  However, if you do not know the person, you will have to write a “cold e-mail.”  We will go over tips for writing a cold e-mail in a special Friday post this week.

Friday Follow-up: Writing a Cold E-mail

Submitted by peryan79 December 9, 2011

One of the more intimidating parts of building your network is contacting people you have little or no connection to.  Before E-mail became the standard form of communication in science and business, this was even more daunting.  Making a “cold call” to a person you had never met was a scary prospect.  You never were certain how they would respond.  However, e-mail is a little less personal and thus, less of a risk.  Still, a poorly planned and constructed “cold e-mail” can get you nowhere, or worse, may actually work against you.  To make sure that your e-mail is well received and effective, follow these few tips:

Make it short and to the point:  The key principle here is respecting the reader’s time.  Everyone is busy.  No one really has the time to read a long drawn out e-mail that addresses every aspect of who you are, what you want to do with your life and the role that they can play.  Keep your initial communication on point.  Introduce yourself.  Explain that you are interested in the job that they do and how they got there.   Then, ask them for the interview.  Your entire e-mail should be no more than two short paragraphs. 

Have a clear and direct subject:  When sending an e-mail, never leave the subject line blank.  When you are contacting someone who will not recognize your name or e-mail address, make sure your purpose is clear from the subject line.  A subject line such as, “Request for Informational Interview” clearly states your purpose in writing.  If you are being referred by an acquaintance or friend of the reader, you can include your contact’s name in the subject line by writing, “Referred by John Doe:  Informational Interview.” 

Be detailed:  This may seem contradictory to making it short and to the point.  However, you can be detailed and to the point.  When you ask for the informational interview, be specific when it comes to their time commitment.  Let them know you want 15 to 30 minutes of their time.  Suggest a time frame in which to conduct the interview, such as “within the next couple of weeks,” or “between date A and date B.”  This indicates you have thought this through and shows that you are organized.  Also, show that you know something about their position or company.  Stating, “I want to be a Program Officer” only shows you know the title.  You can demonstrate a little knowledge of the field by including a comment like, “I am interested in a career that allows me to not only stay current in cutting edge research, but also be a part of moving research forward in my particular field of interest.”  However, keep it to one or two sentences.  Remember you are trying to make it short and to the point.

End with appreciation:  Even if they never respond, you should state your appreciation for them taking the time to read your e-mail.  It is amazing how far a simple “thank you” will go.  So, end your message with “I appreciate you taking the time to read my e-mail and respond.  I look forward to hearing from you soon.” 

As with all your communication, make sure that your e-mail is professional and grammatically correct.  For some tips on writing a professional e-mail, visit  Also, if you want to see an example of a cold e-mail and more tips on writing an effective one, check out this post from “Career Rocketeer.”

NIH Alumni: Where are they now? Profile 7 - International Academic Research, Israel

Submitted by peryan79 December 12, 2011

This is the seventh in a series of profiles about recent NIH postdocs who have found an array of jobs, from academia to industry to communications and beyond, in the U.S. and abroad. What do they do now, and how did they get there? What challenges did they face, and what advice do they have? Read on to find out.

Name: Mona Dvir-Ginzberg

Current position: Lecturer, Institute of Dental Science, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Location: Israel

Time in current position: 2 years

Postdoc: Histone-modifying enzymes involved in the pathology of osteoarthritis with David Hall at NIAMS

A change in path: I was very lucky during my postdoc to have made some novel observations. But I was held back by thinking it was way too early to look for jobs and that my publication record was insufficient. After my first publication, I felt more confident to start pursuing a position. At that point, I wasn’t thinking about academia at all. I wanted applicability and financial security, and industry seemed very appealing, so I began interviewing in the States and in Israel with several biotech companies.

It turned out some of the requirements did not suit my expectations. I was drawn to R&D, but some of the projects in the industry already had a product which only needed to be optimized. One company had outsourced all R&D. Others had a lot of documents and regulatory affairs, which appeared to me as being extremely technical and not very creative work.

A few friends persuaded me to look into a career in academia. In the beginning I was hesitant since I knew it would be tough and the hours would be crazy. On the other hand, the opportunity to interact with students and peers and engage in scientific research was very alluring. I could create my own research theme and still keep it applicative toward discovering new therapies. I began thinking that it might be in my reach. I started putting together an application package and sending it to suitable positions. A mentor in OITE helped me perfect my package and gave me some helpful tips on how to handle an interview. She gave me some tough love, but she did a terrific job preparing me for an academic career. Without her, I wouldn’t have a clue about interviewing or writing application packages and grants.

I learned that if you go into industry for the money and aren’t fulfilled by the work, you won’t have a long-lasting career and will feel dissatisfied. You need to look for jobs that fulfill your core needs and passions in science. It’s a metamorphosis you have to go through on your own.

How I got my job: I applied to positions in the U.S., Canada and Israel. I didn’t think I’d get anywhere with my package—I still thought I wasn’t an attractive candidate. But I heard back that I was being considered at two universities in the U.S. and Israel.

I was invited to give a talk at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. They were looking for someone with a specific expertise. At that point the institute had another candidate with a better publication record than I did. But they liked the overall impression I gave in my interview, my experience in biochemistry and epigenetics could let them open new venues in their curriculum, and my research experience complemented much of their existing research. Although I was unaware of the competition, I requested a relatively modest startup package. Three months after my interview, I was notified that the committee had unanimously accepted my application.

Surprises along the way: At a conference, someone from theU.S. university department I’d applied to let me in as to what they were looking for. They needed someone who could teach undergraduate engineering and had a strong engineering background. I hadn’t realized there were considerations other than publications. Each department’s needs are different; even if your research is in line with theirs, you may not fit other requirements.

Similarly, I gained the impression that the biotech industry doesn’t emphasize publications, and that sometimes having too many publications may be a hurdle.

A difficult adjustment: I found some things very difficult in the beginning. I needed to get a lot done. I had to set up my lab. There wasn’t a vacant space for me when I arrived, and I didn’t receive my start up package right away. I was the only woman in the institute, which was at times challenging. But the hardest thing was that I had to do it alone. As an independent PI, you’re completely isolated from the sort of community of friends you have when you’re a postdoc. I was literally an ocean apart from my friends in the U.S. The fact that you are assigned a mentor and have an institute head helps you deal with many issues, but it’s not the same level of communication you have with your colleagues and friends. You are simply expected to handle the load, and you don’t want to complain too much.

Find your support: I made it a priority to make time for my family. They energized me—they filled my batteries so I could go back in the ring. My family is my support. My mother, father, husband and children who are excited to see what I do in the lab. They keep me going through tough times. And my institute has a tremendous group of people who are very supportive and professional. They got together to help me out when I didn’t get any grants. That’s a great example of camaraderie and it shows me I work with people who want me as part of their team. You don’t want to go somewhere you’re not wanted.

Day-to-day: Now, most of my day is dedicated toward writing papers and grants and mentoring students. I have two students and a published paper; I have another paper accepted and one under review. Sometimes I indulge and join my students at the bench. I really love doing that. As part of my work, I need to teach. I teach undergrads in dental medicine and advanced students in Master’s and Ph.D. courses. I’d had a little experience teaching science enrichment for high school kids. I loved it and had no problem doing it. It’s very exhilarating. I love interacting with an audience and listening to their thoughts and ideas.

During the day unexpected responsibilities get thrown to your desk like budgeting, committee attendance, invited talks, and reviewing grants and papers. I try to plan it, but most of the time I don’t know how my day will pan out.

Essential skills: Multitasking. Working efficiently throughout the day so you can try to make time for things other than science. Trying to be courteous and patient to all the people who come to you with questions and requests. Not to lose your temper. And not taking on too many responsibilities if you think you’re maxed out. Learn to say no. We’re human. We can’t do everything.

Facing the challenge: In the beginning, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back to Israel. There are fewer resources compared to the NIH and U.S. extramural. But it occurred to me that I should turn it around for the better. There are so many talented, well-published, well-acclaimed scientists in Israel and it would be great to work with them. Here you are more prone to collaborate with people. Because of limited resources, you improve to some degree your creativity. You are always thinking of ways to overcome various hurdles. There is so much open range. Many times I have attended conferences where I may have been the only attendee from Israel doing basic research in osteoarthritis. I want to lay this foundation. I see it as a challenge.

Mona can be contacted through the OITE alumni database

Regifting! Giving You the Best Job Search Advice We Ever Received

Submitted by peryan79 December 19, 2011

It is the holiday season and we here at OITE are in a giving mood!  To show our appreciation to our readers, we have compiled some of the best job search advice we have been given.  We have wrapped them up neatly below and are regifting them to you!  Yes, we are proud regifters!  So, grab your holiday drink of choice (unless you are in the lab…no food or drink allowed), settle down in a cozy chair (or lab stool) and prepare to unwrap your gifts from us this holiday season!  Enjoy and see you in 2012!    

Your job search begins before you start looking for a job:

“The best advice I ever received is related to networking.  Think of your network as a bank.  When it is time to search for a job, you will need to make a withdrawal from your network. You need your network to work for you.  The key questions will be:  Have you invested enough in your network so you can make a withdrawal?  Did you invest in a network that will provide a good return on your investment?  

Investments can be as simple as attending someone’s seminar and asking an insightful question to volunteering to lead a project that will assist their career yet provide you invaluable experience.  So next time you hear the phrase network, network, network; think invest, invest, invest!”

“The bottom line:  A timely volunteer effort can significantly improve your professional network, while also providing relevant experience and sometimes leading directly to a job.”

Be prepared for an interview:

“Research, research, research.  Do your homework on any company to which you are applying.  This will enable to you be ready for that “what do you know about our company?” question.  Do not think that it’s unimportant.  Your answer will show initiative and solid interest.”

“Regarding interviews, someone once told me not to worry about thinking for a few moments before answering a question. Just say, ‘Great question.  Do you mind if I take a moment to think about it?’  Then genuinely think about it (probably for no more than 30 seconds) and respond. I did this once and I think it went over very well.”

Ready or not, do it anyway:

“There is never a good time to make life changes, so now is as perfect a time as later.  This piece of advice sticks with me to this day, and was a present from a faculty member during my graduate work.  He said it as I was exploring the pros/cons of getting married during grad school, but it became a mantra during my job searches later on.  As I was deciding on positions after postdoc this advice helped me to put in perspective that the transition is tough, but the goal is to keep moving forward to make my life what I want it to be.”

“The best advice I received was from the provost at University of North Carolina.  We met for an informational interview and to talk about my long-term goals. I said I was thinking of making a move in a few years and he said to apply now, even if I didn’t feel ready.  You never really feel ready or qualified enough. I took the advice and applied for two jobs. I got one and withdrew from the other search.  And, here I am.”

If you have received the gift of great advice, please “regift” it to all of us in our comment sections!  Happy Holidays!