As a graduating senior, one of the most valuable tools for my job search has been the informational interview. In this post, I will guide you through the process of requesting and conducting an informational interview by sharing my personal experience. At the end, I have included an excerpt from my interview with Skylar Hawthorne so you can get a feel for what it looks like, and learn about her data curator position with me!
An informational interview is a short, 30-60 minute conversation with someone who is in a position, company, or field that you are interested in. It is not a request for a job, but a chance for you to make a valuable connection and learn more about the individual and their position and experiences.
Requesting an informational interview
In my case, I had noticed that Skylar, who went to the same high school as me, had posted on social media about working on a large transgender research study at her job. I was so excited to reach out – I am currently working with LGBTQ+ data in my position as a research assistant, which I deeply enjoy. I sent Skylar a message telling her I had seen her post and would love to learn more about her position considering our shared interests, and we arranged a virtual meeting for later that week. If you are wondering how to find someone with similar interests to you, LinkedIn and Husky Mentor Network are two great places to start!
Before the interview
Before speaking with Skylar, I made sure to make a brief list of questions that I could keep in mind during our conversation. I researched a bit about the organization she works with and reviewed her LinkedIn profile for a better understanding of what I wanted to gain from our conversation. You can find ideas about what kinds of questions to ask in this Informational Interview & Job Shadowing Guide.
Conducting the interview
When it was time for our call, I found a quiet place free of distractions and made sure I was wearing a business-casual top and looked presentable as if I were having an interview. I kept a notepad and pen nearby. I explained a bit about myself and why I was interested in Skylar’s experiences. I let the conversation flow naturally, occasionally referencing my list of questions to make sure I didn’t forget anything. It was so much fun to speak at length about social research and data with someone who is as passionate about it as I am! Once you start speaking to people in your desired field, you will find that they are often more than happy to talk about their experiences, which is nice to keep in mind if you are nervous.
What I learned
I learned about a position that I had not previously considered for myself and was surprised at how closely it aligns with what I am looking for. I also made an amazing new connection with someone in my desired field and even learned about future positions in her organization. Skylar was kind enough to give her permission to share an excerpt of our interview in this post, so you can learn more about her position too! Thank you so much, Skylar!
A Bit About Skylar’s Experience as a Data Curator
Question: Can you explain a little bit about your position and where you work?
Skylar’s answer: “I am a data curator for ICPSR at the University of Michigan. That lengthy acronym, ICPSR, stands for the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research. The consortium consists of roughly the top thousand universities in the world. At ICPSR, we collect the data from their ground-breaking research and store them in our archive – the world’s largest and highest quality social science data archive. Personally, I review, clean, recode, and verify the research data to optimize it’s reusability.”
Q: What does a typical workday look like for you?
A: “Since every research study is unique, every workday is unique. Some studies come to us in better shape than others and require less work. Others are… messy, or time-intensive. For example, if there’s qualitative data with extremely long open-ended responses, I’ll have to export that qualitative data to a CSV file because it would get truncated in statistical packages like SPSS or Stata. Some studies contain sensitive data, and I’m responsible for ensuring the safety and anonymity of the respondents. Sometimes, I’ll blanket mask certain variables. Other times, I’ll strategically redact certain responses. My favorite response that I’ve ever had to redact wound up like this: ‘I don’t care about privacy and my name is [redacted].’”
Q: How did you get into this line of work?
A: “I got my degrees in Philosophy and Psychology but my senior year, I took a computer science class and fell in love with the logic puzzles of coding. So I completed a data science bootcamp online and developed solid coding skills. I was applying to every job I was even slightly qualified for but when I saw this job posting, I felt like it was perfect for me. It enabled me to combine my interest in coding with my passion for psychological research. So I poured my heart into the cover letter and thankfully landed the position!”
Q: What is changing in your company and in the field in general due to the pandemic?
A: “My institute went totally remote as soon as the pandemic began. Well, there are some senior-level employees who go into the office for security reasons (we have some extremely sensitive, restricted data that can only be viewed in the security of our basement data enclave), but pretty much all 156 of us are working from our home computers. Most of us write code or do other introverted work, so the pandemic hasn’t affected us much. In fact, some of the top data scientists at the institute have run analyses on our productivity and determined that working from home has not affected it to a statistically significant extent!”
“As for what’s changing in my field, a lot. ‘Data’ might be the hottest buzzword right now and we’re the world leader in social science data. Just 2 years ago, there were only about 10 people in my position. Now there’s 40 of us and soon to be 50!”
Q: What is your favorite part of your job?
A: “My favorite part of the job is getting to work with some of the coolest research in the world. I’ve curated data on death-row inmates from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, self-perceptions of creativity from Yale, and post-secondary education from Columbia. However, the most meaningful data I’ve worked with is on transgender people from UCLA. I am transgender myself, and I’m honored to have been able to do something for my community.”
Conducting this informational interview was such a great experience for me, and I highly recommend putting yourself out there and making some connections that align with your own interests.