As an IT project manager I spend a lot of time in “as-is” process mapping meetings and they are more interesting than the name may suggest. To start with, they happen to be a key component of software development and during such a meeting you will normally sit down with people and ask them about the parts of their day job that may be affected by the new software. It’s called “as is” because before we put in a new piece of software that will affect how they do room bookings (as an example), I need to be able to understand what they do at the moment and how the software will fit into their daily working patterns and whether there is any room for improvement. These meetings will usually be facilitated by a business analyst who will help translate aspects of somebody’s day job into a step-by-step process. I find participating in those meetings fascinating, they are like a little window into people’s different realities. Why would I be talking about process mapping on a blog that focuses on post-PhD transitions, though?
I’ve been reflecting on a couple of “as-is” mapping meetings recently and thinking that it would have been great to sit in on a couple of those last year as I was going through my job hunt. To start with, it would have helped me develop a more discerning approach in terms of deciding whether it was worth to spend my time applying for a particular job. Last year I spent a significant chunk of time pursuing some administrative positions that in retrospect I was fairly ill-suited for, only because the jobs offered were permanent and at least on paper I met the essential and desirable criteria. I ended up getting to an interview stage for a couple of them and then discovering, to my dismay, that even if I got offered the job, I would really struggle as the role was fairly procedural with few opportunities to introduce my own initiatives or be involved in developing project, which is where my strengths lie. Obviously, for somebody who is very detail-oriented and happy following step-by-step processes, these administrative posts would have been a dream come true!
Obviously, process mapping is quite a specialised way of learning about the ins and outs of a particular role and I wouldn’t particularly recommend going down that route unless you are considering a career as business analyst or software developer. But there is something to be said for undertaking thorough research when applying for jobs and an excellent, yet underused way to understand the day-to-day reality of what a particular job involves is through informational interviews. It is my number one recommendation to my coachees seeking career transitions and it is actually something I started doing myself towards the end of my job hunt. The process helped me decide that strategic project management roles were probably not the best fit for me as they relied a lot on “flying solo” and I very much wanted to be part of a team, which happens to be the best part of my current job as an IT project manager.
As I mentioned, I encourage my coachees to undertake informational interviews regardless of whether they are keen on academic roles or perhaps considering leaving academia. In fact, I wish I had spoken to a couple of academics during my own PhD as that would have saved me some heartache and come to terms much earlier with the realisation that there were aspects of academic life that didn’t sit too well with me. Equally, for other people, having that conversation may well mean that they are going into an academic job hunt with a good understanding of what is at stake and are willing to make the necessary sacrifices such as having to spend some time piecing together teaching and research work and perhaps having to move around in search of a lectureship. Talking to people who already have a job you would like to have will help you understand whether it is worth shelling out for additional qualifications, learn about the typical career path, expectations of employers, particular keywords which will make your prospective employer feel that you do understand the sector and so on.
So how do you go about setting an informational interview? Personally, I found LinkedIn and Twitter useful for identifying people and I find that the best approach is via email, where you send a short message asking if the person you want to get in touch has time for 20-30 minutes coffee or phone call at their convenience, explaining that you are seeking to change careers or find out about their particular sector and would really appreciate their time. Work with their availability, buy them a coffee if this is a face-to-face meeting and most importantly, come prepared! A lot of people, myself included, prefer getting the questions prior to the meeting and so you may want to ask about that in your introductory email. Do explain you are not explicitly looking for a job and don’t expect them to provide one and most importantly, thank them for their time and send a quick follow-up email; after all, they may become part of your extended network which is a topic for yet another post. And remember that at the end of the day, most people really like talking about themselves and rarely get a chance to talk about the ins and outs of their roles, I certainly welcome those enquiries and see them as a chance to pay back for the help I received from others in the past.
Have you ever undertaken an informational interview and have any tips you would like to share? Have you found them helpful in your job hunt?