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CAREER ADVICE

Informational interviews can prepare students for our hypercompetitive economy

The importance of putting students in the (career) driver’s seat.

By DERRICK E. RANCOURT | MAR 12 2019

The much-talked about skills gap at universities is actually a “skills awareness gap.” Competency mapping was not critical when students were promoted within academic institutions, but these days, those jobs are limited. Non-academic employers do not understand the professional skills students acquire inside universities, and students struggle to articulate them. One way to resolve this is to have students conduct informational interviews. These interviews promote professional skill awareness, and help students to reflect on, recognize and communicate their achievements and underlying skills to employers.

Due to significant hidden job markets, it has become common practice to advise graduate students to perform 100 informational interviews rather than submitting 100 job applications. After teaching my undergraduate and graduate students how to reach working professionals using LinkedIn and other channels, I require them to perform informational interviews with working professionals based on randomly-assigned careers.

Although students are free to choose their own career path, I prefer to have them think outside the box (i.e not go the traditional route of grad school to postdoc to possibly faculty member) and to see the vista of opportunities in business, regulatory affairs and finance. Frequently, biomedical students are too focused on technical positions, which are limited in number. I encourage my students to get out of their comfort zone, because it makes this experiential learning process more effective. Last semester, my biomedical engineering graduate students presented What Can You Be with a Grad Degree?, a symposium that shared 27 “new” careers with peers in other biomedical programs.

In my opinion, wayfinding must have a starting point: the discipline. It is not good enough for universities to set up career counselling centres, which usually offer general career advice. Programs need to go beyond the obvious, exploring industries where discipline-specific knowledge is leveraged. Students can then see that it is possible to abandon the sunk-cost fallacy of their education and to pivot to interesting careers based upon their professional skills.

Most students will not perform informational interviews when suggested by career counselors because it is not high on their list of priorities, compared to exams, assignments, etc. Perceiving a socio-evaluative threat, they are also reluctant to seek advice for fear of looking incompetent. Research suggests that seeking advice is a surprisingly effective strategy for students to exercise influence when lacking authority. This explains why many interviewees become champions, investing themselves into the career aspirations of their student interviewers, offering leads, letters of support, mentoring, job shadowing, internships and employment. Students “play the student card” and receive positive feedback from interviewees who are impressed with the assignment.

Feedback from students on this assignment has been extremely positive. Students show significant improvements in understanding career and competency mapping. For many, informational interviews become a new tool: Some use informational interviews to strengthen their medical school and residency applications. One graduate now insists that her high school hockey protegés use informational interviews to find opportunities on university teams insisting that coaches are more impressed with this than the usual “helicopter parents.”

Informational interviews can also be used to improve entrepreneurship and research questions. Used along with storyboards (i.e., a sequence of drawings, typically with some directions and dialogue), informational interviews can be a powerful approach to elicit feedback from potential stakeholders on complex ideas. Because Finance Minister Bill Morneau is advising students to consider a revolving door of freelance work, I challenge my biomedical engineering students to imagine a business they would do if they could not find a job: I ask them to pull their unique interests and acumen into a business model that they storyboard and share with a trusted adviser. In one successful concept last year, a student procured an internship with a local non-profit based upon her idea to help Calgarians better coordinate their caregiving for autistic children.

Many institutions have responded to the so-called skills gap by introducing work-integrated learning opportunities, such as co-ops, practicums, and internships into the curriculum. Although suitable for professional programs, universities do not have the capacity to implement this approach broadly, even if it is resourced by government. The stress we anticipate could be relieved considerably by embedding informational interviews into the curriculum. Informational interviews are resource neutral (the only challenge is coming up with a list of discipline oriented careers) and will give students a chance to develop their own work-integrated learning opportunities, freeing up coordinator time for quality control and stakeholder management.

Currently, 73 percent of the workforce are in jobs not related to their study area, leading to feelings of unfulfillment and mental health issues. Too many jobs are being procured through happenstance. With universities’ value proposition now being scrutinized, it is time we teach students to become masters of their own destiny. By putting students into their own career driver seat, we will produce more satisfied, successful and university-engaged alumni.

Derrick Rancourt is a stem cell biologist and professor in the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary. He is an entrepreneurial scientist and director of Alberta’s Genome Engineering Centre. He teaches biotechnology business and professional development and serves on the Alberta Council of Technologies.

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  1. Helen Miliotis / March 13, 2019 at 20:50

    Embedding informational interviews into the curriculum is a very effective way to have students practice communication, networking, and uncover new insights into career paths. In our experience at the University of Toronto, many students initially feel this task is outside their “comfort zone”, but with our guidance, they feel it’s a rewarding experience that teaches them more than we can deliver in the classroom. A great article that highlights such an effective component of students’ professional development.

  2. Ludwig Neyses / March 14, 2019 at 04:44

    In my view this is one of the most insightful comments I have ever read about student career counselling. The practice of such intrviews is not only training but a way to slowly find on’s own way in life by a. reflecting what to say; and then, b. importantly, formulate these reflections which will make them much clearer.

    I often conduct similar informational interviews in my daily activity, but Dr. Rancourts advice to replace large numbers of often futile job appplications by a prelimiary series of informational interviews seems to me a great way forward for many students. The approach, however, begs the question as to who has the time and stamina to conduct such a large number of interviews….
    Ludwig Neyses
    Former Chair of Medicine/Cardilogy, University of Manchester, UK
    Former Vicepresident and Acting President, University of Luxembourg
    (see also my linkedIn site)

  3. Derrick Rancourt / March 15, 2019 at 14:21

    Ludwig

    Thanks for your comments. In their very important book Designing Your Life, Burnett and Evans suggest that it is more productive to perform 100 informational interviews than applying for 100 jobs. It’s just as much work to customize 100 cover letters and resumes and manage 100 applications. In fact its less productive because there can be 1000’s of competing applications which are screened by robots. If your application doesn’t hit the right buzzwords, it is rejected. In sharp contrast, contacts that are made via informational interviews are living provided you do some work to manage them (LinkedIn helps with that). The network that students build will have a multiplier effect a concept that LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman call “I to the power of we”.

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