ABC’s of informational interviews in the public health world, with Shanna Shulman

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On today’s episode Sujani speaks with Shanna Shulman about informational interviews. Informational interviews are very important and key to a successful career, whether it’s in public health or not. Shanna gives us the rundown of what informational interviews are, how to do them, share her experience, and a whole lot more insight into the topic including some homework for you.

Grab a notebook and let’s get into it.

What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

  • What is an informational interview?
  • Shanna’s story of using informational interviews in her career, specifically how she’s leveraged them to achieve certain objectives
  • Why you should conduct informational interviews? Specifically discussing the following four categories: to find a job, to understand your sector’s landscape, to assess your fit, and to build your professional network.
  • At what point during your career should you conduct informational interviews?
  • Barriers people (especially students) face when conducting informational interviews.
  • The importance of informational interviews for a public health since it is to our advantage for our work to know as many people in the sub disciplines of public health.
  • Shanna’s thoughts on whether you are “bothering” people when reaching out to chat through informational interviews
  • Why informational interviews are so critical for students.
  • Who should you do informational interviews with and how do you go about executing one? We discuss an easy to follow process.
  • Tips on how to reach an individual for an informational interview, including a sample email you could send, and vest practices on following up.
  • How to make the best of the time you do get with a contact for an informational interview (what to talk about!).
  • Memorable interviews Shanna has had, both positive and negative.
  • Homework to get you started on informational interviews!

Today’s Guest:

Shanna Shulman, PhD, is the Director of Health and Medical Research at the Richard and
Susan Smith Family Foundation where she directs the Foundation’s health-related portfolio of
grants and initiatives. Prior to this, Dr. Shulman was Managing Director of the Boston
Children’s Hospital Center of Excellence for Pediatric Quality Measurement where she co-led
the development of new quality of care measures for broad national use. Dr. Shulman was
previously Director of Policy and Research at the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts
Foundation where she was responsible for assessing cost, access, and health outcomes
resulting from Massachusetts’ landmark 2006 universal health care law. Dr. Shulman was also
Senior Researcher at Mathematica Policy Research in Cambridge where she directed
evaluations of large-scale public health programs. Dr. Shulman focuses her work on the quality
of health care and access to health care for vulnerable populations. She received her BA
summa cum laude from Washington University in Saint Louis and her PhD in Health Policy from
Harvard University.

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Other Resources:

Episode Transcript

Shanna 0:00
Please know that you are a benefit and a good to the world. And we are waiting for you. So it’s on you to get yourself out there so we know who you are and where you are. So we can help you do the work you want to do.

Sujani 0:15
Welcome to PH SPOTlight, a community for you to build your public health career with. Join Us Weekly right here. And I’ll be here too, your host Sujani Siva from PH SPOT.

Hey, everyone, thank you for joining me today on another episode of the public health spotlight podcast, a space for you and me and everyone else in public health to share our stories and inspire each other. My name is Sujani Siva, the host of PH SPOTlight, and I’m here to help you build your dream public health career.

And welcome to our mini series titled “New Year New You” job hunt edition. As I mentioned in our first episode of 2022, the next few episodes on this podcast is going to be hyper focused on this theme of “New Year New You” job hunt addition, we’re going to be talking to a number of guests around this topic, who some of them have experienced guiding public health professionals around lining their dream jobs or just getting set up for their careers. And some individuals don’t come from a public health background, but they have the necessary experience and information that we want to share with you. So today to kick us off in this new series, I speak with Shanna Schulman, who is the Director of Health and Medical Research at the Richard and Susan Smith Family Foundation in Boston. She’s also an instructor at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health where she speaks to students about informational interviews, something that is very, very important and key to a successful career, whether it’s in public health or not. And so we invited Shanna to give us a rundown on what informational interviews are, how to do them, share a bit about her experience, and a whole lot more insight into the topic, including some homework for you at the end. So grab a notebook because you’re going to need it for this one, then let’s get into it.

Hi, Shanna, thank you so much for joining me on the PH SPOT podcast. And welcome.

Shanna 2:33
Thank you Sujani. I’m delighted to be with you.

Sujani 2:35
Oh, I love the energy. Yeah, I’m excited about the topic we’re going to be speaking about. So you know, just a cool fact or an interesting fact, at least for me, we do these weekly polls on our LinkedIn page about, you know, different topics related to individuals career. And just last week, we asked individuals about, you know, are they aware of something called informational interviews? And I don’t know why but I was surprised that 85%, you know, it wasn’t a rigorous study of any sort. And we didn’t have a ton of people participate. But amongst the people who did participate, majority of them said that they’re actually still learning and it wasn’t something that they were comfortable with. So I don’t know why. But that was very surprising to me, because I’m someone who loves speaking with people and just hearing about their career journeys and, you know, just learning about their life in general. So I don’t know if that’s, that is surprising to you, since you’ve done kind of a bit of training around informational interview for a lot of students.

Shanna 3:39
I think it’s an unknown category. It’s quite clear when we’re going on a job interview, but what is an informational interview, I- I can understand why people would- would have a diffuse understanding of what it is.

Sujani 3:51
Okay, so- So I guess I’m the only one who’s a little bit surprised. So that’s a good bit good place to start. So maybe we can define informational interview. What is it? And maybe you could provide kind of your definition of it to get us started?

Shanna 4:08
Sure. And Sujani I’m no expert, just been out in the field for a while. I guess I- a working definition might be that it’s an informational interview is one that you request. It’s not in response to an open job posting or someone calling you up, but you are requesting as someone who is interested in learning more about the sector or seeking a job, but it is an interview, in that there will be information collected. But in this case, of course, you’re the interviewer, not the potential employer. And what’s important to consider is that in no form of human interaction is information ever just collected on one side. So while the primary purpose of an informational interview is for you to collect the data to improve your knowledge about the sector, or an organization, or particular job. It’s also a wonderful opportunity for you to communicate to your interviewee, who you are, and what you’re hoping to do in the world so that that person at the end of the interview has a sufficient level of information, to be able to kind of fold you into their professional network and really to become an advocate of yours going forward. So I’ve just probably loaded a lot on that idea of informational interview. But it’s- it has good, good aspects, beneficial aspects on both sides.

Sujani 5:33
And I mean, yeah, there’s a lot there. And we’re going to unpack a few of those points that you mentioned. But, you know, what’s your story, Shanna? In the sense of how did you kind of use informational interviews, perhaps in your career path? I know you said, you know, expert, but this definition certainly really, you know, gave us insight into your- your life a little bit. And then I’m assuming you’ve had a bit of experience in your own career and informational interviews, so maybe you could share a bit about your story.

Shanna 6:03
Sure. So I sort of followed a rather relatively traditional path through graduate study. But nearing the end of my PhD program was committed going to going back into the nonprofit sector and not into academia. And there was less of a pathway for how to do that. And so informational interviewing was really helpful and helping me understand my sit within the landscape. So when I talk with people about why would you bother doing one of these, I kind of chunk it down into four categories. The first thing, of course, that comes to mind is finding that job, finding employment. But a secondary purpose, another purpose is understanding your sectors’ landscape, you can be and often if you’re a PhD student in particular, or a particularly focused MPH student, you may be the world’s expert in that particular moment on one particular microbe, or standard deviation technique, or something of that of that ilk. But every conversation that you have with another person in the sector, will make you more knowledgeable about how the sector works, who is doing what work in it, and what might be of interest to you. I’d say a third bucket then is to assess one’s fit in the- in the sector or, or in an organization or position, you can sort of do whatever you can to understand about what it would be like to work at the World Health Organization, from reading websites, or reading articles or, but there’s really nothing like talking to somebody who’s actually working there or has worked there to ground you in what that experience really feels like. And it may be the most illustrious impressive of organizations. But if the culture is not something that fits with who you are, you want to know that early on in your process. And then I’d say the fourth bucket is around building your professional network. And then the people that you connect with, through this informational interviewing process. Become your professional network and really are it’s looking for a job going out on the these interviews is really one of your best opportunities in in your professional lifespan to build your network. And so I’ve talked to folks who, who became potential future collaborators people I later wrote grants with or added on as a consultant or when I was looking for consultant to ask them to jump on my project. There are people who have connected me to potential employers, yes, but also projects and interesting people and opportunities, great sources of information when I need to know I live in Massachusetts and I do some work in the policy sector. And when I need to know sort of an upcoming bill and how it’s going to fare in our Commonwealth legislature, I call someone internal to the statehouse who I happen to meet through an informational interview. And that person is able to say, oh, yeah, I think that bill’s gonna go forward. And then of course, there are those employee employer relationships. There are people who’ve come to me for informational interviews, who just wanted to understand what the sector looked like, and I’ve wound up hiring them, because they happen to be exactly who I needed for that role. So among those sort of four buckets of finding employment and understanding your sectors’ landscape and assessing your own fit. And then frankly, building your professional network, I think it’s important or helpful to understand that one of those may feel more prominent than others at different stages of your journey or who you’re talking to, but to always keep the other ones in mind. Because sometimes we sit down for one of these interviews and it, it goes in a different direction. And you can always think, well, even if that job doesn’t sound right, for me, I’m still really grateful to meet this person, because they’re likely to help me figure out this.

Sujani 10:33
Yeah. And it sounds like these different buckets kind of they, you can put a bit more weight depending on which part of your career you’re in. So, of course, when you’re a student and looking to work in an organization, that bucket of finding employment is much higher than perhaps, you know, building your network or looking for collaborators for a project. And it sounds like you’re still doing informational interviews well into your career. And your goal and objective may have changed throughout your career. And it’s never too late or too early to be conducting informational interviews. Is that Is that a fair assumption?

Shanna 11:15
Absolutely. Yes, you could put it on a t shirt do at any time, all the time. I’ve been working in my- I’ve been out of graduate school for oh, gosh, over 20 years now. And I still I met somebody new in my sector last week, who just sort of hopped the fence from one discipline to the other. And I reached out to her independently and organized, just a half an hour get to know you, just so I can understand what she wants to do in this sector. And frankly, that helps me understand if there are synergies between what I tried to do in the sector, either now or in the future. So yes, all the time.

Sujani 12:00
And, you know, going back to the stat that I shared early on from our poll, do you find that early professionals and students are more reluctant to do informational interviews? Or do you find that it’s kind of common across the entire kind of spectrum of your career, regardless of if you’re, you know, an established professional early on in your career, do you feel that individuals within the public health field, let’s say they avoid conducting informational interviews? Or there’s some sort of a barrier that they’re facing?

Shanna 12:33
Oh, that’s a really good question, Sujani. I can think of a couple barriers. I mean, certainly our field in general, we’re less setup to network, right? One thinks business programs and networking events, and so forth. And yet, so much of what we do in public health is interdisciplinary and multisector. I mean, really, to get to your advantage to get your research and your ideas and your programs and, frankly, your aspirations through it’s to your advantage to know as many different people you can in the different sub disciplines that are going to interact with your likelihood of success. So policy and finance and public and private sectors. All of that is really important for you to be able to do what you want to in the world. There are very few of us who just sit stay in a lab these days. Yeah. And then I guess, Sujani, to your other point about like, what stage does networking feel less or more comfortable? I think it’s true for most of us that graduate school can be a bit infantilizing. You know, we are literally paying money and committing ourselves in our time to learn at the feet of experts, which often has the unfortunate unintended consequence of making us feel like we’re less than experts, or are quite knowledgeable, to be of use to anyone. So it’s important to get beyond that and really have a sense of “No, I have something to offer to the world. And I’ve got to figure out where I plug in. And networking is what is going to help me get there.” I’d also just I guess my own reflection is, when you commit to graduate study, you’re often choosing a particular program that a particular institution, because of the experts in that building, you’re so excited to learn from them than the other students in that building. But because of that focus, it becomes kind of a relatively inward journey or in an inward focus, even if you’re, even if you’re a global health policy student, you still wind up thinking about your institution first. And it can be really hard as a student to break out of that and put yourself back in the world again. And so you’re right. I think there are particular kind of psychological barriers that we put in place unfortunately during our graduate careers. And, and yet, it’s the time where I think you can do your best networking in many ways.

Sujani 15:06
Yeah. And I think another kind of barrier I’ve heard from individuals is that they feel that they’re bothering people, if they’re reaching out without a pre established kind of relationship. I don’t know what you would see to kind of that comment.

Shanna 15:23
Oh, you know, it’s a great point Sujani, I think many of us feel as if who are we to knock on somebody else’s door. And yet, just turn that idea on its head, by not reaching out, you are depriving that person of know who you are, and knowing what you want to do in the world. And you are depriving them, frankly, of the benefit of you. And you know, there are concrete examples like that person I hired, who came to me for an interview, informational interview, whowas the solution to the problem role that I was trying to fulfill. It’s also the case that those of us who’ve been out of graduate study for so long, I mean, those students who are coming out of programs, now they are the, they’re the refreshed version, they are the version, you know, 6.0. They know things we don’t know. And we’re just like, really, really eager to learn from them and learn with them. And then there’s also that piece that they’ll say, then become part of our network. And so it’s really a two way street. So by knocking on someone’s door, you are allowing them to find out what you have to give them the world. And that’s always going to be of benefit to them.

Sujani 16:37
Yeah, I think I would add here, you know, just at the core of it, human connection, and building relationships is just so beautiful and outside of finding employment, and you know, all these tangible outcomes that- that we can kind of derive from informational interviews, just meeting people across the world. I think it’s just fascinating.

Shanna 16:57
Absolutely, if the last 18 months has taught us nothing else, yeah, that is true.

Sujani 17:03
Yeah, exactly. Another point you brought up, which was really interesting, because it was part of the reason that I started PH SPOT, as you mentioned, you know, people in business school, for example, they have these skills that they’re taught, and perhaps, you know, public, individuals who are in grad school for public health programs, less so trained in these more tactical, I think areas of employment. And early on, I think, right when I graduated, and I speak to some of my friends who are coming out of business schools, they would tell me that part of their program was dedicated to helping them prepare for interviews and have these mock interviews and prepare resumes. And I never certainly had that in neither of my undergrad or my master’s program. So I found that fascinating. I don’t know if you could comment, kind of on your experiences being part of as a student as in grad school, but as well as an instructor, if you’re- you think, you know, public health programs, and schools could maybe do a better job at this.

Shanna 18:08
Oh, absolutely. I mean, goodness gracious, I hardly had a suit that fit in graduate school, let alone put it on and get out in the world. And yet, the dirty secret is that networking is something that’s super easy to learn. And it’s one of those areas where effort equals success. So it’s very unlikely that somebody’s going to come knocking on your door, or ring through your computer, as you sit in front of your zoom pod and say, “You, you, you’re up, you’re exactly what I’ve been hearing about, you’re exactly who I want to talk to, I’ve been looking for you, I’ve got a great job for you.”, that just doesn’t happen. So it’s really to your advantage to put yourself out there. But putting yourself out there is actually rather elemental, when you break down the steps of how to do it. And frankly, it would be such a shame, if all of the the resources and the commitment you’ve spent towards putting yourself through this graduate program meant that you didn’t get to achieve everything you wanted to because you didn’t put yourself out there. I mean, it’s really graduate school is meant to be a means to your end goal, which is to getting back out there in the world and doing the work you want to do. But the good news is it’s not rocket science. So it’s, it’s very learnable. And frankly, it’s a very pleasant distraction when you’re tired of doing problem sets in labs.

Sujani 19:41
That’s very true. I do remember that a lot of my reaching out and networking happened when I was procrastinating on assignments.

Shanna 19:49
Right, a productive form of procrastination.

Sujani 19:52
I heard a really neat analogy. I think it was yesterday I was listening to a webinar related to marketing actually and the instructor was, you know, giving a story of you wouldn’t, you know, go through grad school or undergrad and the day you receive your diploma or degree, you wouldn’t hang it up in your room and just sit there and go, “Okay, now I’m done my degree, someone’s going to call me.”

Shanna 20:18
Right.

Sujani 20:18
It doesn’t work like that. So, you know, you definitely have to market yourself. And I think that’s where networking and informational interviews really come in handy.

Shanna 20:28
And particularly for those of us who aren’t going along in traditional academic pathways, I mean, certainly, if you are going along a traditional academic pathway to a faculty position, it’s still very helpful to your, to your journey. But I think there’s less support in the graduate programs for doing non academic interviewing, which is why the PH SPOT is such a resource.

Sujani 20:55
Thank you. Yeah, it’s it’s definitely community driven. And it’s it is what it is because of all the great public health professionals who have contributed to it. So quite proud of it, for sure. Okay, maybe we could talk a bit more kind of on the how-to kind of section of our interview today. And I think you covered this question quite a bit, kind of throughout our initial chat right now. But who would you say people should be doing informational interviews with? Is there anyone that you may have missed in the four categories or buckets that you talked about? And kind of along that question, how does one go about finding these types of individuals, and then kind of reaching out to them, like that whole process of identifying who it is I want to speak to finding their contact information? Now, in time of the pandemic, a lot of people are more open to having zoom calls and doing these virtual meetings? And then, you know, how do we then establish a relationship? And then take it one step further? So maybe you could talk to us about that whole process?

Shanna 22:07
Sure. I guess under the question of who, before we get to the question of how.

Sujani 22:12
Yeah.

Shanna 22:13
It’s sort of a Venn diagram, right, as- as people who know you very well, and people who are doing the work you think you might be interested in doing. And so within those two circles, there’s going to be some that are perfectly overlapping, and they’re sort of first priority for talking with, but there are also people in the non overlapping circles that may be very helpful to you, in your interviewing journey. If I were to come up with a quick list, I would, I would say, Start close and look outwards. So certainly for students, the folks who are in your graduate program, the faculty, peers, the alumni, you are literally with your tuition dollars paying for access to those folks. And so you should never feel shy about reaching out to them, it is- it is understood and expected that they are there to help you. Similarly, your past educational institutions, your undergraduate programs, they know you really well, or they’re very familiar with your training. And so they can be helpful in helping you understand what people with your sort of training are prepared to do out in the world. Past employers and colleagues, stepping a little bit further out, the- all the professional societies and organizations and literature, and when I say literature, what was the last article where you read past the abstract with relish, you know, who is writing something that was really interesting to you? Go find that person, just email them. And we can get to that in a moment about how to do that. But you’re really looking for those natural points of your own enthusiasm, and, and excitement about who’s doing what work out there. There may be some areas where you know, you should go look, but please, I urge everyone to prioritize those that gets you super excited. I would just like to understand what it- what it looks like to work on this problem in this setting. And from there, then there are those larger circles of your existing relationships is totally legit, to use your cousin’s spouse’s father in law, as a networking relationship, and it’s just another outer circle of that Venn diagram. And so, in this age of online networks, you can get anyone, right, you can find anyone. And so there were points in my own journey where the time I’d graduated from school in Boston. I knew I wanted to stay in Boston, I knew I wanted to work in child health policy. I literally typed into the internet Child Health Policy Research in Boston. And you know, what, Sujani? There were a bunch of firms I’d never heard of, because I’ve been sitting inside that ivory tower.

Sujani 25:19
Yes.

Shanna 25:19
So that. But of course, the people in that ivory tower had connections to the people in those organizations, because they were all sort of in the city. But I wouldn’t have known them if I hadn’t done that really kind of blunt force, internet search. So I would encourage folks to be as considered a qualitative research project, and go beyond the obvious to, to those resources that truly interest and excite you. Because it is- it is there’s- there are parts of this that are a little nerve wracking. And so you want to feel really excited about reaching out to these people.

Sujani 26:03
And I think what I would add here is if you don’t tell people that you’re looking for, you know, or you’re looking to connect with someone in a certain field, they won’t be able to help you. So I think what I mean by this is, I chuckled when you gave the example of kind of your family network Shanna, because just the other day I had, I think it was my second cousin’s cousin’s cousin, somebody she knew their daughter was having a hard time finding a public health practicum. So then she emailed me asking if I could help them out. And I said, sure, right? So we underestimate. Yeah, we underestimate I think, our family circle as well, I think that’s what kind of popped into my head when you talked about it, because I’ve been thinking about all the professional network and Google searches. But if you ask around within even your family circle, I think that’s also another great place to check.

Shanna 26:56
Well, I’m a big hiker. And there’s something called trail magic, which, when you need something like you broke your shoelace, and you really need a shoe lace, and you’re in the middle of the trail, somebody will walk along that trail with an extra shoelace. So but that’s only going to happen if you tell people your, your approach to the to, to the extent that you can get comfortable talking about your search. And frankly, it’s a great way for you to get comfortable with telling your story, which is the next place. I’m gonna suggest you and I chat, which is like how, how do you do this? Right? If we’ve identified who to reach out? How do you how do you do that in a way where you’ve got some degree of comfort and some degree of confidence that your kids a positive response?

Sujani 27:43
Yeah. And maybe I don’t want to put you on the spot. But you know, when you are reaching out to people to say collaborate on a policy project, what is it that you would kind of start off with either on your email or if it’s a phone call, or LinkedIn message?

Shanna 28:00
Oh, goodness, always email. I think emails the easiest. With, you know, there are some guidelines for how to reach out via email. And I think, one you have to, you have to sort of start by saying who you are. So if their prior contact, I remind them, it’s been a while since we’ve spoken. Or, I note that we have someone in common, Sujani suggested I reach out to you. And if we’ve never met, I will include one sentence about who I am. So, you know, at the time I was doing this networking coming out of graduate school, it was, or later on in my career, I would say I’m a health services researcher with 20 years of experience evaluating access and quality of care for vulnerable populations. So just put in one sentence, who I am. And then kind of a next sentence about what I’m what I’m hoping to do next. So in a job situation, that’s about what, where, you’re hoping you might go in terms of a sector or organization or, or a position. I think the example I’ve used before is there was a time in my career where I would, I had done a lot of evaluations of large scale public programs, and I was looking to go in house within a provider setting. So that middle sentence might have been along the lines of most of my work has involved evaluating these large scale programs. And now I want to apply that experience within a provider setting. So again, where I was trying to go, and then that third sentence is how I think they might be helped able to help me so “I understand that you, dear person, have done a lot of work in this particular setting and would you have 30 minutes to connect with me to give me a lay of the land?”. So short, clear on who you are and what you’re hoping to get out of the conversation, and give them a very concrete understanding of what you’re asking for, 30 minutes of your time.

Sujani 30:21
Yeah. All those are really great tips. I remember, a few months ago, I went back and found some of the early emails I had sent out to connect with people, they were way too long. And then I’ve learned since then that those don’t get replies. So you know that that clear call to action is very key, and then keeping it short. What are your- what’s your opinion on following up? So if you don’t hear back, say, after a week or two weeks, maybe a month? Do you think you should leave it alone? Or do you suggest people follow up and I asked this because I personally feel like people should follow up. And that’s because I’m someone who forgets to respond to email sometimes. And so it’s nice when people do follow up with me, I can respond back. But recently, I read an article where someone had suggested to not follow up and don’t be that annoying person. And I don’t think I agree with that. So I’m curious to hear what your opinion is on following up.

Shanna 31:20
Oh, my goodness, think about how much work wouldn’t get done. How many amazing ideas would get lost? No, I completely disagree with whatever you read, without reading it myself. I think I would wait a week or two, but no longer than that. And, you know, keep it warm and friendly, just circling back on my message below to ask if you might have time to connect on x. I always appreciate that. And I can’t imagine anyone who would be- who would be upset with a second reset, reach out, if they still don’t respond. You know, I would say that 80.. 80 to 90% of people that I reach out, even early in my career early, early on, as a student will respond. They might put you off for a time or whatever they might send you to someone else on their team, but you will get a response, the 10 to 20%, who don’t, that’s fine. There are- some times there are people like do need to get to. And in those cases, I go for an intermediary, reach out to someone who knows us both and and see if I can work it that way. But I think folks can expect that within to reach out most of them are going to you’re going to generate responses.

Sujani 32:42
And I think it’s also important not to take it personally if someone doesn’t respond, because you know, it could just be a busy season of their life, and they just haven’t gotten around to it. So not to get discouraged if you don’t hear back from someone and just keep going.

Shanna 32:56
Absolutely. That’s why, you know, in the very early days of this, when you’re feeling a little bit hesitant, one may think oh, I’ll just send out one, and then I’ll wait and see how that goes. I’d encourage people to send out at least three, you, you know, you’ve all studied statistics, if you’re a public health students, you know that you’re always going to have some room for error error. And it’s best to have more than one data point going forward.

Sujani 33:23
Yeah. And you know, just a personal example again, here so I can encourage our listeners to you know, keep following up and sending more than one email is I previously been good with getting back to people. But I recently have a five month old. So my inbox is horrible. And my season of my life right now is not prioritizing email. So it’s not that I’m ignoring people. It’s just difficult to you know, follow up on email. So encouraging folks to not get discouraged and keep trying. And yeah, like Shanna said, try more than one for sure.

Shanna 34:01
Absolutely. And that’s such an important point Sujani is, even though these are it’s an electronic medium, there are two humans out there end of this, and we have our own each of our lives there. I almost always put in a reach out. Give them an out, where if they just feel like they’re too busy. I’ll ask if they could give me some time, or a member of their team or a colleague. And then if they really are coming off of maternity leave, or they have a big grant to they might say, well, I can speak with you in a couple months, or next month or I can connect you to my colleague right now.

Sujani 34:40
Yeah, that’s, that’s great. And I think something else I’ve offered when I’ve been busy is I can answer questions via email and that way I don’t need to find a time that works for both me and the other person. So that’s also a strategy I’ve used if there’s really like a burning question that they have that I could easily whipped up in an email in the middle of the night when they’re probably sleeping.

Shanna 35:04
When people are five month olds are. exactly the flip side of that, of course you Johnny is you know, is to always ask for some sort of face to face interaction. And that can be defined as zoom. There’s something in our brains that clicking differently when we’re talking to someone face to face. And I find that the folks that really stay top of mind are those where I did get to connect face to face. So I would recommend always asking if they would be open to a Zoom meeting. And if they’re not offer, you know, a zoom, or if you’d prefer a phone call, or email, if you’re, but I would- I would put that as your first.

Sujani 35:53
Yes, absolutely. Maybe we can chat a little bit about you know, when you do get that confirmation for a zoom chat, for example, how should one go about that 30 minute that they have this individual’s time, just to really make the most of it, you know, we’ve already prepared the person that we reached out to via email, telling them who we are, what we’re hoping to get from this connection, but that 30 minute, it’s valuable time. And it’s something that you hopefully want to continue on in the future, perhaps and establish a relationship if you feel like you’re really connected with that individual. So any tips that you could offer about that?

Shanna 36:37
Yes. Because this is where it starts to get scary, right?

Sujani 36:41
Yeah.

Shanna 36:41
Scary enough to reach out to them. But now they’re going to talk with you. So yes, this is where I suggest folks, particularly, particularly if you’re just starting out with these informational interviews to get a little bit over prepared, because then you’ll feel more comfortable. And so one way, well, I guess, one thing to do is to sort of at the beginning, kind of define your goals, right? When we started out by talking about those four buckets, like, are you trying to understand their sector, and you’re trying to understand about what it’s like to work in that organization, or you’re trying to connect other people? Not that you need to state that outright, but that you’re just clear with yourself, what you’re hoping to get out of this conversation, because I think it’ll help guide your preparation. The second part is to really do your homework on who this person is. It- this does not need to turn into an exhaustive research project, but you want to Google them and their colleagues, even, you know, 5-10 minutes of Googling, just so you know who they are and what they’re involved with folks to guide the conversation. And to show some respect. You don’t want to be stalkerish, you don’t want to mention, oh, that you registered for the same China, as you saw on their wedding- wedding registry, but you do want to demonstrate a level of respect. And then I would advocate for starting every networking conversation, the sort of 20 to 30 minute varieties, with you introducing yourself in a little bit more of a longer form. And so you’re starting the conversation by telling them more about you. And there’s a couple advantages to this. One, it fills in some gaps for them. Two, this is usually the point of the conversation where you’re most nervous. So if you start with something that you know, well, and also that you can pre script, you’re gonna find yourself more comfortable moving into the other parts of the conversation. It also- the third benefit is you can anticipate how you might fit into the job organization sector that you want to talk with them about. So you’re not in any way representing who you are, but you are tailoring it a bit. So I often suggest and what I do myself is and these sorts of situations is say- which shall we start by, “May I take a few moments to orient you to my background, and why I’m so interested in talking with you.”. And then take a very light walk through your resume or your CV. And it doesn’t need in no way should it be exhaustive. But it should tell a story of who you are, what you’re capable of doing in a very, you know, high level way. And the last sentence should always be why you’re so excited to talk with them. Right? You want to end on the line of I’m thinking now about moving to this sector. I’m interested in working in this type of organization and that’s why I’m so excited to talk with you and so you can you know how politicians have their stump speech, or this is your TED talk, if you write it out and sort of refine it, you will land the beginning of that conversation exactly where you want it to be. And that can feel like overly programmatic. But I promise you, if you, if you discipline yourself, and you make yourself write it out, and then you practice it a lot in the shower, or when you go for a run, whatever, when you’re in that moment of just opening this conversation, and frankly, everyone after that, you feel more comfortable, because it just rolls off your tongue.

Sujani 40:35
Yeah, I’m glad you mentioned to practice because I was thinking, as you’re suggesting, you know, talking about yourself first, if you don’t practice and you end up taking up 25 minutes of the 30 minutes that you had telling them about your resume. You- You are not going to be you know, hitting the objective that you wanted from setting up the school and hearing from the person you know, and getting your questions answered. So practicing will also help you stay on time, and just use up the first five minutes, perhaps.

Shanna 41:09
Right or even three, it can be that quick. But your goal, again, is to lay the pathway for the conversation. So remind them who you are, where you’re trying to go, and how they can help. And I guess I just throw in a few more tips in there. And the reason why it’s helpful to write it out in advance. Because sometimes most of us have things in our past that didn’t work out as we planned, you kind of don’t want to stumble into them. So you want to emphasize the positives, right? Like if you made a major shift in your career, you wouldn’t sort of inadvertently find yourself saying, oh, gosh, I left because my boss was dreadful, or I was lost or I lacked direction. Instead, you’d want to have a nice tight phrase that said, I saw that as a really good opportunity to move on to x. Right? And if you have that pre programmed, it’ll just roll off your tongue. And you’ll be more likely to kind of note the productive with specific examples. Like I’m not, I’m great with numbers instead, you know, one of my favorite projects was, as an analyst on this study, which involve analyzing masses of data related to y, the more specific you can be, the better and understanding that person will have of you. And but again, it’s really laying the path for how you want them to see you and to build the foundation for the conversation you want to have.

Sujani 42:34
And I’m curious to know, Shanna, are there any conversation that really stick to you or that you can recall that was- that you thought was really great. So what I mean by that someone reached out to you for an informational interview, and you felt like, you know, they did a really good job, setting up the interview, and then the conversation was just so memorable?

Shanna 42:58
Yes, in the positive and the negative.

Sujani 43:01
Okay on both.

Shanna 43:03
So on the positive side, again, the more specific people can be, the better I can understand who they really are and what they’re bringing to the table. So we just naturally skim through resumes, if we have one in front of us, or CVs, or LinkedIn profiles, and it’s so helpful to have the person tell you in their own words, what they consider is important about them and what they consider they want to do in the world, because it just lodges in your mind. So the ones that- that sit my mind are those people who were able to give me a clearer picture of who they are, and what they were hoping to do. And I can remember one, when I was interviewing, this was a real interview, not an informational interviewing, but I was interviewing someone out of school for a position. And she was so honest, and so clear about what she wanted to do in the world. And she was so clearly not right for the position that we could see. She’d be bored. Frustrated, and actually I went I took the step of introducing her to a colleague and another organization who was hiring, that was a much better fit for what she wanted to do in the world. And that worked out for her. So you know, there’s when you’re in a job situation, you’re- you’re- there all those other anxieties about wanting to get that position. But the more honest you can be in the clearer you can be, the more able that person is to sort of slot you or help or frankly, be an advocate for you. In the sector, that’s what you want anyone in your network, you want to understand who you are, and how you fit in or where you’re trying to go so that they can help you get there. So that’s all on the positive side. I can remember negative experiences where people were so nervous that they spoke in generalities or that I remember one experience in which I’d given someone 20 minutes for an informational interview. And they spent sort of the first 17 minutes establishing a relationship, you know, summer vacation plans, and oh, we went to the same school and duh, duh, duh, duh. And it wasn’t until the 17th moment where they asked me the question they wanted to about opportunities in our sector, and I didn’t have any more time for that person that day, we- we wound up rescheduling. But I remember feeling like, okay, this is like walking into a drugstore and trying to buy condoms in the middle of bubblegum and a comic book, like you have to be clear about what you’re trying to get out of the conversations. So those are my examples.

Sujani 45:47
Yeah, I was trying to sit here and reflect on any that I’ve done that were quite memorable. And the one that always keeps comes to mind was, I had a student and she was a high school student, like not even towards the end of her high school very early on. And she was interested in the field of public health and had reached out to learn a bit more about it. And she was so prepared. And I was just fascinated by how mature her questions were, and how prepared she was for a high school student. And coming back to your point of just being prepared and having those objectives clear, and really getting something out of that, that 30 minutes that she set up. And I think, you know, something more that she did was followed up afterwards, by email to thank me for my time. And then as well as kind of later a few months later, just to check up and say, you know, I really valued that conversation we had without really any agenda. So that individual really is memorable for me.

Shanna 46:49
Absolutely. I think she’d listened to all of your podcasts. No, but you’re absolutely right, Sujani, because not to put too much pressure on these interactions. But of course, how you conduct yourself says a lot about who you are likely to be as a colleague, right? Your level of research and preparation, your level of responsiveness. Did you get back to them, within 24 hours when they responded to your scheduling, email, your ability to communicate who you are in a setting? I think many students coming out of these amazing under graduate programs are definitely credited assumed to be brilliant. But lingering question for a potential employer might be yes, but are they capable of getting along with others? Collaborative, can they work in a team environment, often your resume will- will- will do a beautiful job of speaking to how brilliant you are. And it’s your job in this- in this informational or actual interview setting, to convey what a good colleague you would be. And so that they understand that you are someone that they want to work with or refer you on to a colleague with confidence. And so the more again, the more preparation you can do before and the more honest and clear you can be in that conversation. it’s to your benefit.

Sujani 48:24
Yeah. Okay, so I guess Shanna, the one question I would maybe ask you to wrap up our episode is for individuals who are new to informational interviews, could we give them kind of a homework to get started here, to really nudge them so that they could take their first step into trying out informational interviews?

Shanna 48:48
Yeah, yeah, I think we can- we can come up with that. Let’s see, I’d say overall, to be brave, enough to put in the time to do it, right? Because as we were just discussing, how you conduct your search says something about you. I would say you want to handle these relationships with care. You want to proofread all your communication and be mindful of people’s time and always follow up as promised you- you very much want to be yourself you just said I- you appreciated those authentic connections, but you want to be your best version of yourself authentic and direct and confident and open. And in terms of that preparation, that homework, you- I’m a big list maker so I would advocate for developing a spreadsheet. You can use your LinkedIn account as this. But you can also do it on your own to create a networking spreadsheet of organizations that you’re interested in, parts of the sector that are intriguing to you, and actual people within those and then their contacts, information, and notes from those interviews, and you’ll find if you keep kind of updating this as you go, this will be an amazing resource for you going forward. So your homework would be to kind of identify who you’re going to start with, those primary networking resources out of your immediate professional environment, your longer, your broader professional environment, and then your- your life, people around you who care about you, I’d say you want to go ahead and create or update your online professional presence. And I know you’ve, you have a lot of resources around this. But of course, in this day and age, we always Google the person’s name who appears on our calendar or to remind ourselves who that person is. And so it’s to your advantage to make sure that that reflects well on you. You want to have your resume or your CV ready, because that’s often something that’s a follow up to these conversations. I would, if you do nothing else, I would say, practice that little stump speech, your your TED talk about who you are in the world and where you’re hoping to go both a long and a short form of that. And then I would say check out phspot.org. The resources to pull up. But at the end of the day, please, to all of your listeners, please know that you are a benefit and a good to the world. And we are waiting for you. So it’s on you to get yourself out there so we know who you are and where you are. So we can help you do the work you want to do.

Sujani 51:45
Amazing. Thank you so much, Jenna, for joining me on this podcast. And we’re really helping our listeners understand about informational interviews.

Shanna 51:55
Well, I very much enjoyed the conversation with you and applaud all of your efforts. So thank you for creating something that wasn’t there, and is a tremendous benefit.

Sujani 52:08
I hope you enjoyed that episode with Shanna and took down some key points related to informational interviews. Most importantly, I hope you will commit to the homework that we discuss at the end. And whether you’re actively looking for a job or not at this current time, informational interviews are a great way to expand your network. I know I still do it. So really give it a try. And if you’re in the phase of starting your public health career and are looking for more guidance, we can help you landing your dream job as an early professional may feel out of reach at first, there’s a lot of components to consider like the job application process, including knowing what jobs to apply to, where to look for jobs, how to search for the job that you want. And then drafting your resume and cover letter. All of this can be so overwhelming. We also know that it’s not easy to craft your story to present it in a way that speaks to your prospective employers. We’ve been there and know the feeling very well. So that’s why we’ve created the Jumpstart your public health career bootcamp. It’s a five week program to guide early public health professionals to land their dream jobs, you can now join the waitlist at pHspot.org/bootcamp. And we’ll notify you when the next cohort opens up.

And so that’s a wrap for our first episode of The New Year New you job hunt mini series. Next week, we’re going to be talking about LinkedIn. It’s going to be with a an amazing guest. So really bring your notebook and I will see you at the next episode. And if you remember from our first episode of 2022, this year, we’ve transitioned into weekly episodes, so you no longer have to wait two weeks to hear the next episode on our podcast. We will have our new episode up next week. And so make sure to tune in and as usual, all of the links mentioned today will be over on our show notes page at pHspot.org/podcast. Until next time, thank you so much for tuning in, and for the invaluable work that you do for this world.

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About the Show

PH SPOTlight: Public health career stories, inspiration, and guidance from current-day public health heroes

On the show, Sujani sits down with public health heroes of our time to share career stories, inspiration, and guidance for building public health careers. From time to time, she also has conversations with friends of public health – individuals who are not public health professionals, but their advice and guidance are equally important.

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