Four tips for your next informational interview request…

First, let me set the scene: Perhaps you are someone looking for your first job or you are someone looking to switch jobs and want to learn more about what is out there. In this process, you are doing unpaid research to see what exists, where you could go, and how to market yourself in the labor market. Let’s say you encounter someone online whose job you think is especially interesting and you could imagine yourself doing, so you decide to approach them for an informational interview.

I study labor and serve as an organizer because I believe it’s the best way I can contribute. I am especially interested in the role of social networks and employment and finding ways to reduce “friction” that people encounter when looking for the right jobs for them. Like many of my peers, I get a LOT of informational interview requests and I try to take as many as I can but it adds up over time. Let’s say 20 people ask me in a week (which does happen sometimes). Each of those 30 minute phone calls adds up, so even if I try to make time for 4 of them in a week, that’s 2 hours of additional unpaid labor a week to my workload. I do it because I believe in reducing the employment “friction” issue, but these are some things I wish people who reached out to me would keep in mind.

1. Do your research and ask me interesting questions. If our conversation is interesting, I will remember you. If you ask me generic questions, I will be frustrated and not impressed. Do not ask me how I got to this job when you can look at my LinkedIn profile and see my history. Do not ask me what I did before or what I studied, again, listed on my LinkedIn profile and my blog. If you did a little research and looked me up you could answer that for yourself. Make this time an interview about things you could not see online and show me you came to the conversation prepared.

2. 30 minutes is not a lot of time for me to get to know you and I will not be able to tell you what you should do. It’s easier if you come to the conversation having a sense of yourself. What do you need in an environment to thrive? What kind of work can you imagine doing day after day without losing your mind?

3. A lot of people show up and tell me about how great my job would be for them, which isn’t a good “sales” strategy. It’s hard to tell from the outside, but you’re much more convincing and appealing if you can tell me how you would play with or build something I do. I’m a researcher, if you want to do research tell me about an experiment you’d run or questions that keep you up at night. I scream internally every time someone generically tells me, “I’m good at research.” Like public speaking, it’s a skill people often take for granted. Show me some concrete evidence, the way a researcher would.

4. After the call, say thank you. Extra points for writing back to me after the call to say thank you for taking time to talk to me. And if you ask for a favor and/or someone follows up with feedback on something, say thank you again. They don’t have to do this… be polite and say thank you.

There are times you need to have a very open and exploratory conversation. I encourage you to have those with peers and mentors, sometimes even your family. I explored jobs by reading websites like the Muse and then following researchers whose work I found especially interesting, see how they got to where they were. I explored skills I had and tried to see how I could market them. I also spent time thinking about what I enjoyed doing day to day, acknowledging things I “thought I should want to do” that I didn’t and leaving those behind. I think it’s a slow discovery process for everyone and it’s ok to ask for help. I share these ideas to help you make the most of your time reaching out to people and to respect the time of those who offer to help you. Good luck!

Photo credit: Nicolas Nova / Flickr

A doctor’s role in a community: reflections from a yale med student

I found Michael sitting in a café on Yale’s campus early on a Saturday morning. I arrived to write up my questions before my last interview on my revisit for the Ph.D. program at the Yale School of Management and was surprised to see someone else here. The café had only been open for 20 minutes and the campus was mostly empty while most of the students were on spring break. There was room at the table beside him, so I sat down and asked him, “what are you reading?”

“A book about eye examinations and diagnosis. It’s for an Ophthalmology class I’m taking at the medical school.” He was holding a highlighter in his right hand, and had been flipping back and forth between pages with a very serious expression on his face when I interrupted him.

“Do you like the class?”
“Yes. The faculty who teach it are trying to convince us to join their specialization.” And after a pause where he looked off into the room behind me absently, he added, “It has instilled a joy of medicine in me that my other courses haven’t.” There was weariness to his tone. Maybe medical school wasn’t what he expected it to be.

“What kind of patients do you want to work with?”
Like he was apologizing to me, he said, “I want to support a patient population that doesn’t trust physicians and who has been under-served by the medical system, like undocumented workers, low-income people, people of color…”

“Does your medical school do a good job reaching out to them?”
He thought for a minute, looking down at his lap as he responded. “Yes, it’s part of our curriculum. We talk about how to take care of them.” Though, it seemed, maybe not as well as he hoped.

“What are the biggest barriers for them?”
He looked up again. “Lack of access — I mean physical and financial access. Distrust of the medical system.”

Overcome with my own curiosity, I asked, “How do people rebuild that trust?”
“Well, you have to be there and follow-up, and be there for a long time. It’s about building long-term relationships. It’s about outreach: going to people’s homes and providing care there, not forcing them to go to a clinic full of people who don’t look like them, not force them into filling out overly complicated forms and navigating payment systems. The offices are gross, they’re covered in Pharma ads, with Pharma pens and Pharma shit everywhere.” I felt a similar frustration towards Pharma, especially with the ACA on the chop block earlier that week.

Michael, trying to convince himself he was a happy med student.

“What kinds of doctors do a good job serving them?”
“Right now, Primary care and family medicine do this well. But we also want other kinds of doctors to do better. Ophthalmology could do better … you need your vision to help your family, lots of space for impact here. People go into poverty because they have vision issues. There are so many easy, low-cost interventions that could fix their vision issues.” Maybe he really was interested in reading about eyes!

“What made you decide to become a med student?”
He crossed his legs, then his arms and leaned back in his chair. He looked down again when he said, faintly, “I want to help people. I want to be a doctor who serves these communities.”

“Do you still believe that you can do that as a doctor?”
He tilted his head and raised an eyebrow at me. “I do. I don’t know what it looks like in practice, what with all the logistical issues of being a physician. I like the idea of providing free care to people who need it. But this is a logistical nightmare… but who has time for it? And all the ethical things that go along with that… so much paperwork…” He was avoiding my eyes now. He had put his book and highlighter down on the table and was now very focused on gathering the crumbs on the table in front of him into a pile.

“Who creates all this extra paperwork?” I couldn’t help but keep poking.
“Insurance. Medicare and Medicaid do. HHS do.” He seemed to be less interested in answering my questions now, so I changed the subject.

“I don’t quite know how to ask this,” I said, “but what do you think about the physician’s God Complex? Do you notice one?”
He looked at me very seriously. “Some do go into medicine for this reason: OBGYN and Surgeons do see themselves as super humans. It exists. But I find this very off-putting. I went into medicine to build relationships with patients, to help them in the long-term. I think having a God Complex means building an inherent distance from the patient. This is off-putting to me. I believe medicine is about empowering patients, not just doing things to them that makes their lives better. It’s a collaboration, I’m not just a service provider.” He looked at me expectantly.,

I found myself without a good response, so I asked quietly, “Is it sometimes hard to remember why you are there?”
“Yes. Especially when you’re memorizing the umpteenth fact about cranial nerve 10 or whatever, it’s hard to remember why I’m doing what I do every day and what it will ultimately lead towards.”
“So then, how do you re-center yourself?”
“I try to go have experiences in hospitals as much as I can, I shadow as much as I can because that reminds me why I am here.”

He looked at his watch, purposefully. I got the message.
“Ok I have one last question and then I’ll leave you alone. What is something you wished people would ask you?”
“I wish people would ask me why my beard is red but my hair is not red. The answer is that it’s a mutation of one gene. I discovered this in med school, when my med school friend told me.” I let out a laugh from deep in my stomach in surprise.

Header image credit: mararie / flickr

Cusco in three vignettes

1. 

I was watching the two women weaving in the courtyard from my perch on the 2nd story balcony of the Museo de Arte Precolombiano and thinking about my mother.

I find myself thinking about her often whenever I am traveling in South America — my parents collect textiles from all over the world, but especially Mexico and Peru. They celebrate the craftsmanship and want to preserve the tradition before it is lost forever to machines. The textiles they’ve collected are stored until the rare dinner party or celebration when one or two of them are brought out to bring color to the table. The colors from the natural dyes the women were using in their weaving remind me of Christmases and happy occasions at home.

I arrived at the museum very early that morning, so I had to return in the afternoon to see the textiles for sale in the museum store. The two weavers were sitting in the corner eating their lunches — corn soup with vegetables — when I arrived. I found a beautiful red and green runner for my table at home, with tiny stitches and beautiful embroidery. I will think of my mother and her pure joy when she sees beautiful artwork every time it visits my living room.

2. 

Every time I walk at my normal required-for-moving-around-new-york-city pace I find myself breathless and a little dizzy, dreading the next block I must go to reach my destination. But then, I make myself walk a little more slowly and in this slower state, I have to look more closely at my surroundings — the ancient Incan stone walls, the brightly clothed women walking their llamas and alpacas, the “gypsy jewelers” with their macramé and stone jewelry that I’ve now encountered in public parks across Mexico, Peru, Colombia, Chile and Brazil. It’s a welcome change in what normally occupies my thoughts while I’m walking. I cannot use my phone here and I’m physically prevented from power walking. It’s nice to be able to spend my days learning to walk again.

3. 

I went into another textile store this afternoon with my friend and fellow traveler because she decided she wanted to purchase something there for her apartment. We had been wandering through the busy market places while I love with my whole informal economist heart and she found very overwhelming. We came to this quieter space, closed off from the busy streets, and spent time admiring everything handing from the walls.

While she made her purchase, the vendor asked her, “Where did your bag come from?” I had given it to her on her birthday and brought it back from a trip to Mexico. She loved it so much she used it all the time — I had a similar one that I brought for this trip as well. I told him I was from Mexico and these were a design I really liked from San Miguel de Allende. He asked for permission to take a few photos of it, explaining that he would like to make something similar but with wool instead of cotton and embroidered like the other work in his store, rather than with the woven stripes on our bags.

He asked me where I was from in Mexico (translated from Spanish):
– Mexico city, I said
– Ah, Mexico City. Well, we are geniuses at creating beautiful things here. Geniuses at some things… terrible at others.
– This is true for us too… I live in the US now.
– Ah, your president…
– Yes, our president…
– Are you afraid? Living there now?
– Yes and no. It seems to get uglier all the time.

I turned back to the retablos, little boxes with scenes in them from flower markets, skeletons celebrating together in a bar, the birth of Christ, and sculptors creating terrifying masks for holidays.

– These are like the little altars we have in Mexico. I have several of them hanging on my walls at home.
– Yes. They might be from Mexico, the design, I mean. Hard to know after a while where something first came from.

I gestured towards the masks on the walls, like the ones people wear for the parades for day of the dead in Mexico.
– we also have a tradition with masks like these.
– Oh really! Where?
– Mexico City, Oaxaca… everywhere for day of the dead. But fewer monsters. More skeletons, people, the devil.

He laughed when I told him their monsters frightened me more than our devils.