Shadowing? Try the Informational Interview

Good Fit

Given our current situation with COVID-19, this article has renewed relevance as an accepted shadowing practice. In many ways, there is even more to be learned by interviewing an optometrist than by the mere passive observation of the traditional shadowing experience.

Here’s a video overview of the article.  Learn how you can shadow effectively through this time-honored technique:Play Button Informational INterviewThere are two chief shadowing objectives: to “try on” the optometric profession and see if it’s right for you and to collect evidence to substantiate your claim that it is indeed a good fit. You need to be able to tell your own story and how you see it unfolding in the profession of optometry.

These goals can be explored with a technique known as the Informational Interview. This style of interviewing can be just as effective as conventional shadowing (observing a doctor going about his or her daily tasks, specifically patient care). The goal of this article is to explain how the Informational Interview can be used in lieu of conventional shadowing and perhaps even more effectively if used in an intentional way.

The Informational Interview is a highly focused information gathering session that yields a view from the inside. It is a time-honored technique known more in the business world than in education, or to shadowing of healthcare professionals. The concept of the informational interview was conceived by Richard Nelson Bolles, author of the best-selling career handbook, What Color is Your Parachute. He points out that most people choose a career path without taking the time to speak with professionals who have worked in the field—the result is a bad fit, a bad match for their skills, values, interests, and abilities.

Benefits of the Informational Interview:

"The Informational Interview is a highly focused information gathering session that yields a view from the inside." Photo purchase

“The Informational Interview is a highly focused information gathering session that yields a view from the inside.”
Photo purchase

There are many benefits to the Informational Interview over traditional shadowing—especially when you take into account HIPAA laws that protect patients’ privacy, to which doctors must adhere.  Should a doctor include a shadowing student in a patient encounter, even with the patient’s permissions, there is still risk involved for the doctor. It’s easy to see why doctors are reluctant to accommodate shadowing students, especially if they are unfamiliar with them personally.

Another benefit of using this technique is to discover the day-to-day realities of what it is like to work in the profession.  Patient care can seem very glamorous to a shadowing student.  A doctor in a freshly pressed white clinic jacket is a commanding figure; taking his or her best care of a patient, a doctor can seem like a rock star to the uninitiated and aspiring pre-optometry student.  What about all the less glamorous tasks like filling out insurance claims, writing referral letters, dealing with staffing issues…etc.? Come time to interview, you will be asked about both the good and the bad of being an optometrist because you will be making a no-looking-back commitment to take on a professional school education and then the duties of a doctor. Interviewing panelists want to know if you understand and are willing to commit to the good, the bad, and the ugly of healthcare delivery. The Informational Interview can help you make those necessary discoveries.

"A doctor in a freshly starched white clinic jacket is a commanding figure; taking his or her best care of a patient, a doctor can seem like a rock star to the uninitiated and aspiring pre-optometry student." MBKU students surround Dr. Raman Bhakhri for a great shot!

“A doctor in a freshly pressed white clinic jacket is a commanding figure; taking his or her best care of a patient, a doctor can seem like a rock star to the uninitiated and aspiring pre-optometry student.”
Wearing MBKU purple, students surround faculty member Dr. Raman Bhakhri (seated) for a great photo opp!

Another advantage to using this interview technique is because it gives you a chance to practice actual interviewing skills.  As part of this technique, you will express your own interests and professional goals to the doctor. You’ll gain confidence and experience. Exchanging information with a bona fide professional will be like a dress rehearsal for your future professional degree program interview. It should go a long way to help with your nerves.

Given that the experience with the informational interview went well, perhaps the doctor might recommend you to his or her colleagues for the same encounter, creating a potential network of opportunity.  It’s easy to speculate on what present and future opportunities may arise—even opportunities for a conventional shadowing experience where you would get to observe the doctor deliver patient care.

Areas to Explore with the Informational Interview:

  • Work environment: Contrast and compare it to other professional work environments.  Optometry is practiced in many forms:  solo practice, group practice, hospital, corporate…etc.
  • Ideal skill set that a practitioner needs for optometry: What personal skills, what personality traits, what manual skills should a doctor of optometry have?
  • Professional and industry trends: Optometry enjoys two arenas: private business and the healthcare delivery. As a result, business philosophies and practices may vary accordingly.  Ask the doctor about future trends in both. What are the challenges?  What are the perks?
  • Career path: Discuss your career objectives with the doctor and see if they are indeed realistic career objectives as a doctor of optometry. Why or why not?  Do you expect your career goals to vary over the course of your career, and if so, would optometry be able to accommodate them?
  • Lifestyle: What does the work-week look like?  How much free time is there?  Do you take your work home, ever?  Are any of your family members, a spouse perhaps, involved with running the practice?  Do you have the lifestyle you’d hoped for?
  • Typical compensation: This is a fair question.  If you ask it in an indirect way like, “Tell me about your compensation—does it, or has it, met your expectations?” or, “If you feel comfortable, tell me about how you managed/are managing your student loans?”  Money questions are always tough to phrase correctly.  Using the “tell me” technique gives the doctor the freedom to reveal as much information as they would feel comfortable revealing.
  • Career advancement: Everyone hopes to advance in their career—sometimes it happens in ways that one does not anticipate.  Inquire about the doctor’s career/professional  path, whether the doctor intended to take the chosen path or not with questions like, “If you had it to do all over again, would you have chosen optometry?”  Or, “Is there any other profession that appeals to you now since you have practiced optometry for a number of years?” 

How to Request an Informational Interview :

While making a request to a doctor for an informational interview, it is most important to remember that this is a professional exchange.  Make all arrangements and proceed in a professional manner.  Even if the doctor is relaxed and perhaps even casual with you, direct yourself at all times in a business-like manner.


Matt Love, Class of 2015, and Emily James, Class of 2016 participate in Children’s Vision Day

Prepare a Curriculum Vitae (a list of awards, achievements, and work experience) along with a short bio, including a paragraph on why you want to be an optometrist.  Use these two pieces and send them in a traditional letter (yes, a snail-mail, piece of paper and envelope) request to the doctor.  Explain in the letter that you would like to set up a time for an informational interview and explain what it is.  Explain that you’ll take no more than 20 to 30 minutes of his or her time.  Ask the doctor how they would like the interview conducted, in person versus on the phone.  Explain in the letter that you’d like to call and schedule the appointment with him or her, and that you plan to make that call in the next week.  Ask if they would inform their office staff, the person most likely to take your call.  On the envelope, mark “personal” so your request gets all the way to the doctor and is not opened and discarded by office staff.

Make it clear that you are not asking for employment.  Mention any reference or personal referral you may have.  Send the questions you would like to ask in advance of the encounter.

Preparing for the Informational Interview: 

  • Out of respect for the doctor’s time, familiarize yourself ahead of time as much as possible with the doctor and his or her practice.  This can be done by reviewing his or her website.  If there are any professional affiliations he or she has listed on a website, find out about those organizations and their mission statements.
  • Review any career resources materials from either the library or career center on your undergrad campus.  Do a quick Google search about employment trends for optometry, especially helpful is the Bureau of Labor Statistics maintained by the Federal Government.
  • Prepare an opening statement about yourself, also known as an Elevator Pitch, which is a brief personal profile and how you developed an interest in optometry as a possible career choice.
  • Know your own interests, skills, values, temperament, and how they relate to the profession of optometry; be able to discuss any of these if asked. Prepare by spending time formulating your thoughts about these topics and get them articulated so that your answers come easily. This will be time well spent as you prepare to interview for optometry school, a process that will require the same self-examination.
  • Get comfortable with use of this phrase: “Tell me…”  This is one of my best tips: you can use the “tell me” phrase to initiate conversation about any subject. Instead of asking a point blank question like, “What do you get paid?” you will get even more information and put your audience more at ease by using the phrase, “Tell me about your compensation as an optometrist.”  The “tell me” phrase puts the person answering the question in the driver’s seat, which is ultimately what you want.  As they feel more comfortable with you, trust you more, they will feel more comfortable with a deeper level of communication.  This phrase avoids putting the person who is asked the question on the defensive.  It is an “open-ended” question which will lead to conversation rather than be limited to question-answering only and defensiveness.
  • Look the part.  Wear business attire. You want to look like you will be an asset to the profession. Here’s an FAQ  written on this topic: Interview Etiquette and Importance of Appearance

Questions to Ask: 

  • What optometry program did he or she attend, and the year of graduation?  You’ll want to know if you are shadowing an Alumnus of a certain program to which you are applying.
  • What are your major responsibilities specific to your practice?  These will vary as to whether the doctor owns the practice or is an employee.  Are their management responsibilities?  Does the doctor have other professional responsibilities to, for example, insurance companies or outside contractors?
  • Other career paths that may be available?  Optometrists not only provide patient care, but serve as administrators, professors, insurance panel experts…etc.
  • Education the doctor felt best prepared them for his or her practice style?  Examples would be anything from practice management courses, to residency training in ocular disease, to even undergrad courses like immunology or basic accounting skills.
  • What’s a typical day, week, month like?  Vacation time?  Time to serve one’s community?  Time for involvement in church, sports programs, service organizations…etc.
  • How much time do you spend at your desk?  How much time in actual patient care?
  • What kinds of problems do you deal with?
  • What kind of decisions do you make?
  • What are your major responsibilities?
  • What hours do you work?
  • What are the important issues the profession faces?   What are the trends that may professional viability for the future?
  • Are you active in professional organizations?   If so, which ones?  Favorites?  Are students invited to attend any meetings?
  • What’s the most satisfying part of your job?  What is the least?
  • If you had it to do all over again, would you have chosen optometry?

Following Up: 

Send a formal thank-you letter or card to the person you interviewed.  A nice touch would be to include a Starbuck’s gift card of a very small amount, say $5.00, and say something friendly like, “Enjoy a cup of coffee on me and thanks for your time.”

If possible, share with them the results of your joint project: results of your optometry school interview or any colleagues you may interview as a direct result of their recommendations would be examples of outcomes from the informational interview that you’d want to relate.  Any advice the doctor offered with any follow-up required on your behalf would also be an example of outcomes from the informational interview that you’d want to relate back to the doctor.

In Conclusion: 

First and foremost, don’t make any assumptions about anything.  There is a tendency for a pre-optometry students to do just that because they want to feel like one of “the initiated.”  They want to seem mature in the doctor’s eyes.  Remember, the steps to maturity are by definition immature (I can’t remember where I heard this phrase and I would love to give the author credit).  It’s so true!  You want to be respected by the doctor, someone to whom you look up to; however, you’re not there yet and it’s OK!  Don’t be afraid to ask questions so as to avoid assumptions, which make you seem even more immature.  It’s OK to be right where you are, but it feels awkward.

Stick to the time frame you proposed. If you requested 20 minutes, watch your clock, set a timer, and when it goes off, excuse yourself.  If the doctor invites you to stay longer to continue the interview, agree to another time interval and set the timer again. This is an outward way to show that you respect the doctor’s time.

Emelia Petrossian, Class of 2015, examines a child participating in Children’s Vision Day

Be formal and business-like with the doctor even if he or she is less formal with you.  This stays true to the contract, the station or position you hold in the exchange.

You never “drop by” for an informational interview.  You schedule an appointment.  You arrive early.  Being in a doctor’s office is like being in his or her home.  Respect the domain.

It’s absolutely taboo to ask for any type of employment during an informational interview.  In my research, I saw this warning over and over.  If there is an opportunity for seeking employment with them, separate that discussion entirely from the informational interview session.

The Informational Interview is a must-use technique for pre-optometry students who have limited opportunities for conventional shadowing. Because it can be done over the phone, it’s a better option for pre-optometry students who live in remote areas.

You never know: you may be encountering a future mentor, or a recommender for a letter of recommendation.  You never know how this doctor will factor into your journey to optometry school; so, when it comes to setting up and executing the Informational Interview, take my advice and follow it to the letter!

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