If you’re considering embarking upon a new career, or a different position within your current field, then consider conducting an informational interview. It may be the best tool for your future success that you’ve probably never heard of.
What’s an informational interview? It’s a meeting that you (the potential job seeker) arrange with someone, probably a person in your network, who is in the field or career path that you’re interested in following – ideally, even a potential employer. It’s not a job interview, since you (job seeker) are the person who initiates contact and sets up the meeting. The purpose of the meeting is for you to ask questions of the interviewee in a low-stress environment, gaining insight into the field you’re interested in and hearing an insider’s account of how to develop a career in it. Along the way, you may have the opportunity to make or strengthen contacts in the field, hear about some potential opportunities, or even – if your credentials match the potential employer’s needs – greatly increase your chances of landing a job. It’s an excellent tool for students and job-changers in particular, but really, anyone considering following a path toward a new career would do well to set up one or more informational interviews.
How does it work? First, you need to know what you’re interested in doing, and you need to be as specific as you can be about exactly what that is. For example, it wouldn’t be enough for a potential job seeker to say, “I’d like to be a lawyer;” rather, she’d want to know in advance what type of lawyer she thinks that she would most like to be (e.g., environmental? divorce? real estate?). If she’s not sure, then setting up informational interviews with lawyers from each area of specialization would be a great starting point and resource for her as she narrows it down before forging ahead on her career path.
Once you have a pretty specific sense of the career you’d like to learn more about, your next step is to set up an informational interview with a relatively successful person in that field – ideally, someone who would be in a position to hire you, as that person will be able to share exactly what a potential employer is looking for when she hires. “Ping” your network: check with your family, friends, neighbors, fellow students, and social media friends for contacts who fit the bill. Don’t forget to look through your LinkedIn contacts and, if applicable, check with your college or university’s career center, which may keep a list of alumni in that field on hand.
Next, reach out to your contact; usually, a letter or email is the best way to initiate the conversation. Explain who you are, how you were referred (if applicable), and what you’re looking for — a 20-minute informational interview. Explain that you’ll be contacting them by phone in the next few days to request an appointment, and then when you do, be polite, professional, and
appreciative; never forget that this person is taking time out of her busy schedule to help you. Be clear about your purpose for the meeting; if you don’t know what exactly you’re looking for, your interviewee can’t really help you.
In the time leading up to the interview, prepare as thoroughly as you can for it. Research everything you can about the job, the company, and the field in general. Create a list of questions you’d like to ask, and make sure they are the most important and relevant ones you need answered; you don’t want to waste your interviewee’s time by asking questions that you could’ve answered if you’d just taken the time to read the company’s website, and you mustn’t allow the meeting to go over the allotted number of minutes. So take the time learn everything you can in advance, and distill your list of questions down to about 10 to 12 of the most important ones. (See sidebar on page 90for a list of sample questions.)
On the day of the meeting, pack a notebook, a pen, and some copies of your resume. Dress professionally (business or business-casual), and plan to arrive 10 minutes early. During the interview, be engaged, enthusiastic, and friendly – but always professional. Your dialogue shouldn’t be overly formal, and it shouldn’t feel like a job interview; instead, treat it more like a conversation in which you ask clear, specific questions about the interviewee’s field. Don’t ramble on, go off tangent, or take up too much of the conversation. Pay careful attention to the answers that the interviewee provides, and ask follow-up questions for important points made. Also, don’t be hesitant to ask for clarification when you need it.
And above all, do NOT ask for a job, as your interviewee will most likely feel taken by surprise, manipulated, and/or irritated.
However, although you must never ask for a job at an informational interview, you can ask the interviewee for the names of others who might also be helpful to you as you develop your career path. Again, be polite and professional in your request, and remember that you’re not inherently entitled to this information. Be grateful for your interviewee’s help. Graciously end the interview when the time is up.
Immediately following the interview, take some time to look through your notes, adding to them and thinking through them. What “insider info” did you learn? What suggestions did your interviewee made for your future steps along your career path? What else do you need to determine in order to move forward? Make a plan of action to help you take the next steps.
Finally, be sure to send a thank-you note, preferably handwritten, soon after the interview. Try to mention a specific detail related to how your interviewee helped you, perhaps indicating how you will be using the information you learned in order to move forward in your career plans. Be sure to include your contact info (address, email, phone number) in the space under your signature.
Finally, remember this: an informational interview doesn’t have to be formally arranged. Most people are happy to share information about their occupations, even if the conversation arises spontaneously in a non-business setting: a party or gathering, a sporting event, the checkout line at the supermarket… you name it. Be ready when the moment comes to learn information and make contacts that may help you land your dream job.
Sample informational interview questions:
- What are the duties/functions/responsibilities of your job? What is a typical day like for you?
- How did you get your job?
- What jobs and experiences have led you to your present position?
- What are the various jobs in this field or organization?
- Why did you decide to work for this company?
- What do you like most about this company?
- What kinds of problems do you deal with?
- What interests you least about the job or creates the most stress?
- If you could do things all over again, would you choose the same path for yourself? Why? What would you change?
- What does a typical career path look like in your industry?
- What are the major qualifications for success in this occupation?
- How did you get where you are, and what are your long-range goals?
- What can you tell me about the employment outlook in your occupational field?
- Are there any professional or trade associations I should connect with?
- Do you know of other people whom I might talk to who have similar jobs?