When you're looking for a job or planning a career change, sometimes it's best to get a sense of the field or companies you're interested in, even if you don't have a formal interview scheduled. That's where informational interviews come into play.
An informational interview enables you to learn more about a particular industry by asking questions to someone with experience in that field. Economist Olivia Crosby writes that during an informational interview, the conversation doesn’t focus on you. Instead, talk about the person you’re meeting with, including her educational background, career trajectory, and any advice she may have to offer.
Through an informational interview, according to Crosby, you could:
- Learn more about the person’s responsibilities at a job and the realities of her occupation.
- Discover how that person found her job and became a top candidate during the selection process.
- Obtain contacts in your field of interest.
- Find out about new ways to break into the industry.
- Determine your professional strengths and weaknesses.
- Receive an overview of a specific company.
- Hone your communication skills.
- Learn about careers you didn’t know existed.
Finding a Contact
There are various ways to go about finding a contact you can reach out to for an information interview. A good place to start is your school’s career center or alumni office. You can also speak to family members, friends, teachers, and past colleagues who can connect you with a mutual friend or acquaintance who has pursued the field you’re interested in.
LinkedIn is also a good place to find professionals in your discipline. Search for people who are working at a company you are interested in, and see if you have mutual connections. If so, ask your connection for an introduction.
To first get in touch with your contact, career experts in the Association of Fundraising Professionals recommend that you send an email, a LinkedIn message, or make a phone call. Let the contact know how you found her and request a short meeting — or phone conversation if she isn’t available in person — of around 20 minutes.
Be clear, though, that this is an interview only for information (not a job) and that you’re interested in learning more about her background. Request that you meet either at her office or over coffee (and you’re buying).
Nailing the Interview
Here are some tips to make sure your informational interview goes smoothly:
Do your research beforehand.
Joseph Kim, MD, MPH, founder of NonClinicalJobs.com, writes that conducting research on a particular industry before your informational interview will enable you to ask better questions. The more you know about the industry, the more properly equipped you will be.
Read industry-specific journals, explore online blogs written by officials in your desired field, and attend national and regional conferences and events.
Researching the interviewee's background will also allow for a more in-depth interview, and will demonstrate that you have taken this opportunity seriously. Look up previous positions the contact has held, read articles she has published, and understand the projects she has worked on.
Prepare some questions.
Have a list of five to 10 questions prepared for the interview. According to Kim, questions can include, but are certainly not limited to:
- How did you get started in your position or in your field?
- What do you like and dislike about your current role?
- What did your career trajectory look like?
- What advice do you have for breaking into the industry?
- Who do you recommend I speak to next for more insight?
Ask if you can take notes and, if so, write down key information.
As long as your interviewee is okay with it, take notes to show that you’re processing the information. Taking notes is a good way to ensure you remember what you learned during the meeting. According to the Association of Fundraising Professionals, handwritten note-taking is less distracting to the interviewee than typing notes on a laptop.
Bring a copy of your resume.
You should consider having a copy of your resume with you during the informational interview, even though you’re not necessarily applying to a specific job. “A well-written resume demonstrates seriousness and professionalism,” Crosby writes in her article.
Crosby writes that you should arrive on time, be friendly and polite, and allow for casual conversation while acting professionally. You’re the one running the show, so it’s up to you to keep track of the time.
Keep it short and sweet
Keep it to around 20 minutes, unless the interviewee expresses interest in talking further. This will demonstrate that you’re being respectful of her time while still obtaining the information you need.
Follow up with any contacts you were given.
According to the article in Advancing Philanthropy, if your interviewee names any other potential contacts who have succeeded in your desired industry or company, be sure to jot down their names and ask the interviewee if it’s alright that you reach out to them.
Say “thank you.”
Make sure you express your gratitude to the interviewee after your meeting. Your email or note can be brief — a paragraph or two — and it’s always a good idea to reference a specific piece of information that you found important or helpful to show you were paying attention.
Cook, P., & Kaufteil, A. (2013). Informational Interview Etiquette. Advancing Philanthropy,20(2), 47-49. Retrieved October 1, 2014, from Advancing Philanthropy
Crosby, O. (2002) Informational interviewing: Get the inside scoop on careers. Occupational Outlook Quarterly, 46(2), 22-29. Retrieved October 1, 2014, from Bureau of Labor Statistics
Kim, J. (2011). Exploring Alternative Careers Through Informational Interviews. Physician Leadership Journal, 90(2), 90-92. Retrieved October 1, 2014, from American Association for Physician Leadership