How Informational Interviews Can Help You Succeed

When thinking about pursuing a particular career path, wouldn't you just love to pick the brain of an expert in that field?

Informational interviews, or one-on-one meetings with someone in your field of interest, are an opportunity to do just that. Unfortunately, not enough people utilize this option in the course of preparing for their career.

Gathering Information Is Key

When a new venture is in your future, gathering information is key to your success. For example, if you want to go to medical school, it helps to research factors such as the prerequisites, cost, and future job prospects. You should always do this kind of research before committing to an educational or career path.

Before you embark on this journey, it’s wise to speak with those who have pursued the same goal. Asking about the challenges they faced and the advice they can offer will give you insight into how to prepare for this next step — or even if this is the right field for you in the first place.

Why It’s Important

According to a 2012 article in U.S. News and World Report, the informational interview is widely underutilized. But those who do pursue these opportunities can glean important information to move them forward in achieving their goals:

“An informational interview is a one-on-one conversation with someone who has a job you might like, who works within an industry you might want to enter, or who is employed by a specific company that you're interested in learning about. These interviews are excellent options for plotting a career path or focusing your aspirations.

"Because they're preliminary in nature, informational interviews are also useful for someone who knows what type of job they want but is still at the beginning of his or her search.”

How Do I Start?

Begin by using your current network of friends, family, and colleagues to seek out people in your chosen field of interest. You can also be creative about searching for potential people to interview. Contact people at companies who have jobs that seem exciting to you, or use your school’s alumni network to get in touch with former students who pursued a career you are passionate about.

Once you have a few people to reach out to, craft a well-written email that you can send to these contacts. Make sure to describe your background and what you are interested in learning from them. Personalize each email to demonstrate you’ve researched the recipient’s accomplishments.

At the end of the email, ask if she has time for a short (15 or 20 minutes!) meeting to talk about her work. You can suggest grabbing a cup of coffee together, or setting up a time to talk by phone if the person isn’t in your area. If she accepts, ask when and where it would be convenient for her to meet — at her office, a nearby coffee shop, or elsewhere. As Kay Crawford, certified career coach, suggests in U.S. News, you need to keep your expectations reasonable and be clear about exactly how much time you’d like the contact to give you.

Be sure your message demonstrates that you understand the value of this person’s time, and expresses enthusiasm, gratitude, maturity, and professionalism.

What Should I Do?

Once you have an informational interview set up, be sure to prepare:

  • Arrive on time
  • Dress professionally
  • Bring a business card and resume
  • Have your questions ready and make sure they reflect your research
  • Be mindful of the time
  • Practice your interview and communication skills
  • Thank your contact for meeting with you

Note: You can offer to pay for coffee if you meet in person, but you don’t need to press or go beyond this gesture. It’s important to be mindful not to create the impression that you want more from this person than her expert advice.

What Do I Say?

If you’re seeking information about a specific career or profession, do your research in advance. These are some questions you may want to consider asking:

  • What does a typical workday look like?
  • What parts of your career do you enjoy most?
  • What are some of the common pitfalls and challenges in this career?
  • What recent trends have you noticed in this profession?
  • What are the most important skills in this profession?
  • What types of volunteer and internship positions do you recommend?

Before you leave, make sure to request a business card and ask if you can connect on LinkedIn .

Following Up

After an informational interview, always follow up with an email or a paper thank-you note. Make sure to personalize what you say. For example, talk about a specific piece of advice that stuck with you from the conversation.

If the person agreed to connect with you on LinkedIn, send her a request in a timely fashion. If you keep in touch and your relationship develops, you can consider endorsing one of her skills or writing her a testimonial.

If appropriate, keep in touch from time to time. You can send a note to let the person know how you are and how much she helped you. If you come across an article or study that is relevant to the discussion you had together, you can send it in an email. Depending on the personality of the contact, your relationship may evolve into one where you feel comfortable occasionally meeting to check in. If this is the case, you may consider sending a holiday card or inviting her to your graduation party.

Authenticity, honesty, professionalism, and gratitude will get you where you want to go in regard to informational interviews and the networking involved in making them happen. Enjoy the process, and use these experiences as golden opportunities to build your professional network while gathering crucial information for the fulfillment of your professional goals and aspirations.

Further reading: "How to Have a Successful Informational Interview"

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