4.6 Informational Interviewing
Dawn Forrester and Eden Isenstein
As you develop your career identity and learn what it means to be a professional in a field or if you are looking for a new job or exploring a change of career, one of the best ways to learn about different fields and industries is to conduct informational interviews with people who have expertise in those fields. An informational interview is a conversation in which a person seeks insights on a career path, an industry, a company, and/or general career advice from someone with experience and knowledge in the areas of interest.
Informational interviews differ from job interviews because the conversation is not about hiring and not about a specific job. The knowledge seeker asks general questions about an industry, company, or career path, and the knowledge provider has an opportunity to learn about the knowledge seeker’s character and qualifications outside of a formal job interview process.
Even though an informational interview is usually less formal than a job interview, it still requires preparation, and you will find that it calls upon many of the skills you are practicing in this public speaking course: research, audience analysis, crafting your message, delivering your message succinctly and professionally, active listening, and soliciting feedback, among others. Although each information interview situation will be different, the following steps can help you get started.
Step 1: Researching the Field
The more specific and focused you can be in each part of the interview process, the more you’ll get out of it. In order to move from the general to the specific, we need to start with some research. Use the internet to find local companies or organizations that are involved in the field of interest, and try to find out as much as you can about terminology, subfields, and job titles. Check national job listings for the job titles you’ve found (websites like indeed.com can help). What qualifications are they looking for?
Step 2: Identify People to Interview
There are two ways to go about selecting people to interview: using your social and professional network or reaching out to people outside of your network. If you can use your network, you are more likely to have a successful response, but you may be able to get closer to the career field you’re looking for if you reach outside your network. Your school’s alumni network can be an excellent resource.
When you find someone you might want to talk to, find out what you can about their professional presence on the internet. Do they have a LinkedIn profile? Is their resume posted somewhere? Is any of their work published or public in some way? The more you know about the person professionally, the more you can focus your questions to their specific situation. Note, however, that it is unwise (and unprofessional) to go digging into personal information about the person on the internet. It’s not relevant to the situation, and there is a high risk of misidentification or misunderstanding.
Do not put all your eggs in one basket. It’s best to compile a list of people you would like to speak with (and some notes to remind yourself how you found them and why you want to talk to them).
Step 3: Prepare Your Introductory Message
Throughout this course, we have been stressing the need to tailor your communication to your audience. This is very much the case for informational interview requests, especially if the person is outside of your immediate social network. Why are you contacting this person specifically? Do you have a shared connection somehow? Have you seen his or her work or something he or she worked on? Does his or her background or career path have similarities to yours?
In reaching out—usually via email, unless you’ve been invited to text or call—be clear and specific about what you are asking for.
- Mention how you got their name.
- Ask for a 20–30 minute appointment, at their convenience.
- Emphasize that you are looking for information, not a job.
Especially if you are cold-contacting someone (emailing someone without an introduction from a shared connection), you should not be surprised if your request is ignored completely. That is OK! Repeat Step 3 with the next name on your list. Use this opportunity to revise and refine your message.
Once someone agrees to meet with you, it is time to prepare for the interview!
Step 4: Conduct the Interview
Before the interview, you should prepare a list of questions you would like to ask, but also be ready to go off script. You should spend time in advance thinking about what you want to learn from this particular person. The more specific and informed your questions are, the more useful the answers will be.
Dress professionally for the interview and make sure you arrive on time or early. Introduce yourself, thank them for coming, and remind them why you wanted to meet with them. Remind yourself (and, if an opportunity arises, your interviewee) that you are looking for information, not a job; this interview is about the interviewee and their experience, not about you and your qualifications. That said, do not expect the person you are meeting with to guide the conversation. You are responsible for asking the questions that will bring out the information you are looking for (Berkeley Career Center, n.d.).
Remember that this interview is a speaking situation, not just a friendly chat (though it will probably be friendly as well). Speak clearly and concisely, and try to use specific, concrete, and professional language.
Step 5: Follow Up and Reflect
It is important to write down a record of the meeting as soon as possible afterwards, while the details are fresh in your mind (LiveCareer, n.d.). Track not only what you learned and next steps, but also reflect on the interview itself. What went well? Did anything happen that you were not expecting? What can you do more effectively next time?
Be sure to send a thank-you note within one or two days of the interview. Whether you write the note by hand or send an email will depend largely on how you reached the person, whether you have a physical address to send it to, and your personal preferences. Either way, you should try to be as specific as possible, and mention something about the interview that you remember (Kalish, n.d.).
Designing Your Career: The Informational Interview
The video below will give you even more information about the importance of informational interviews. You will be reminded that an informational interview is not a job interview, you will learn the key to successful informational interviews, and finally, you learn 5 important tips to make this a great experience.
More Resources for Informational Interviewing
Informational Interviewing Tutorial: A Key Networking Tool
Identifying People to Interview
Questions to Ask at the Informational Interview
Informational Interviewing is an article from UC Berkeley’s Career Center webpage
And, from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Informational Interviewing will give you even more information.
Aim for your Informational Interview to last about 30 minutes or so.