If you’ve been considering a new career path or planning a job change, you may have encountered the concept of, “informational interviews.”
This term refers to a popular and effective information gathering strategy for career changers and job seekers. However, many online career experts only mention it briefly and at a superficial level. Most people know vaguely what it’s all about but, when faced with the prospect of actually doing one, they feel woefully ill-prepared.
Because informational interviews can play such a powerful role in executing a successful employment transition, this is an important topic for any career-minded individual.
What Is an Informational Interview & Why Use It?
The concept is simple: Before you make important career decisions, interview someone who has the “insider” information you want or need to make a well-informed choice.
When you’re attempting to make a career or job change, you want to make smart choices based on evidence. Reliable information is essential, but it’s also hard to come by. For example, it can be difficult to really know what a certain organization is like from the outside. Online reviews only tell you so much, and there’s no telling how trustworthy it is. Wouldn’t it be much better to physically talk to someone in your network who actually works there?
The same thing is true when exploring a new role or an entirely new career path. Sure, you can read about what life is like as a software developer and you can imagine it based on your own observations. Or, you could sit down with someone who does it for a living and ask for their honest assessment. Which option do you think will be more fruitful?
Whatever it is you’re considering, chances are pretty good that someone out there already knows everything you’re curious about. That person can shed light on every mystery and give you real-world insight you simply can’t get elsewhere.
“Informational interview” is just the name we give to these kinds of conversations.
When Should You Use an Informational Interview?
As suggested to earlier, this is a strategy to employ when you’re in the exploration phase of your transition—when you’re not sure what direction you want to go, you have a few options to consider and you need more data to help identify a path forward.
Don’t get an informational interview mixed up with a job interview. This is a more informal conversation intended to assist you in decision-making, not to determine if you’re the right fit for a specific role at a specific company. In some cases, this might lead to an invitation for a job interview, but don’t count on it; that’s not the purpose. When you ask for an informational interview, people are prepared for a specific type of conversation. If you go in looking for a job, it will shift the focus of the discussion and confuse the person on the other end.
Who to Ask
Previously, you learned that the point of this tactic is to interview someone who has the information you want or need to make a well-informed career decision. So, it follows that the person you ask should have that information.
If you’re curious to know what it takes to be a successful executive recruiter, for example, you want to speak to a successful executive recruiter. Even better, try to speak to several so you can get a variety of perspectives. The more directly involved someone is in the career you’re exploring, the more useful their information will be.
But how do you find these people?
First, search your existing network. Start with the people you know, then consider the people they might know. LinkedIn is a wonderful resource for this as you can easily see your 2nd and 3rd degree connections. While you don’t know these people directly, you can always ask your 1st degree connections to make a warm introduction.
If that doesn’t work, try attending professional association meetings and events within the field you are exploring. This is a great way to meet people who might be a match for what you need. Don’t be afraid to explain your interest and why you’re there. You’ll frequently find that people are eager to share their perspectives when you show a sincere desire to hear them.
If all else fails, PivotPlanet is an interesting online resource you may want to try. This website allows you to connect virtually with an online advisor in the field you’re researching for a small fee. At the time of this writing, they have a very robust list of advisors from a wide array of fields.
How to Make the Request
Once you’ve identified the person or people you want to ask, you’re ready to request an informational interview. If this is someone you don’t know well, it’s totally normal to feel a little awkward. But don’t let that deter you. Sure, you’re asking for a favor, but it’s not an exceptionally strenuous one. Your job is to make it easy for people to say “yes” to your request.
To do that, start by reminding the person of how you know one another—if you share a mutual acquaintance or if you met previously in the past, for example. Then, be very clear right up front about what you’re seeking. You’re not looking for a job; you’re not looking to sell them anything. You just want to learn more about what they do because you’re exploring it as a potential career path for the future.
It never hurts to offer a little flattery as well. Explain why you think this person has valuable insights to share and why their perspective is important to you.
Most people love to talk about themselves and are happy to share their experiences with those whom they think it will help. But remember: People are also busy. Explain that you’re only looking for about 30 minutes of their time, max, and be willing to work around their schedule (as much as you can). Offer to come to them and bring their favorite coffee drink with you.
Be friendly in your request and do everything you can to show that you don’t want to impose or inconvenience them. At the same time, recognize that some people simply do not have the bandwidth to do these kinds of things, as much as they might like to. Don’t pester. Send one email request and follow up once if you don’t hear back, but then, move on.
It may take some persistence to find the right person who is open to helping you out, but it’s a worthwhile endeavor. Of course, when it happens, you want to make sure you don’t waste the opportunity. Stay tuned for the final part of our series on this topic where you’ll learn how to conduct an informational interview to get the most out of your time.
Now, in this last installment, we’re discussing how to conduct the interview to make sure you get exactly what you need from the conversation.
The key to a successful informational interview is the same as it is for any other kind of interview: Preparation. You need to go into it knowing what you want to discuss and what questions you’d like answered. While this is meant to be an informal conversation, you still want it to be productive. Creating a list of questions and topics beforehand can help keep you on track.
What Questions to Prepare
The specific questions you ask will vary based on your unique situation, but you may want to consider some of the following:
- How long have you been in the field?
- How did you get started in the field? What is your background and education?
- What do you like most about your job?
- What do you like least about your job?
- What are your biggest career challenges?
- What do you feel are the key factors for success in this field?
- What is a typical day like for you?
- Where do you think this field is going in the future?
The most important thing is that you guide the conversation where you want it to go. Otherwise, it’s very easy to end up wasting time on irrelevant conversation that doesn’t provide you with the necessary information.
What to Do During the Conversation
At the start of the meeting, it’s useful to explain that you have some notes to help keep you on track and that there are a few specific things you’d like to discuss. That way, the other person knows they don’t have to just supply information; they can let you steer the ship.
It’s also a good idea to pull out a pen for taking notes. It’s too easy to get so wrapped up in conversation that later you struggle to recall important information. However, if you want to record the discussion using your phone or another handheld device, always be sure to ask permission before doing so.
Remember: You’ve asked this person to talk with you for an informational interview. Do not suddenly switch gears and start acting like this is a job interview. If the person offers additional assistance in your career transition, you’re welcome to take them up on it. But don’t push for that or you risk looking dishonest in your original request.
Additionally, keep in mind that this person is doing you a favor. Don’t take advantage of his or her time. Arrive on time for your meeting and wrap up within 30-minutes.
Finally, at the end of your time, express your sincere appreciation for the meeting. Let them know how valuable it’s been and that you recognize their generosity in sharing so openly with you. If it makes sense, you may want to suggest that you reconnect in the future to follow up. Often, an informational interview source can turn into a great lead if and when you’re ready to make a move.
In this series, we’ve deeply explored the topic of informational interviews. At this point, you should be well-prepared to engage in them. The next time you’re considering a big career move, use this strategy to help you gain insight and make well-informed decisions.