How To Do an Informational Interview
Informational interviews are a form of networking. Think of them as ways of gathering information about workplaces and introducing yourself to potential employers. What kinds of needs do they have? Who are the target customers they serve? How can you bring your unique knowledge, skills, and passions to match their mission? This blog post discusses strategies for informational interviews in the non-profit or for-profit world, and is adapted from advice by career transitions expert Richard Montauk (author of the book How to Get Into the Top MBA Programs).
Informational Interviews: What, Why, and How
What is an informational interview? You are interviewing a person in your network (the interviewee) to gather information. Importantly, this doesn’t have to be someone who has a job in the industry you’re targeting; it can also be a colleague or acquaintance who is also seeking work in this field with whom you can share information, experiences, and advice.
Why do informational interviews? First, to get information about jobs and careers. Second, to get potential referrals for job openings. Third, to learn about aspects of professionalization within your chosen field (including professional associations, journals, events, and trends). In addition, employers highly value the recommendation of someone who is already inside the company. If you make a good impression, they might even create a job for you. Never, however, ask directly for a job during an informational interview (unless the interviewee brings it up first!).
Why do experienced professionals agree to do informational interviews? Many job seekers feel apprehension about asking for informational interviews, under the impression that they are asking for a freebie. The reality is that your contacts are often happy to do informational interviews: they like to help, they like to talk about themselves, and they generally like to feel important. Think of it as an exchange; with luck, you’ll be able to help your informational interviewer later more than they have helped you by sharing information and maybe even resources.
How do you get informational interviews? First, approach someone and introduce yourself (follow our tips from the Networking blog post). In conversation, elicit their advice and follow their suggestions. Take their contact information, and follow up with them by email or LinkedIn (see our Linkedin Total Makeover blog post here) in order to express your gratitude, restate your motivation and goals, and ask to talk with them for an informational interview. The most common context for an informational interview is offering to buy someone a cup of coffee and chat for 15 minutes (although both you and they know it will likely last longer!).
If you are exclusively networking through online means (such as LinkedIn), it’s often helpful to set yourself a target for your efforts: for example, saying “I will send x number of emails this week,” or “I will make x number of phone calls this week.” This keeps you proactive and engaged; it can be discouraging to not receive replies to cold calls and emails, so reward yourself by focusing on your productivity (which you can control), not necessarily your results (which you can’t).
Leads on informational interviews often come from acquaintances in your social network. Generally, people who seek out informational interviews make use of so-called “weak ties.” Weak ties are defined as links between any two densely knit groups of close friends. Their value reflects research showing that most jobs are found not from people who are close to you, but from people who are more distant in your social network (Granovetter 1973).
Other people who may be helpful in establishing weak links include family; friends; old acquaintances; fellow graduate students; university administrators; career services officers; your former employers; alumni associations; your university department; other university departments; on-campus career recruiting or informational events; professional associations. One great idea for meeting people is to find events or meetings run by a local branch of the professional association that interests you, perhaps even volunteering to help them set up their event.
During the Informational Interview
Once you’ve arranged to chat with someone, what questions should you ask? Smart questions generally yield smart conversations, and impress interviewees. With that in mind, plan out in advance what you want to get out of a particular conversation; greater focus on your part lets interviewees help you more. Before you go to an informational interview, research the field, organization, and industry. Also do some research on the interviewee.
Some good general questions to ask during an informational interview include:
- What does this job require?
- How does this job vary by organization and industry?
- How does one typically enter a field or organization?
- What is considered appropriate etiquette in this industry?
- What jobs are typically available but not advertised in this field? (Surprisingly, the so-called “hidden job market” makes up 70-80% of all available jobs.)
- Whom would you recommend that I contact in this field?
During your informational interview, it’s helpful to have a 30-second “elevator pitch” about yourself and your career trajectory to the present. The elevator pitch should briefly explain your career direction and why it matters to you, while highlighting some of the skills and accomplishments you’ve achieved along the way. People relate to stories; some handy ways to frame your elevator pitch include using language like: “I want to challenge myself”; “I want to do something that requires body and soul effort”; “I’m proud of what I’ve done, but I’m ready to move on.” Demonstrate how your change of path is not just a change but a maturation; or, explain why you want to reinvent yourself.
When you are considering a particular job, you may find it’s helpful to think about a job in terms of its function. In the informational interview, ask about what skills the job involves. If the job function suits your needs and desires, there will be opportunities for you to use it productively moving forward in your career, which may include transitioning between industries in roles that share similar job skills and characteristics. This may not be the case in all industries, so keep an open mind.
Show that you are interested in your interviewee, and demonstrate your appreciation for their perspective and accomplishments. Try to elicit a sense of the culture of the company. This lets you know how you should pitch your cover letter and interview materials, should you want to apply for a job. Additional benefits of doing informational interviews are that you will discover what jobs are already within your reach; how you would fit within an organization; how to target your cover letter and resume; and how to circumvent the massive competition for jobs advertised on search portals like Indeed.com and Glassdoor.com.
Remember to dress professionally and have business cards. Bring a copy of your resume to the informational interview (but keep it out of sight unless the interviewee explicitly asks if you have it!).
Once you’ve done an informational interview, keep your new contacts in the loop! Consider them part of your growing network. Send them a follow-up thank you note, add them on LinkedIn, and (if they are fellow job-seekers) consider sharing updates with them every so often about job openings, sharing interesting articles or information, or mentioning your progress in ways that show appreciation and gratitude for their help.
Granovetter, Mark S. “The Strength of Weak Ties.” American Journal of Sociology 78:6 (1973), pp. 1360-1380. Retrieved from https://sociology.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/publications/the_strength_of_weak_ties_and_exch_w-gans.pdf.
Montauk, Richard. “Networking.” Retooling Your PhD 2014 with Richard Montauk. Workshop held at the CUNY Graduate Center on 5/16/2014.