Informational Interviews: The Single Best Way to Look for a Job

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Informational Interview

Having had more than 50 jobs during the course of my career, I’ve used many methods to search for jobs from the more primitive to the high tech including: walking into office buildings, looking at the company directories and filling out job applications in “Personnel” departments; tearing off phone numbers from jobs placed on bulletin boards; asking friends who had jobs if their companies were hiring; working in Temp jobs for agencies like “Manpower,” hoping that a short-term assignment might turn into something permanent; applying to ads in newspapers and then more recently online postings on various job boards or company websites. However, if someone said to me you can choose only one method to look for a job, it would not be any of the above. Instead I would choose a technique called “informational interviewing.”

What is it?

Informational interviewing is reaching out to a person who is working in a field or a company that you’re interested in, or doing the type of work that you would like to be doing (or the managers of these people). You ask that person if it would be possible to get a half hour of their time in person or by phone or Skype so that you could ask them some questions and seek their advice. The purpose of the informational interview is to gain insider information and make contacts that could be helpful immediately or somewhere down the road. In an informational interview, you actually direct the conversation by asking questions.

Why is it effective?

If you ask the right questions, you can get a ton of useful insider information. Informational interviewing is particularly effective for career changers—that is people who are exploring new careers. Also, during the conversation, you might impress the other person to such an extent that they may be thinking of ways to get you into their company, even if there are no posted positions. You might gain access to the “hidden job market,” jobs that haven’t yet been posted or will be filled without ever being advertised. The second reason that informational interviewing is effective is that it gives you access to contacts who might recommend you for jobs in their company or refer you to other professionals. This allows you to expand your network. It’s no secret that most people get jobs through some form of recommendation or referral.

I’ve used informational interviewing for both purposes.

Recently, I was exploring the possibility of “reinventing” myself as an Academic Writing Center professional. As an adjunct instructor, editor and career counselor, I have done a lot of work with students on various written assignments and job search documents and had good success in turning students into better writers. At the time I was working at Columbia University. I knew people at the Writing Center, so I started a conversation with two of my colleagues there. I found out about the mission, goals, techniques, methodologies, challenges, and day to day activities of a Writing Center. I was given resources to read and started to learn the language of the profession. I knew this would hold me in good stead if I were to formally apply and interview for positions. I also received referrals to other writing professionals who were working in various academic writing centers around the city. I learned about the difficulty of breaking into a field which was largely dominated by graduate students. I learned that it was not impossible for me—but it would be very difficult.

A few years before my flirtation with Writing Center jobs, I’d been teaching “Human Resource Management” as an adjunct lecturer in the Business Department at Brooklyn College. One of the sections of the course dealt with the job search and job selection process and I recommended to my students that they visit the Brooklyn College Career Center. At one point, I thought to myself, “If I’m recommending this to students, I should go check it out myself.” I arranged for an informational interview with the Director and Assistant Director of the Center. We spoke for about 45 minutes, and towards the end of the conversation, they asked me if I might consider a six month part-time position replacing a career counselor who was going on maternity leave. That six month position turned into three years. It launched me on the path of academic career counseling which I have been doing for the last fifteen years. Now, don’t count on being offered a job during an informational interview—but it can happen. The point is that the more you put yourself out there and make contacts with people the better chances you have of finding career opportunities.

How do you set it up?

You should always start with people that you know whenever possible. Once you exhaust that list, try to identify and reach out to people you don’t know. One of the best ways of doing this is through LinkedIn—particularly the alumni feature of LinkedIn which you can use to search for CUNY alumni or alumni from your undergraduate institution. The reason I recommend CUNY alumni is that they’re often very loyal. Many are grateful to have received a quality education at an affordable price that launched them on successful careers. However, in my experience, I’ve found that people are generally helpful and like to help someone who is more junior and is just starting out. They often feel flattered that their advice is valued. It also gives them a chance to talk about themselves, which everyone loves to do. Another potential source of alumni for informational interviews are graduates of your program. Ask your department administrator if they have a listing of alumni from your department. If you are interested in the not-for-profit field or independent schools, these organizations often have bios of their employees on their websites.

Once you identify someone that you would like to speak with either call or send an email. Mention how you got their name and why you would like to speak to them along the lines of: Would it be possible to get a half hour of your time to ask you some questions and seek your advice about how to get into this field, organization or company?

The Barriers

When I suggest the informational interviewing approach, I sometimes get the impression that some students—while listening politely—would never actually go out and do this. So I always ask them: “Can you actually see yourself doing this?” The students who say no usually fall into two categories—international students and introverts. For international students, informational interviewing presents a cultural barrier. They have never heard of this approach and might consider it impolite to reach out to a total stranger. At this point, I explain that informational interviewing is pretty unique to the U.S. and Canada and that people do this all the time. No one is going to think “who is this crazy person asking to speak to me who I don’t even know.” The worst thing that can happen is that the person doesn’t answer because they don’t have the time, they don’t think they’re the right person to be able to help, or they plan to answer and then forget to do so. In that case, give it about a week and try again—but at this point, if there’s no response, just move on to the next person on your list.

Networking in any shape or form can be more difficult for an introvert. I’m an introvert. I dread the type of networking event where people are talking while standing around in a large, noisy room with a drink and a plate of food. I’m not very quick on my feet and, in any case, it can be very difficult to hear. The informational interview, however, is one-on-one. You have time to prepare thoughtful questions and follow-ups to direct the conversation. In other words, it’s a structured situation that you have much more control over.

Conducting the Informational Interview

Usually the person you’ve contacted will suggest a place and a time. They may invite you to their place of work or to a coffee shop, for example. You don’t have to dress up as you would for a job interview. Nevertheless, I would suggest neat and clean business casual dress. It’s not always possible, but an in-person meeting is better than a phone call or a Skype meeting.

You should come with a schedule of questions that you want to ask. To get you started, I have some suggested questions:

  1. How did you become interested in this field?
  2. Could you walk me through a typical day?
  3. What do you like about what you do? What don’t you like?
  4. What are the most important skills that they are looking for in new hires?
  5. Could you take a look at my resume and tell me if it’s a good resume for this field? Do I have any skills gaps?
  6. Do you usually work independently or as part of a team?
  7. Can you describe the typical work-life balance in this field?
  8. What resources would you recommend that I utilize to learn more and keep up with this field?

If the informational interview is running longer than the allotted time, ask if it’s OK to continue. Towards the end, always ask if there is anyone else they can recommend you to speak with. Remember, the only mistake that you can make in an informational interview is asking for a job. When you set this up, you’re asking for information—not a job. In any case, the person doesn’t know you yet (and people are very careful about recommending people for jobs since it reflects back on them). However, if the person brings up a job of their own accord, it’s OK to pursue that—as I did with the opportunity at the Brooklyn College Career Center.

Following-up

Send a thank you email within 24 hours. You might ask a couple of questions if you have them. If you were a good listener, or if the person mentioned something they were particularly interested in, look for a source or article and send it to them.

After exchanging some emails, you can now assume that this person knows you and you could now write: “If you know of any jobs in your organization or another organization that would be suitable for me, could you please let me know?” Or say, “I saw a job on your company website that I’m thinking of applying to. Could I have a brief conversation with you about it?” Or, I saw a posting on your company website that I applied to. I just wanted to let you know.” That is in the hope that your contact will go to the hiring manager and say: “I know this student from the CUNY Graduate Center who just applied for a job here. He/she is a good fit for us. Let’s give him/her an interview.” That almost guarantees that you’ll get the interview, and besides, they’ll be better predisposed to you because you come with a recommendation. In any event, it’s important to keep contact with all of your informational interview contacts, because someone can be very useful to you in the future—although you should never assume that in advance.