Informational interviews are one of the best research methods you can use. Who better to paint a picture of a position than the person currently filling it? An informational interview is an informal conversation with someone who works in an area of interest to you, but don’t let the word ‘informal’ fool you; you need to be prepared! These interviews provide you with an opportunity to ask questions and gather insights into a new position, field, or company. It may seem awkward reaching out to someone you don’t know, but most people are very receptive to interview requests. Many people enjoy talking about themselves, and with an informational interview you’re giving them an opportunity to be in the spotlight and share advice based on their personal experiences.
Why should you conduct informational interviews?
Find out what you’re in for. Whether you’re a student exploring career paths or a professional looking to switch fields, this is a great way to get first-hand, insider information. When you ask questions, measure the responses against your strengths, weaknesses, values, and overall career goals. Once you’ve conducted a few interviews, ask yourself:
“Am I cut out for this position?”
“Will this career path allow me to capitalize on my best skills?”
“Does the company vision align with my values?”
“Will I be satisfied or frustrated by the management style?”
“Are there long-term growth opportunities for me?”
Knowing what you don’t want can be just as powerful as knowing what you do want. Remember, the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. If you’re in a stable position with a company you like, you need to do your homework to find out if the career or company switch will be worth it. Informational interviews enable you to assess your career options, so you can make sound decisions, narrow your search parameters, and stay laser focused on your next job target.
Discover career paths you didn’t know existed. Our career paths are not always linear. As much as we plan, sometimes we end up in unexpected roles that we are good at and enjoy. The more you talk to other professionals, the more you can learn and see where your strengths fit. You can also ask about internal opportunities, training programs, and mentorship streams that are not as easy to research online.
Develop professional relationships and expand your network. If you hit it off with the person you are interviewing, keep in touch! When you show up to an interview prepared with insightful, targeted questions, the interviewee will likely be impressed. The more that person gets to know you and understand your skills and capabilities, the more likely they’ll be able to forward you job opportunities within their company…or better yet, refer you to the hiring manager.
Follow these steps for a fruitful informational-interviewing experience:
1. Conduct preliminary research.
You likely have a few position ideas in mind, so start gathering information on what is typically involved in these roles. You can also check out company websites to see if their ‘Mission, Vision, and Values’ statements align with your long-term values. Other platforms, such as Glassdoor, provide company reviews from current and past employees and provide insights on salary, benefits, and management style. Doing this initial research will help you form targeted questions for the interview.
2. Locate potential interviewees.
The easiest entry point is to ask your friends and family if they know anyone that works in the position you’re targeting.
If you’re a student, ask professors if they can introduce you to colleagues in the field. You can also check out alumni directories and events. This way you can talk to people who took the same program as you and find out what career path it led them to. It provides you with common ground to make your introduction.
Get involved in your professional association and attend industry events so you can find out what is trending in your targeted field. This will help you formulate good questions as well as allow you to participate more deeply in interview discussions.
Take to social media! A quick LinkedIn search for the targeted position will yield lots of results that you can filter by location and other criteria important to you.
Just as you researched career types and companies, whoever you locate for interviews, be sure to do some research on them as well. A basic review of the interviewee’s LinkedIn profile should give you enough information to identify areas of common interest, like you both attended the same school, relocated from the same province or country, or volunteered for the same organization. Your information gathering should only be conducted from their public professional profiles. Going too deep into your investigation may make the interviewee feel uncomfortable or violated.
3. Make your ask.
When you’re ready to contact your potential interviewee make sure your request is specific, succinct, and of course, polite. Introduce yourself and add some context as to why you’re reaching out. Mention who referred you to them or how you got their information. Offer to meet with them at or near their workplace at a time that is convenient for them and provide the option for a phone call instead of a face-to-face meeting. Provide the length of time you expect the informational interview to take (e.g. 15-20 minutes). Here’s an example of a recent graduate:
“Hello Jane, my name is Laura Hartnell. We haven’t met before, but as a recent <school name> graduate of <field of study> I’m looking to explore my career options in the field. After finding your contact information on the alumni directory, I was very impressed to see your research on <subject matter> and would love to ask you a few questions about your position as a <position title>. I could pop by your office at a time that is convenient for you to conduct a 15-20-minute informational interview. Alternately, if you’d prefer to chat over the phone, please provide me with an appropriate date and time to call you. Looking forward to hearing back from you! Thank you, Laura”
4. Prepare your questions.
The interview is not the time to come up with the questions. These need to be well thought out in advance. Be punctual, dress appropriately for the industry (business-casual is usually a safe bet), and make sure you know how to pronounce the interviewee’s name. Bring a notepad so you can jot down any resources or additional contacts they suggest and so you can summarize their answers after the meeting is complete. Here are some ideas for questions:
“What does your typical day look like?”
“What do you enjoy best about this position, and what do you find most challenging?”
“What personal traits have you noticed among people who do well in this position?”
“What courses or training would you recommend a person take to be successful in this role?”
“How much autonomy do you have to make your own decisions? In other words, what is management like?”
“Does this company have any mentoring programs, or enable staff to broaden their skillset through stretch assignments?”
“Where do you see the future of this industry? What changes do you see ahead, and what skills will make them easier to navigate?”
*Remember, an informational interview is not an opportunity for you to ask for a job. It’s a method by which you can gather insights about potential career paths and grow your meaningful connections.
Although you may have a long list of questions, be mindful of time and wrap things up when it’s close to your 15-20-minute mark. This demonstrates to the interviewee that you respect how valuable their time is and establishes you as someone who sticks to agreed upon timelines and goals. Be courteous and thank the person for meeting with you or taking your call.
5. Send a thank-you note and continue to cultivate a mutually-beneficial relationship.
An email will suffice, but a hard-written thank-you note is even better! Regardless of your delivery method, make sure the note is personal and highlights your main take-aways from the meeting. Assuming you had a fruitful conversation, the interviewee is now invested in your career journey so it’s ok to keep them updated on how you implemented their advice and the developments of your job search.
Here’s an example of a thank-you letter:
“Thank you, Jane, for meeting with me today! I really appreciated your candid advice on <topic of advice>, and I’ve already registered for a course on <important area> so I’ll be ready to hit the ground running at my first job. Your insights on <topic> added a lot of clarity to my job search, especially your example of <specific case>. I can see now more than ever, that this is the right career path for me, and I strongly believe my <specific skill or trait> will enable me to <action that is important to the role>. I’ll touch base with you in a few weeks to
let you know how my job search is going. Once again, thank you so much! Sincerely, Laura”
To extend your gratitude, you can ask the interviewee if there’s anything you can do to return the favour. Keep up the momentum by sending them industry-relevant articles or new things you’ve discovered to make their job easier. Strong connections are a two-way street!
Laura Hartnell, MA, CARW