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The Power of Informational Interviews

Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know. That’s often the case with job hunting. Sure, the application gives you a job description but what is it really like to work in that industry, that company and do that type of work? Informational interviewing is the way to dig deeper and get the answers you need.  

What an informational interview is and how it can help you

An informational interview is an informal discussion between someone who wants to learn more and the “expert” already in the job who has first-hand knowledge and experience.  

It begins with curiosity. “I want to know more about this [field, industry, career]. Is this right for me? Who can tell me more?” In this way, you can see if it fits your interests and personality. Informational interviews can give you a sense of what to expect. It might not be a good career path for you. That will save you time and energy when applying for jobs. Keep in mind, however, what informational interviews are – and what they are not. While an informational interview could eventually lead to a job interview, that’s not the purpose of the process. It’s to learn and explore. People will know if you have ulterior motives, and it won’t help you in the long run. Conversely, a well-planned informational interview provides multiple benefits. You can: 

  • Learn about the real-life experience of someone working in a field or company that interests you 
  • Find out about career paths and jobs you didn’t know existed 
  • Practice for real job interviews 
  • Expand your network 

How to plan and conduct an informational interview 

The first step is to identify what you want to learn. Maybe you want to know more about a position and what it entails, or what is happening in a particular industry in your field, or how someone does the job that interests you in a specific company. Maybe you want to learn more about career paths in your field. You set the agenda. It’s crucial to do this planning up front because when you do approach individuals, they’ll want to see that you’ve prepared and will use their time respectfully. 

The next step is to identify people with whom you can speak. Friends and family are a great place to start. Even if they are not the ultimate person you’ll interview, they have connections. Other contacts could be teachers and professors, internship supervisors, alumni or peers. Professional social media sites like LinkedIn can show you where people work, what they do, how they got there and, most importantly, what connections you might have in common.  

Prepare your pitch – what you’ll say to a prospective informational interviewee to explain your purpose and what you’d like to learn from them. Ask them what a good time of day, date and technology would be to use. Be clear how long the interview might take (15-30 minutes is a good rule of thumb).  

Many people worry that they’re imposing by asking someone for their time. Dump that thought and don’t let it get in the way. If people don’t want to do the interview, they will decline (which is an opportunity to ask for a referral to another expert). If they say yes, then they want to meet with you! Truthfully, many people enjoy this process. They like feeling that their experience and knowledge can help someone who is earlier in the journey. 

What to ask 

Part of planning your informational interview is identifying the questions you will ask. Here are a few to get you started: 

  • When did you start working here? 
  • What projects have you worked on? 
  • What’s your take about this latest development in the industry? 
  • How did you get into this line of work? 
  • What do you enjoy most about it? 
  • What’s not so great about it? 
  • What’s changing in the sector? 
  • What kinds of people do well in this industry? 
  • If you had to do it over again, what might you have done differently? 

It’s true that informational interviewing might be more of a stretch for some, taking them out of their comfort zone. If you’re an introvert, for example, you may be cringing at this point. That’s fair. But connecting with real people is ten times better than relying on email and messages. The connection is more lasting. It can also add energy to your job search. Applying to job after job, dropping resumes and cover letters into anonymous portals can be emotionally draining. Talking to people does the opposite and can get you charged and optimistic instead. 

So, practice your interviewing skills with a friend or family member. Interview them using the same questions. The point is to become comfortable with the process. Learn to listen and ask follow-up questions. Let your curiosity guide you. 

Finally, end your interview appropriately. Always thank the interviewee (even if you know it’s not a good fit). “I’ve learned so much today. Thank you again for your time and thoughts.” If you’re fired up, share that too. “I’m very excited about what you’ve shared. This definitely interests me. So, no pressure, but if something does come up in the future, please keep me in mind.”  

While the goal of an informational interview is to learn and explore – not interview for a specific job – it can get your foot in the door. It’s an opportunity to get closer to the people who might influence a future job. It will prepare you for job interviews in the field, company and industry and it will dramatically expand your network.  

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