Networking Advice: Informational Interviews

Part of the networking advice collection of articles.

What’s an informational interview?

In general, an informational interview is a meeting or conversation between two people: someone who wants to learn more about a particular career and someone who works in that career field. For example, if you are a recent college graduate interested in becoming a dentist, you would pursue informational interviews with experienced dentists. Or, if you wanted to go into investment banking, you might arrange meetings with executives at Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley. Keep in mind that an informational interview is NOT a job interview.

Why do I want to conduct informational interviews?

Informational interviewing is an excellent way to learn more about a career you are considering. Let’s say, for example, that after extensive research you’re pretty sure you want to be a management consultant. Informational interviews with seasoned consultants – employees at firms as well as self-employed consultants – will help you solidify your goals.

If all goes well, your informational interviews should leave you much more knowledgeable about a particular career or field:

  • You should have a sense of what – should you go down the career paths of your interviewees – you would do on a daily basis.
  • You should be able to pinpoint prospective employers. Through your interview you’ll develop an understanding what it’s like to work for specific companies, firms, or individuals, and you’ll be able to make informed decisions about what employer would be a good match for you.
  • You will expand your list of contacts by collecting names from interviewees.
  • Just by listening to your interviewees speak, you’ll begin to develop a fluency in the vocabulary and verbal etiquette of your prospective field.
  • You will cull information from your interviewees that, during your own job interviews, will help you show prospective employers that you’ve done your homework.
  • You’ll practice handling yourself well in a professional context and discussing your own objectives.

Whom should I interview?

As you might guess, you should interview people whose perspectives will help you make decisions about what you want to do with your life. There are two ways to go about finding interviewees:

The Connections Approach: Use your network of contacts to find interviewees. Your network – which includes friends, family, co-workers, college alumni, professors, and anyone else you know – might include potential interviewees. But what is most likely is that the people in your network either know a potential interviewee or know someone who knows a potential interviewee. And, of course, you can always ask for names from an interviewee.

The Cold Call Approach: This tactic skips the middleman entirely. You simply choose a relevant company and contact the person who’s in the position that interests you. You can usually find names pretty easily on company websites and in company literature. However, if that doesn’t work, call the main switchboard of the organization and ask, for example, for the name and phone number or email address of the head of advertising.

How should I set up a meeting?

The three main ways of making contact are telephone, email, and snail mail. If you call your potential interviewee, it might help to write down what you plan to say ahead of time. If you send something written, be sure to proofread your missive. It is especially important that you do not say or do anything that makes it sound as though you’re trying to get the person to hire you. While that would be nice, it’s not the point of the informational interview.

Telephone calls, emails, and letters basically follow the same structure:

  1. Introduce yourself
  2. Explain that you’re interested in the field in question, but that you would like to learn more about it through someone like your potential interviewee, who has a lot of experience and wisdom.
  3. Give a specific reason you’re interested in talking to the potential interviewee – you’ll show you’re serious and focused when you, for example, tell the head of a public relations firm that you know her organization does a lot of work for environmental groups, and you’re specifically interested in that aspect of PR.
  4. Ask if the person has time for a 30-minute meeting during which you could learn more about the interviewees’ work and thoughts about their career.

This whole process of contacting interviewees might make you a little nervous – if you’re new to the working world and low on the totem pole, calling up a business executive can be a little frightening. You may be especially hesitant because you feel like you have nothing to offer in return for that executive’s time. Relax. Most successful members of the working world have an intimate understanding of the networking system. They know that when they were inexperienced, seasoned professionals helped them out. And now that they’re the high-level executives, they’ll talk to you at a business conference or grant you a 30-minute meeting – with the understanding that when you’re a big shot, you’ll take a few minutes out of a busy day to advise a newcomer about your line of work. And, if that answer doesn’t satisfy you, remember that most people love talking about themselves and relish the experience of feeling like an important expert in their field.

How do I prepare for an informational interview?

It’s impossible to overvalue the importance of preparing for your informational interview. The more research you’ve done about the interviewee’s background, accomplishments, line of work, company, and current projects, the better the conversation will be. And, if you impress the interviewee with your preparation, he or she will be much more inclined to help you and take you seriously.

Spend some time looking at the interviewee’s company’s Website. Read articles about current issues in the interviewee’s line of work, about the company itself, and about the interviewee. Then, make a list of questions. It maybe helpful to put your questions in order of priority so that if you run out of time, you will have addressed the most important issues. Your questions might address lifestyle, education, daily tasks, the future of the interviewee’s industry, office culture, and what the interviewee might do differently if he or she could do something over again. Just remember it’s inappropriate to ask personal questions – you should be having a professional exchange.

How do I conduct the informational interview?

You’ve made a contact with someone and they’ve agreed to meet with you in person. Though you shouldn’t grovel at the sight of your networking contact, be considerate and appreciative of his or her time. Your face-to-face meeting should last no longer than you promised it would (20 or 30 minutes), and your conversation should follow a specific sequence. Begin by introducing yourself and stating the reason for the meeting. This should lead directly into an explanation of how your new contact might be able to help you out. Next, briefly explain your background so that you contact can put your questions and requests in an appropriate context. The next step is to ask your specific, prepared questions. However, your prepared inquiries shouldn’t keep you from asking relevant questions that you think of during the meeting. Part of having a good exchange is reacting to and listening to your contact, and this means, in some cases, that your conversation will go down a different path than the one you originally intended. Then, at the end of the meeting, ask for two or three names of others who might be helpful to you. Be sure to ask your contact if you can use his or her name when you contact the referrals. End the meeting with the door open for future contact.

How do I follow up after the informational interview?

Always send a thank you note to the interviewee. Mention specific aspects of the conversation that you found helpful, and acknowledge the interviewee’s generosity in speaking with you. Make a point to keep in touch with the interviewee after your conversation with him or her. For example, if you get a job, let him or her know of your progress.

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