The 411 on Informational Interviews

Posted by Cara Scharf on June 19, 2011
The 411 on Informational Interviews

On the surface, an informational interview is exactly what it sounds like: a personal exchange geared toward learning about a specific career, industry, or position. But the beauty of the informational interview is that it goes beyond information gathering, which nowadays can mostly be done online.

"It's about building a relationship with a professional in your desired field," says Julie Cohen, career coach and owner of Julie Cohen Coaching LLC. "It will build your network, and give you an insider's view of a career." It's also less stressful than a real interview because there's no job hanging in the balance.

No matter where you are in your job search, you won't regret adding the informational interview to your bag of tricks. Just make sure you take the right approach, and ask the right questions to make the most of your conversation.  

Plan Your Objective
Think seriously about your goals before setting up an interview. "Even though you might want a job, don't let that be your primary intention," says Cohen. Contacts won't be as willing to give up their time if that's your stated agenda. Instead, focus on your desire to develop your career path and plan your strategy according to the job titles, companies, and industries that you'd like to explore.

Scout for Targets
There are several resources you can use, starting with professional acquaintances, family, and friends. You can also check in with your alumni association or college career center; they usually have a database of former students who are willing to lend an ear. Professional associations are a good starting point, too, as is a job or company search on LinkedIn.

It's convenient to have some sort of a connection to your interviewee, but don't be afraid to find new contacts in creative ways. Cohen suggests browsing recent news articles related to your career interests, and tracking down the person who was quoted or profiled. Plus, the article should give you ammunition to initiate a dialogue-and eventually ask for that interview.  

Pop the Question
"Many people are uncomfortable asking for informational interviews because they think it's a one-way street," says Cohen. But don't worry that you're asking for something without offering anything in return. People love to talk about what they do, and as long as you show that you're genuinely interested in how they got where they are, you should be successful.

Email is the least intrusive way to pose your question. Start by simply letting the person know why you've contacted them, whether it's "Jon recommended I speak with you," or "I read your article in the Post and want to hear more about your work." Then give a little background and say why you would value a meeting-but don't make it as formal or as long as a cover letter, and DON'T include your resume. End by giving a few dates and times you're available. A standard request is a 15-minute phone interview, but if you feel comfortable, ask for lunch or a coffee.

Research the same way you would for a job interview. Google your interviewee to see if anything pops up that you can talk about. Make sure to prepare enough questions to pass the time, because you're the one leading the conversation. If you're meeting face to face, dress appropriately for the location and for a potential employer. It's okay to bring your resume, but keep it hidden unless you're asked to share it.  

Lead the Interview
The most important part of the interview is asking the right questions. Here are some suggestions to get you started:

  • What lured you to this industry?
  • What training did you need?
  • What is your typical workday like?
  • What do you like most about your work, and what do you like least?
  • Do you have any recommendations for someone just starting out? 
  • Are there other people you'd recommend speaking with? (This is particularly important because it will build your professional network.)

Everything you ask should be something that can't be found elsewhere, so don't ask the contact to repeat his bio. If the interview runs long, point out the time and leave it up to the contact to wrap things up. When your conversation ends, be gracious and appreciative. If it was a face to face and drinks or food were ordered, always attempt to cover the tab.

Follow up

Your final move should be an email to thank the person for providing her time. Tie up any loose ends from the conversation, including names or documents they promised you. Keep the door open for future correspondence by asking if it's okay to keep in touch. It may just happen that three months later, your quick email to check in will illicit an invitation for a real interview.

About the Author