How do you get the most out of informational interviewing? Last month I had an opportunity to sit on a conference panel that explored diverse career paths for humanities Ph.D.s, and that question came up. One audience member said, “I’ve tried doing informational interviewing, and I don’t even know enough to know what questions to ask.”
Of course, she was right: if you’re interviewing someone about a career you don’t know very much about, you don’t really know what questions to ask. I hope she was a little reassured when I reminded her that when she started her dissertation research, she didn’t yet know what questions to ask and that informational interviewing is a similar sort of process.
Perhaps you’re not familiar with informational interviewing, but it’s a powerful tool for anyone seeking to learn more about a particular career field. I prefer to think of it as an informational conversation, but whatever you call it, it’s a brief (usually 30 minutes or less) meeting where someone exploring career opportunities seeks information on a particular field, employer, or industry.
You might be interviewing people who do a particular job in a variety of environments. For example, if you’re interested in urban planning, you might want to interview someone who works for towns and cities and someone who work in a consulting firm to get a feel for how the work of an urban planner differs in those environments. Or maybe you want to target a particular company or organization, so you want to interview a couple of people who work there to get a feel for what working for that company is like.
There are several reasons to do informational interviewing. Maybe it’s my background as a historian, but I believe that a first-hand account is a powerful kind of information. I love learning about things directly from people who have experience with those things. Who better to give me a sense for what it’s like to be a chemist or a computer programmer or a kindergarten teacher than the person who spends her days immersed in that work? Some of the things you can learn from an informational interview include:
· insight into how to best pursue a particular career path
· the day-to-day tasks that are part of particular jobs
· what kind of knowledge and skills you need to do those jobs
· the kind of environment or organizational culture that exists in particular workplaces.
· a glimpse of both the joys and frustrations of doing that work
· the challenges facing particular industries
· information about the characteristics a company is looking for when they hire
Your aim in conducting informational interviews should not be to get a job. An informational interview is not the same as a job interview. Nonetheless, I have known of cases where an informational interview put a candidate on a potential employer’s radar screen and led to a referral which led to a job offer.
These jobs were usually part of the hidden job market, the millions of openings that never get posted outside the company. While most companies post jobs internally in order to comply with U.S. Labor Department equal employment opportunity guidelines, the truth is that employers often prefer to find candidates through referrals from other employees or professional networks because winnowing a large pool of candidates who respond to a job ad takes a lot of time.
An informational interview gives you a chance to make a contact within a company, and it may result in a referral for an open position at some point weeks or months later.
So if I’ve convinced you that informational interviewing should be part of your career development process, you’re probably wondering how the heck to get started. First decide on your goal: is it to explore a variety of career fields that interest you? To explore a particular job in a variety of settings? Or to explore a particular organization that you think you’d like to be part of?
Next, begin making some lists of folks you know who might be good contacts. Ask friends, family members, former colleagues and supervisors, and even your old professors if they know anyone working in a particular field. Reach out to the alumni office at your college; they often have databases of other alums who have offered to make themselves available to assist graduates of their alma mater. If you are targeting a particular employer, reach out to the HR manager and ask for 30 minutes to explore opportunities with that employer. Go to conferences and networking events, and when you meet someone who you’d to learn more about, ask them if you could reach out to set up a brief conversation about her career.
Then send the person an email introducing yourself. (This article from Fast Company offers some advice on how to write that email.) In a sentence or two, describe your background and your reason for wanting to talk with the person. Tell them who suggested you talk with her. Acknowledge he is busy and say that you will only take 15-30 minutes of time. Indicate some days you might be available to visit them at their workplace or offer to meet them at a local coffee shop if that is more convenient. (And if you meet at a coffee shop, buy them coffee.).
Some people may ignore your email. If that’s the case, accept it and move on. Others may answer you and decline to be interviewed. Thank them for considering it, and move on. It’s not personal. People are busy, and some people are more inclined to helping people than others. In general, people are willing to help others—so long as you keep it focused and brief. And people like to talk about themselves.
Prepare for the interview by researching the person on LinkedIn or public web sites located through a Google search. Don’t creep them out with comments or questions that suggest you’ve been digging deeply into their lives, but feel free to say things like “I saw on your LinkedIn profile that you’ve been here at X company for ten years. Can you tell me how you got started here and how your career has evolved?”
If your focus is on the organization, do some online research about it and about the overall industry.
On the day of the interview, dress professionally in a way appropriate for that field. If you’re meeting a construction engineer on a job site, you probably shouldn’t wear a suit, but you should wear neatly pressed clothing and sensible shoes appropriate for a construction site. On the other hand, if you’re visiting a law office or meeting a lawyer for coffee, you should definitely wear a suit or a tailored dress. My rule of thumb is to always err on the side of being a wee bit overdressed. My mom always said, “Better to be overdressed than underdressed,” and I’ve found that to be true most of the time.
Start with general questions such as:
· How did you get your start in this career field?
· How has your career evolved?
· What’s a typical day like for you?
· What advice would you give someone who is thinking of this field?
· What are the most rewarding parts of this work?
· What are the biggest challenges of this work?
· How would you describe the culture of this organization?
You should also be prepared to chat about yourself, your background, and your career goals. But keep this short, especially at the beginning of the conversation. If you’ve asked me for 15 minutes of my time and you talk about yourself for ten of those minutes, you’re not going to get very much out of the conversation, and I’m going to be frustrated with you. As the conversation unfolds, the person may ask you more about yourself, and then you can say more, but again, keep it brief.
I want to emphasize the importance of respecting the interviewee’s time. If you asked for 15 minutes, try to stick to 15 minutes, but don’t go over 30 unless they invite you to stay longer. Wrap it up by saying how much you appreciate them sharing their time and their experiences with you and asking if they have other suggestions of folks you might want to talk with. If they suggest a name, write it down, ask for contact information and whether it’s ok to tell the person who suggested them.
Then go home and write a thank you note. I know it’s old-fashioned, but in this age of impersonal electronic communications, a brief hand-written thank you note stands out. If you also want to send an email thanks, that’s great. Call me old-fashioned or call me Southern, but I’m still a big believer in the hand-written thank you note.
Informational interviewing is a powerful tool in your career development toolkit. And each time you do an interview, you’ll feel more comfortable talking to people. And you’ll learn more about the best questions to ask. But you can never go wrong with a good set of general questions.
Want to learn more? The Harvard Business Review has a great article on how to get the most out of an informational interview. And here’s a great short video on the topic from the folks at Stanford University.