Career counselors are always telling clients to go talk to people about different career fields if the client is undecided about which career to choose, but some people say they feel stuck and fearful as soon as they consider how to actually follow this career advice. These specific informational interview tips will help make the process more clear about why it is helpful to talk to people about their careers and how to go about doing it.
To start, the reason to conduct an informational interview is that no matter how much research you have done using online or print resources, there comes a point in career exploration where talking to people already in a career field is a better way to acquire valuable information. An informational interview is one of the ways to accomplish this.
This type of conversation is a 15-30 minute, highly focused discussion in which you as the career seeker ask questions of someone employed in a field that you are interested in potentially pursuing. Facilitating these conversations can be an excellent method to learn more about career paths or companies you are considering for future employment. Insider information is very valuable in guiding good decision-making, and informational interviews are likely to contain more current information than resources published on earlier dates. A bonus to information gathering is that if you do a good job with the informational interview, you may form a connection with the interviewee that can be beneficial to both of you throughout your careers.
Informational Interview Tips: Preparation
Before you contact anyone to do an informational interview, you should do sufficient research that you appear to be a competent person who has done some homework before requesting the interviewee’s valuable time. At minimum, you should read about the career field using resources like the Occupational Outlook Handbook and material published by the main professional association in the career area under investigation. One caution is that even though the materials from the professional association are likely to be impressive and comprehensive, sometimes they will be overly rosy in how they describe the career because they are the public relations department for the profession.
Informational Interview Tips: Selecting Interviewees
After you’ve done some basic research, it is time to track down some people to interview. It has never been easier to find interviewees than it is today. First, ask everyone you know if they have any contacts in your desired career niche. If doing this doesn’t result in a sufficient number of leads, you can hunt for contacts using LinkedIn, review the online contact information of the leaders of professional associations, locate faculty members of local colleges and universities who have expertise in specific career areas, search the online records of professional conferences for presenters or attendees, look up alumni from your college who are working in the targeted career area, search message boards of online professional forums, or read the business section of newspapers to see who has recently been hired or promoted at organizations of interest.
Informational Interviewing Tips: Connecting
I recommend sending a letter or email explaining what you want and then asking the prospective interviewee whether he/she would prefer to talk via telephone or communicate via email. This is respectful because it honors the interviewee’s communication preferences.
Your letter would look something like this:
Dear Ms. Smith:
<First, mention the person who referred you if you have a connection in common.> I am a financial manager at Make Money, Inc., and I am considering a career change into consumer product marketing. As the first step of a potential transition, I am gathering information that will guide my decision-making process.
I am not seeking a job from you, but I am interested in your opinions about your field and perspective on what skills and experiences I should be acquiring in order to potentially work some day at an organization such as Cool Co.
I am sure you are very busy and if we could speak by phone for 10 minutes or communicate via email, I promise not to take advantage of your generosity.
Thank you in advance,
Informational Interview Tips: Avoid The Ambush Interview
Phil Rosenberg, author of Job Search Secrets: Rethink Your Job Search Now, effectively argued that if you ask for an informational interview and then you bring your resume and try to turn the meeting into a job interview, your contacts will feel used and lied to.
As a hiring manager, I have been ambushed before. If I agree to an informational interview and the person pulls out their resume and starts grilling me about what job openings there are at my organization, I feel deceived and all the good will is drained from the room. Don’t do this.
Informational Interview Tips: Questions To Ask
Plan to ask 4-8 questions only as it is too much to expect to ask someone to answer 25 questions! If you want to ask more than 4-8 questions total, divide up your questions among multiple interviewees. To get you started thinking about which questions to ask, here are some suggested informational interview questions.
Informational Interview Tips: Wrapping Up
After the informational interview, verbally thank the interviewee and then follow up with a brief thank you letter or email. Tell the interviewee that you will keep in touch as you make career decisions and then find non-threatening ways to keep the communication going by contacting the person on an infrequent basis (not more than once every three months). For example, send the person an article on something of professional interest. If the hiring manager has requested your resume, this is the time to send it. This can be the start of a professional network that will serve you well for the remainder of your career.
Additional Informational Interview Tips
Don’t make career decisions based upon small sample sizes. Make sure to talk to enough people that you get a representative perspective rather than just the worldview of just one person.
Keep track of the information you gain in some organized way. After the first interview or two, you’ll be pleased that you took the time to set up a system to prevent all the information from blurring together.
If there is a graceful way to work it into the conversation, briefly mention something memorable about your skills or experience. While you want to allow the interviewee to do most of the talking, it doesn’t hurt to sell yourself a little, if done well.
As Harvey Mackay said, “Dig your well before you are thirsty.” Informational interviews are best conducted well in advance of the time when you actually want to land a job or change careers.
Pay attention to how you feel about the members of a particular professional community. Do you share the same values? Would you enjoy spending a lot of your waking hours with these people?
Finally, have fun! Enjoy building connections and look forward to the rewards of having a thriving professional network.