We live in the information age. Everything we want or need to know is right at our fingertips. Even stuff we didn’t want to know is right at our fingertips. But, even though we have access to tons of information, is it the right information?
You can research XYZ company and learn all about them from their website, social media, and even anonymous reviews, but does that really tell you what it’s like to work there? You can research what it’s like to be a widget maker. But, is that really what it’s like to be a widget maker?
Sometimes, finding out the whole story takes more than reading about it. No matter how deep you dig, you can never know what something is really like unless you experience it. However, when it comes to jobs, that may not be the best way to go. Instead, consider conducting an informational interview with someone who’s already doing the job.
What Is an Informational Interview?
The name is a bit misleading. Are you exchanging information or interviewing someone? Well, it’s a little bit of both.
In a traditional interview, you are the subject, and the company is the interviewer. The company asks questions to learn more about you and to figure out if you’re the right person for the position. You probably ask a few questions at the end, but they tend to be general and brief.
But, in an informational interview, the tables are kind of turned. Think of yourself as a journalist. In an informational interview, you’re gathering information about a career or industry to answer your questions about it and probably bring up new ones.
Career Benefits of Informational Interviews
All professionals can benefit from conducting informational interviews. The knowledge you gain can help you make informed decisions about your education, career, or job search.
Informational interviews are great for first-time job seekers, people who are considering a career switch, or those who simply want to learn more about their own career field. Learning about a career path may help you decide that you need to switch majors or that you need to go back to school for a certification. Or, you may decide that this isn’t the right career path for you.
Anyone who is unemployed can also benefit from conducting informational interviews. It can help you get caught up (or stay caught up) about trends in your career field and may help you learn what you can do to get an interview.
They are also a way to let people in your field know you’re looking for opportunities. While you aren’t interviewing for a job, an informational interview might land you on the radar of hiring managers, and that could lead to an interview.
Securing an Informational Interview
If this sounds a little bit like networking, well, you’re right. In an informational interview, you are trying to establish a connection with someone. With any luck, that person can connect you with other people in the field who may be able to help you find additional connections.
That said, in an informational interview, you are only seeking information. If an informational interview leads to a job, great! But, your sole purpose for seeking the connection is to learn more about the company, role, or career field.
So, start with your existing network. Ask around and see if they have any connections that are knowledgeable and willing to speak with you. It may take a little more work than you’re used to if you’re switching fields, but you’d be surprised who people know.
Sometimes, though, no matter how far your reach, no one in your extended network can help. If that’s the case, you may have to reach outside your network.
The Art of the “Cold Ask”
If the thought of cold-calling informational interview prospects scares you, that’s understandable. In a lot of ways, it’s like cold-calling for sales leads. Fortunately, asking for an informational interview from a stranger isn’t the same as cold sales. It’s more like networking with total strangers at an industry event.
These steps can help you reach out for a cold interview. However, keep in mind that you can also use many of these tips if you’re asking someone in your network.
Start with LinkedIn and your own network
Seek out the people in your industry but be specific and deliberate in your choices. For example, don’t say you want to talk to “engineers.” Narrow that down to, “engineers who work in the alternative energy field with a focus on converting wind to power.” That will help you develop a targeted list of people who can give you relevant information and won’t waste your (or their) time.
Once you’ve narrowed your list, choose only people you think will have the time to talk to you. While it would be cool to score an informational interview with the CEO, that’s probably not going to happen. Pick someone a little lower on the totem pole who more likely has the time to speak with you.
Send an email.
Make sure your email and subject are clear and brief. Start by asking if that person could help you. But, make it clear that you aren’t looking for a job (even if you are). Explain that you are looking for information, and you’re wondering if you could speak to them for 20 to 30 minutes.
Here’s a sample:
Subject: Can you help with an informational interview?
Dear ___________: I found your profile on LinkedIn, and I’m hoping you can help me out. I’m currently in X industry and am thinking of switching to Y industry. If you have the time, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the role and the career path. I would only need 20 to 30 minutes of your time. Thanks so much.”
Hopefully, someone (or several someones) will be happy to help you. But, if you do get a “sorry, can’t” response, thank them anyway. You never know who’s going to interview you in the future!
Preparing for an Informational Interview
Once you’ve found someone to interview, you may think you’re ready to go. After all, you’re the one asking the questions, and you already know what you want to ask.
But an informational interview is more than “What do you do every day?” Remember, this person is taking time out of their day to share insider information with you. Preparing thoughtful and insightful questions will not only help you learn more about the role and the field, but it will also make your subject feel like they haven’t wasted their time on you.
Start with the Basics, But Don’t Stay Basic
Toni Frana, career coach at FlexJobs, advises informational interviewers to research “the company and the person you will be interviewing. See if you have any shared connections, where he or she went to school, and overall familiarize yourself with their career path.”
Then, move on to your industry. Figure out what the industry trends are and what you want to learn from those trends. Learn the lingo and find out who the key players are. Don’t ask questions that a simple Google search could answer. Make sure your questions dig deeper. Ask questions that only an insider could answer.
Do the same thing if you’re asking about a specific company. Don’t look at the company home page and ask a few questions that are already answered in the “About” section. Check out press coverage that isn’t on their website. Delve into the competition and see what they are doing.
How to Conduct an Informational Interview
The day has come, and you’re set with your questions. Whether this is over the phone, Internet, or in person, you want to set a polite and respectful tone.
What to Not Do
Before we talk about what to do, let’s look at some of the things you shouldn’t do in an informational interview.
Yes, this is a casual, informal meeting, so you don’t need a suit. But, it’s not a sweatpants and stained shirt kind of event, either. Even though you’re on an information-gathering mission, you still need to dress to impress. You never know what the future will bring, so it’s better to make a good impression than not.
Ask for favors.
While it might be OK to ask for other contacts to interview (more on that in a second), don’t ask about job openings, references, or anything else that’s “big.” Even if you’ve been introduced to your subject by someone else in your network, you barely know the other person and asking could leave a bad impression and show poor judgement.
Just like preparing for a job interview, practice your questions and answers. You want to make sure you aren’t wasting the subject’s time. If you don’t know what you’re asking or why you’re asking it, you may come across as ill-prepared or worse, disinterested.
Start Slowly and Personally
Think about every interview you’ve ever been in. Was the first question, “How do you handle difficult customers?” Probably not. More likely, they started with small talk (is it still raining?) and moved into “warm-up” questions (tell me about yourself).
An informational interview should be no different. While it’s tempting to start rapid-firing your questions, you should start politely and thoughtfully. A good opener could be, “Thank you so much for meeting with me. Like I said, I’ll keep this to 30 minutes or less.” And while you want to have an agenda, don’t make it feel too structured.
Then, you want to give your subject a chance to talk about themselves. Not only is this a chance for them to brag about themselves (if that’s their thing), it also gives you a chance to demonstrate that you’re interested in them as a person, not just another contact in a network. So, instead of asking them questions about the company or industry, ask some personal questions like:
- How did you get your start in the field?
- What are you working on right now?
- What do you love/hate about the job?
You should also be prepared to talk about yourself. With any luck, the interview is a back-and-forth conversation, so the subject may have questions for you. But, don’t use it as a time to sell yourself like you’re in a job interview. Keep your answers short and always steer the conversation back to your subject or your questions.
Questions to Ask in an Informational Interview
Once the small talk is over, you’re into the good stuff. Now is your chance to ask the questions you really want the answers to. Because you’ve only got a few minutes, you may want to rank your questions to make sure you get to the ones you really want.
Remember that you’ve got a real person in front of you. This is your chance to get the inside scoop! So, ask specific questions that only a person can answer.
If you’re trying to learn about a specific role, ask:
- What are the important industry publications and outlets that I should know?
- What other teams do you interact with regularly/rarely? How does it work out?
- Is there a specific degree I should have or classes I should take?
- Are there any extracurricular activities I should do? Professional organizations I should join?
- Which do you do more, work in a team or independently?
- How has your role changed over the years or in response to industry changes?
If you want industry knowledge, try:
- What skills do I need to be successful in this field?
- What do you think employment prospects are for the industry? Are the odds better if I move somewhere else?
- Do you think the industry is pivoting in response to outside forces? If so, is that a good thing? Are they doing it well?
- What is the best/worst thing about the industry?
- What are your competitors up to? How does that change your field?
While all of your questions may be important, make sure you let the conversation flow naturally and ask whatever other questions arise from the conversation. It may mean letting some of your other questions go, but you may learn things you never thought to ask about.
Wrapping It Up
Eventually, you will have to wrap up the interview. If things are going well, you can ask the subject if they’re able to speak with you a while longer. If they can, great. But, if they can’t, thank them for their time and for the information they’ve shared.
If you feel that things have gone well, you could ask the subject for any contacts they can share. Your contact may be expecting this, but you’ll want to gauge how the conversation went before making this request.
And, understand that not everyone will want to share their entire network with you. That said, in some cases, they may not have any other contacts that they think would be useful to you. In either case, be polite and thank them.
After the Interview
Like a regular interview, make sure you send a thank-you note. Keep it short and polite, and thank them (yes, again!) for their time. Let them know that what you learned was invaluable and, if you can, give a specific example of something you’re doing based on what they said.
Also, if the thought of asking for contact information during the interview gives you hives, the thank-you note could be a perfect opportunity to ask for some. Just keep your request light and informal: “If you think of anyone who would be willing to talk to me, please pass along my information.”
Just like any other member of your network, keep in touch carefully. Make sure you don’t overdo it. And, definitely, don’t reach out to see if they know of any job openings.
However, if you do see an opening at their company or in the field at a different company, you can reach out to let your contact know you’re applying and see if they have any advice for you.
Using Informational Interviews to Your Advantage
An informational interview may sound like a waste of time. All you’re doing is asking questions, and it’s definitely not a job interview. However, if used properly, you can learn a lot about a specific job or industry. And, if you take the time to make a good impression, you may find that interview requests start heading your way.
Need more advice? Check out our tips for networking on LinkedIn, our guide to midlife career changes, and advice on thank-you notes. If you’re a FlexJobs member, you can also access our Learning Center, where you’ll find webinars, downloadable guides, video courses, and career coaching services.
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