Guide to Informational Interviews

Guide to Informational InterviewsIf you are considering changing your career or changing your job, making an informed decision is a very smart move.

Typically this is called “informational interviews,” a concept which What Color Is Your Parachute? author Dick Bolles introduced many years ago. Excellent idea!

Traditionally, the interview has been in person — in the person’s office or over coffee or lunch, but recently the methods have begun to change as we have more options.

Today, your informational interview may be over the phone. In addition, video interviews, like Zoom and Skype, can also work well. Some informational interviews might be via email, although avoid those if you can because email is doesn’t give a real sense of the person’s emotions (like enthusiasm or wariness).

The goal: collect information from people doing what you think you want to do. That information helps you to make the best choice for your next career move. For many reasons (see the benefits below), informational interviews are a great idea!

Remember this is NOT a job interview! Do collect information. Do NOT ask for a job, and do NOT bring a resume, unless requested before the interview.

Rather than just blindly blundering from job to job, learn more about a field, job, and/or employer you are considering. By making an informed decision, you will reduce the likelihood that you will be wasting your time and energy moving to a job or employer that may not be appropriate for you.

What Is an Informational Interview?

The interview is a short (typically 20 minutes or less) one-on-one discussion with someone who works in the field you want or for an employer you are considering (or both). You ask them for information and advice about the field or employer you are considering.

View the person who you interview as more of a colleague or mentor than a potential boss or co-worker. You want to understand how the field or employer work so you can answer these questions:

  • Would you be successful?
  • Would this be a good fit for you?
  • Is this something you want to do?
  • Where can it lead? What is the future of this job, career, or employer?

Informational interviews aren’t always perfect, and you might not receive the information you need from each person you interview. But, this approach is much better than simply making an uninformed change to your career — which could be great or could be terrible.

When Informational Interviews Are Necessary

A bad choice may have a negative impact on your career for several years, so, as the old saying goes —

“Look before you leap!”

Go through the informational interview process when you don’t really know enough about your options to choose the best option for your future career. Don’t think of them as sly ways to apply for jobs. That’s what many of your interviewees will suspect because that’s how other, unsuccessful, people approached them.

Collect information through the informational interview process when you are seriously ready for a change in your work, like:

  1. Starting a new career
  2. Changing careers
  3. Changing jobs
  4. Changing employers
  5. Considering a school or training
  6. Graduating from school or finishing training

Speaking as someone who has made painful mistakes in my career, going to the effort to collect information before taking one of these major steps may be the best time investment you can make.

Start with People You Know

Your goal is to expand your network as well as collect information, and the best way to start is to reach out to people you know already. They can be relatives, old friends, people you went to school with, or people you have worked with in the past.

Starting with people who are not strangers can help you gain both experience and the confidence needed to then reach out to people you do not know. Hopefully, the people you know will give you both names and introductions (via email or telephone) to the others who can help you.

Some (or many) of the people you contact will be skeptical of your motives when you ask for an informational interview, particularly the people who are new to you. They have likely been “burned” by people making a pitch for being hired, using informational interviews as the “cover” for their job pitch.

Be very respectful of the person’s time! If they prefer to do the interview over the phone rather than in person, be grateful for their time. They are doing you a very big favor.

At the end of the interview, ask them who else you should be talking with to learn more about [the field, employer, job].

Informational Interview Mistakes to Avoid

Use your intelligence and discretion in setting up these interviews, the venue you choose (assuming a face-to-face interview), and in the questions you ask.

1. Being Unprepared

Before you set up the interview, know your objective, and learn as much as possible about the person and the field or organization you will be discussing.

2. Asking Inappropriate Questions

Choose the questions you ask carefully, based on your objectives for the interview as well as your understanding of the person, their role, and the organization.

For example, someone junior in research or sales probably won’t have in-depth knowledge of the organization’s financial situation, and they won’t be able to answer well, which will be awkward for both of you. Or, a senior manager may be unwilling or unable to understand what a new junior-level employee experiences.

Also, don’t ask about “company confidential” information, like the profit margin on a specific service or the “secret sauce” for the special (and expensive) trademark product that has made the organization profitable and famous. You are unlikely to get an answer, and you are not very likely to be referred to anyone else by this interviewee.

If you do accidentally ask a question that the person is unwilling or unable to answer, respect the person’s response. Apologize sincerely, and move on to your next question.

3. Being Unprofessional and Ungrateful

Maintain your professional demeanor, and be polite, even if the other person is not. Avoid being negative if the person shares information that you don’t want to hear or that you don’t agree with. Consider informational interviews to be learning experiences, even if what you learn is to avoid working for a specific employer or with a specific person.

DO follow up with a thank you note. Use email if that’s how you normally communicate with the person, or, send a formal hand-written thank you to someone who is very senior or traditional.

Bottom Line

Make an informed decision for your next career move by conducting several informational interviews. Without collecting information, successfully changing careers or finding a great new job can often be more a matter of luck than a well-reasoned move to a better future.

More About Informational Interviews:

Susan P. JoyceAbout the author…

Online job search expert Susan P. Joyce has been observing the online job search world and teaching online job search skills since 1995. A veteran of the United States Marine Corps and a recent Visiting Scholar at the MIT Sloan School of Management, Susan is a two-time layoff “graduate” who has worked in human resources at Harvard University and in a compensation consulting firm. Since 1998, Susan has been editor and publisher of Follow Susan on Twitter at @jobhuntorg and on Facebook, LinkedIn.
More about this author