Questions to Ask in Informational Interviews
By Susan P. Joyce
A key element in preparation for a successful informational interview is being prepared with appropriate questions ready to ask. Since you have a limited amount of time for the interview, typically less than 30 minutes, being very well-prepared is a necessity.
Do NOT expect that you will be able to ask all or even half of the questions listed below. Prioritize the questions that are most important to you, and expect that you will probably be able to ask only 15 to 20 questions in the short amount of time for the interview.
Hopefully, you know why you asked the person for the interview, so you have (had?) a goal in mind when you started. As you progress in your informational interviews, you may learn things that will add new concerns or, at least, additional things to consider or questions to ask.
How to Prepare Well for Each Interview
The best strategy is to start with people you know. You will be more comfortable asking the questions and you will also start to collect the names of people you don't know. Then, move on to people you don't know.
To make the best impression and also to collect the most useful and relevant information, prepare in advance to ensure that the opportunity isn't wasted.
- Know your goal for the interview. Before each discussion, know the information you would most like to know from this person.
Do you want to know how they learned something specific, were chosen to lead a project, got published by a major website, connected with a specific person or company/organization, or something else. Understand that you won't always succeed, but if you aren't prepared, opportunities will be missed.
- Research the person. Know their current employer and job title, and how long they have worked for that employer. Look for recent major accomplishments, too.
When possible, learn about the person's previous employers, job titles, and significant accomplishments. LinkedIn is usually a good source of information.
- Research the employer.
Research their employers, focusing on the ones most relevant to your goal.
Check the corporate websites (both for the current and former employers, if possible), and Google the employer names (current and former) as well as names of current corporate officers and products/services of the current employer.
- What questions are this person in the best position to answer for you?
Perhaps they work in the field you may want (social media marketing, for example) or for an employer or member of a class of employers you are considering (Google, ecommerce sites, or PR firms).
For example, assume you are a woman interviewing a woman who was in middle management at your target employer, your goal could be to learn about how women are treated in the organization. So, you would ask questions like these: How many women are in senior management? Are they treated with the same respect as senior male managers? Are women promoted as often as men? Are women paid as well as men?
Yes, you can do research to answer some of these questions -- like how many women are at the VP level in the company, and you can note if they are in "line" or "support" roles. Knowing that the woman you are interviewing was a middle manager, not a VP, you can be sure that she has some experience, insight, and opinions on this topic. And, if you are a woman who wants to be a VP in this organization (eventually), this information will be very helpful for you.
Prepare questions (see below) focused on your goal to help you gain the most useful information from each interview. Remember, this isn't a 2-hour discussion. At most, it is 15 or 20 minutes. Stay focused on your objective, and be very respectful of the favor your interviewee is doing by giving you some of their time.
Prepare as many questions as you can that are relevant to the person and their career, and then prioritize your questions.
Questions to Ask in Every Informational Interview
Typically these questions are best left for the end of the discussion, but the answers can be extremely important to you so allow at least a couple of minutes at the end of the interview to ask them. These questions give you insight into things you probably hadn't been considering (but should). Be sure to ask these questions in every interview!
At the beginning of the interview, ask this question:
- Do you mind if I take notes? Very few people will object, but asking for permission is the best course when you are interviewing someone in person.
At the end of the interview, ask these questions:
- What advice do you wish you had been given before you started your career in this field (or accepted a job with this employer)?
- Who else should I speak with? Why? What is the best way to contact them? May I use your name when I contact them?
- What can I do for you?
If you make a bad impression on the person you are interviewing, that impression may permanently close a network "doorway" for you. Done well, informational interviews expand your professional network and can be an excellent foundation for your career.
Questions for Students and New Grads to Ask
Whether you are currently attending or recently graduated from college or graduate school, these questions are relevant to your specific situation. The answers will help you choose your target employers, and craft your best plan for getting hired:
- How important is my major to this employer?
- Which specific majors or degrees are preferred for this field?
- How important is my GPA?
- How often do internships become full-time jobs?
- What portion of the people doing [job title] have college degrees?
- How important are advanced degrees or certifications considered?
- Given my [school/major/GPA], do you know of other employers who might be good (or better) fits for me?
The answers to these questions can help you to determine your fit for an employer, taking into consideration the opinions of other employees.
Questions for Everyone to Ask
Everyone should ask questions like the questions below. You very likely don't have time to ask them all, so ask the ones that are the most important to you and most relevant to your goals.
Questions About the Person
To establish some rapport at the beginning of the interview, particularly if you don't know the person well (or they don't have a LinkedIn Profile), ask a question or two about their background and experience like these:
- How long have you been in this field?
- How did you start in this field? (And/or -- How did you get your start with this employer?)
- What do you enjoy most about this job? (And, if the rapport feels solid -- What do you like least about this job?)
- What do you like most about this field? (And, if the rapport feels solid -- What do you like least about this field?)
- What have you worked on here that is/was most interesting to you?
- What is your opinion about -- something new in the industry, something new in the profession, and/or something new with that employer?
- What advice do you wish you had been given at the start of your career in this field?
- Why do you think you have been successful in this career?
This will give you an idea of where the person is in their career and how informed they are about this profession/job or employer.
Questions About the Job or Profession
From the person with the job or profession you may want next, you want to learn the answers to some of these questions:
- How rapidly is this field growing? What (element, job, or employer) seems to be growing the most rapidly?
- What is a typical day, week, month, and/or year like? Best times and worst times? Why?
- Where do you see the technology in this field having the greatest impact? Will this field disappear, replaced by technology? When?
- What are the best parts of the job/profession and worsts parts?
- What are typical projects that someone does, particularly when getting started?
- What are the typical job requirements and responsibilities for this job?
- Which employers are the "best" employers for someone starting in this field? Why?
- What schools, training, or certifications seem to be preferred by most (or the best) employers?
- How much experience in a related field is required to do well in this job/profession? What seems to be the best background experience?
- What is required for success in that job/profession? How is it measured?
- Why do people fail in that job/profession? Why do people succeed?
- Where is the best place to start -- job title and/or employer? What are the minimum requirements?
- Which employers are the best employers? Which employers would you recommend that I pursue?
- Which employers pay the best?
- Is special training required? Where's the best place to get that training?
- What is the typical starting salary for a beginner in this field? Someone with 5 or more years of experience? OR
- What is a reasonable annual salary to expect for someone at your level? Are there any additional compensation elements that are standard (e.g. annual bonus, commission, tuition, etc.)?
- What is the impact on personal life? Does this field have a good work/life balance?
- Which professional/industry associations are most highly regarded and helpful? Local or national events?
Ask more questions as they occur to you, and, certainly, ask follow-up questions if someone provides you with a new idea or concern.
Questions About a Target Employer
If you are interviewing a current employee, don't ask questions that could be answered by a review of the employer's website. That's a disrespectful waste of their valuable time.
When you are interviewing someone who works (or worked) for the employer you may want next, you could ask:
- How large is the organization? (Look for number of locations, number of employees, total revenue, or whatever is appropriate for that organization.)
- How is the organization structured? (Look for divisions, departments, or other sub-groups.)
- How would you describe the "corporate culture"?
- What makes someone successful working for this employer? Why would someone fail?
- What do you wish you had known before you started working in the organization?
- Do you consider it a good place to work? Are/were you happy working in the organization?
- What is the best part about working in the organization? What is the worst?
- What is the management philosophy? Do managers tend to keep tight control of their subordinates or focus on the "big picture"?
- How does someone get promoted? Is there a clear process?
- Is this an "up or out" organization where you need to continue to be promoted or leave?
- How does someone move up into management? (This is good to know whether or not management is your goal.)
- Are there written performance reports? How often?
- Do people receive annual raises? More often? Less often?
- If receiving a raise is not based on time -- What determines when a raise happens?
- Where do the most successful people work before being hired by the organization?
- Where do employees typically work next when they leave?
- How long do most people stay working here?
- Have you seen anyone fired? Do you know why they were fired?
- What schools, training, or certifications seem to be preferred by management? Does the employer provide training for employees?
- How much of the work done by this organization is off-shored or out-sourced? What specific parts of the work are done by another organization? Is this a growing tendency?
- Who are the biggest competitors? Most threatening competitors? How are they different? (These competitors could possibly be other employers for you to consider)
- Does the company stay in touch with former employees? Do active "company alumni" groups exist?
Learn as much as you can about a potential employer, understanding that a current employee, particularly one who doesn't know you well (or has any reason to trust you) may not be completely open about the negative aspects of working where they currently work.
You get the idea. These questions can be your starting point. Not all of these questions may be appropriate for every interview, and you will hopefully think of many more you can ask as the interview progresses. Collect information! Know the information you would like to collect from each person, and ask questions that help you understand more about the profession, job, employer. Then, be sure to ask for the name of someone else who might also be interested in helping you.
More About Informational Interviews:
About 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 Job-Hunt.org. Follow Susan on Twitter at @jobhuntorg and on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+.