Informational Interviewing – An Exploring Student’s Best Friend
Informational interviewing is perhaps one of the most rewarding, yet most underused career development tools in everyone’s career tool-box. As the name suggests, the goal of talking with people actually working in the career you’re considering is to get information, not a job.
Informational interviews are great opportunities to help you determine whether you’re in the right major for your career goals, learn more to make better choices about your career path, build a network of career contacts, gain confidence for job interviews by practicing asking questions and providing information about yourself, and help map out strategies for making yourself more marketable when you are looking for work.
When interviewing people for information (versus them interviewing you for a job), there’s less pressure to “sell” yourself, so you can ask honest questions about the person’s job, industry, or organization. For example, in a job interview, it might be inappropriate to ask about salary, but in an informational interview, inquiring about typical compensation would be acceptable.
Other questions to ask:
- What’s the best part about this job (industry, organization)? The worst?
- What has your career path been?
- What was your college major? If you could do it over, would you change your major or do anything else differently?
- What recommendations would you have for a student interested in moving into this career?
- What pressing professional challenges do you have?
- What’s the outlook for your industry (business, profession)?
- What’s a typical work day like?
- How well does your career allow for a good work-life balance?
- Who else would you recommend I talk to as I explore this field? When I contact them, may I use your name?
Other questions might be unique to you. For example, students often do self-assessments that provide ideas for informational interview questions. Let’s say a student has learned through self-assessment that she is particularly productive when working independently (versus in a group). She might ask, “In general, how much of your work is done in a team environment?”
Find People to Interview
There are lots of ways to connect with people in your field of interest:
- Through the UMass Lowell Alumni-Student Career Connections group on LinkedIn. The alumni in our LinkedIn group have joined to facilitate online networking with students. Connect with them through the group to request information and advice about their career paths, their jobs, industries, etc.
- From professional associations. Check out association web sites for student mentoring and networking opportunities.
- From people on campus, including your professors and career counselors. Ask your personal contacts as well, such as your immediate and extended family, neighbors, co-workers, internship contacts, etc. Request their ideas on people who might have relevant career information.
- From websites of companies likely to have employees in your field of interest. For example, if you’re interested in learning more about the field of health-care administration, you could look at websites of local hospitals or managed-care organizations to identify key staff to contact.
Once you've identified someone you'd like to talk to, what's next?
If you have his or her email address, you may want to try emailing your contact first. Explain who you are, how you found them, why you’re writing, and ask to meet in person, if possible. For example, here’s an introductory email to the Director of Operations at XYZ Medical Center:
“Dear Ms. Jones: I obtained your name from the XYZ Medical Center web site. I’m a health management student at Acme University and am in the process of defining my career goals following my graduation in June 2010. My current area of interest is hospital administration, so I thought you would be a great resource for information and advice about this career field. Would you be willing to meet with me for 30 minutes so I could ask you a few questions about the hospital administration field and how best to prepare for it? I could easily come to your office at a time that works for you. Please let me know by return email or, if you prefer, call me at xxx-xxx-xxxx. Thank you for your consideration. Sincerely, [student’s name]”
If you don’t know the person’s email address (or get no response to your email message) try telephoning with the same sort of approach.
Remember to mention the 30-minute limit – a contact is more likely to say “yes” if you ask for a short amount of time. If you try to reach someone twice with no response, look for someone else to contact.
- Plan ahead so you appear professional and prepared.
- Write down your questions and take them to the meeting. Make them open-ended questions that require more than a “yes or no” answer.
- Plan to dress as you would for a job interview.
- Know how to get to the interview and plan to arrive 10 minutes early.
- Try to relax and enjoy yourself, but always behave professionally.
- Introduce yourself and offer a firm handshake.
- Reiterate your promise to stay only 30 minutes.
- Ask your questions, but try to make it a conversation rather than an interrogation.
- Take brief notes if you like.
- After 30 minutes, offer to stop. Your interviewee may say it’s fine to continue, but if he or she indicates that your time is up, say thank you, ask for a business card, shake hands, and leave.
Within 24 hours, send a thank-you note. Express your appreciation for the time spent with you and mention your plan to follow through on any suggestions offered in the interview.
Informational interviewing is a low-risk way for you to learn a great deal more about a profession than by simply sitting in the classroom. In addition, you’ll develop professional connections before actually beginning a career. The information you gain can make a world of difference in your career path and may even change the path’s direction. And, just as important, the process can build your confidence in promoting yourself along the way.