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:
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?”
There are lots of ways to connect with people in your field of interest:
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.
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.