What is an Informational Interview?
What comes to mind when you hear the word “networking?” Does that word conjure up visions of making uncomfortable small talk at a business event or in between panels at a conference? Have you ever wondered exactly how people leverage their networks on social media sites such as LinkedIn?
If you’re nervous about networking, you're not alone. The idea of asking a stranger to give you their time and attention is a daunting one.
Luckily, there is an important yet often overlooked networking technique that can make developing professional connections even easier: the informational interview. When done right, an informational interview can be an opportunity for both you and the person you’re interviewing to make a meaningful, lasting professional connection.
An Opportunity to Learn
Lest you think that an informational interview is really thinly veiled code for finagling a job interview when there is no job posted, think again.
The “informational” part of the informational interview is the key part of the term. After all, any interview is simply a conversation between two people where one typically asks the questions and the other responds. In the business world, an informational interview is a conversation between two people about their shared industry or professional position.
This type of conversation can be a great opportunity to learn about a particular industry or job role to see if that position might be a good fit for you down the road. It’s also a great way to learn about additional training, education or other means of upskilling that could help you meet your long or short term professional goals.
Determining a Culture Fit
Beyond learning about a specific role or position, an informational interview is a "great time to get an idea as to what type of culture is within the company and what is expected of employees,” said Steven Brathwaite, career advisor at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU).
Perhaps a career in the financial industry interests you, but you’re not sure if you’ll find the demands of the career exhilarating or exhausting. You could ask for an informational interview with someone in this field specifically to discuss the work life balance. You may also learn about professional opportunities to use your finance background that you may not have thought of previously.
In fact, learning about the culture of a company is one of the most important benefits of this type of interaction. With a job interview, the focus is on a specific position and tends to be a conversation largely controlled by the employer. In this type of conversation, you may be limited as to how much you can really learn about an organization’s culture.
With an informational interview, the focus shifts. The person requesting the conversation has much more leeway as to what they may ask. This allows that person the opportunity for a semi-formal conversation about an organization or type of role generally, rather than to discuss whether they are best qualified for a particular role, specifically.
How to Prepare for an Informational Interview
While informational interviews are not job interviews, preparing for them is still important. Ahead of the interview, you should do your research, come up with a list of questions to ask the person you're meeting and dress in business attire.
What to Ask
Even though you won’t be presenting yourself as a candidate for an open position, an informational interview is still an interview in terms of it being a formal conversation where one person asks information of the other. The difference is that you're seeking information and professional connections instead of a job offer.
In preparing for your interview, walking in the door armed with a set of thoughtful questions will show your interviewee that you are prepared and serious about making the most of their time.
To do that, “consider what you value and look for in an employer to help guide you in selecting the questions to ask,” said Angelique Kim, mid-Atlantic employer relations partner for SNHU. You might ask questions seeking “to provide clarity on what will make you competitive in your job search in a particular industry, what it is like to work for a particular employer or for potential entry-points and career paths,” she said.
You should also consider “asking open-ended questions to facilitate discussion,” Brathwaite said, such as:
- What is a typical day (or week) like for you?
- What other fields would you consider I look into?
- What steps would you recommend I take to prepare myself for this field?
- How relevant to your work is your undergraduate major?
- What skills, abilities and personal attributes are essential to success in this role?
Additionally, "you should expect open and honest relevant information and opinions," during your conversation, said Larry Shane, career advisor at SNHU. To achieve this, consider asking questions such as:
- What are the biggest challenges you face?
- What kind of decisions do you have to make?
- What is most rewarding about your job?
- What kind of education, training, or background does this job require?
- What do you wish you knew when you were my age, or where I am right now?
Of course, before going into the interview, consider what type of career you hope to build for yourself. Think about the professional pathways that interest you, and the skills and education you already have and are interested in developing.
Consider, also, what values you wish to incorporate into your professional life. Is balancing your personal life and career important to you, or does a high-powered, demanding career interest you? Then, select your questions for the informational interview accordingly.
What to Wear
When asking someone to participate in an informational interview, it’s crucial to be professional at all times, whether in person, on the phone or on a video call. Know your field. If you’re discussing a traditionally formal business environment, such as business or finance, consider wearing a suit.
No matter your field, you can’t go wrong by erring on the side of dressing up more rather than less. Even though this is not a formal job interview, you should “approach an informational interview much like a job interview in that you should practice, research the company, dress professionally, and have questions prepared in advance,” said Kim.
As for specifics, for men, professional attire “would mean suit jacket with slacks and a button down with a tie,” Brathwaite said. “For women this would mean a blouse or dress pants and a blazer.”
And, while a lot of interviews may be done via video conference, “it is still good practice to dress appropriately. Remember this is a contact you are looking to keep moving forward so making a good first impression is very important,” said Brathwaite.
How to Prepare
It’s important to be well-prepared so you make the most of your time. You chose the person you’re interviewing for a reason. What is it about that person’s role or career path that is valuable to you to learn more about? Review their LinkedIn profile. Do an internet search and read any articles or blog posts they have written or to which they have contributed.
Be sure to research the career field and specific role that this person holds. Look up facts and salary information on resources such as Glassdoor and the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics. Do they have a Twitter feed? If so, review some tweets to get a feel for the individual, their experience and their sensibility. Be sure to check out the Twitter feed and online presence of the person’s organization, too. Use the information you learn from this research to guide the questions you ask when you meet.
While it is impolite to ask for their personal salary, it’s not out of line to present the salary parameters you learned through your research, and use that as a launch point for a conversation about the salary structure, promotion potential and type of benefits that might be available in a similar career.
What Should I Expect in an Informational Interview?
At first glance, it’s true that an informational interview may seem like a job interview. Two professionals will be meeting in some way, in person, on the phone, via online conference or perhaps for coffee either in person or virtually to discuss work.
But don’t be fooled. If you walk in the door prepared to make a case for yourself as a future employee, you will be disrespecting the time of the professional who agreed to meet with you, as well as missing the point of the whole interaction.
Your number one expectation should be to gain information. By being having a professional conversation where you bring thoughtful, informed questions and follow up with a promptly written thank-you note (email is fine) and a request to connect on LinkedIn, you are offering your interviewee the opportunity to remain connected to you long after the conversation has concluded. This benefits you both.
Be Respectful of Time
When reaching out with an informational interview request, “you should expect to build a professional relationship and expand your network of contacts,” Brathwaite said. “You should also expect to meet people who may either help or forward you potential jobs in the future.”
One of the biggest ways to do this is by being respectful the time of person you are interviewing. Don’t expect them to lead the conversation or have a talk prepared. They granted you the valuable gift of their time and attention, so make it worthwhile for both of you. Be sure, also, to start and end the meeting on time.
Guide the Conversation
An informational interview is generally a straightforward interaction. You should expect to “guide the conversation by asking questions,” said Kim.
Ultimately, you may “expect help and advice and hopefully develop a professional relationship that can lead to expanding your network,” and should expect “open and honest relevant information and opinions,” about the field and role in question, said Shane.
Developing that professional relationship is mutually beneficial because having a healthy network of professional contacts can lead to benefits for both interviewer and interviewee over time.
Can an Informational Interview Lead to a Job?
While the goal of an informational interview is not to land a job, this type of meaningful business interaction can definitely lead to better job prospects down the road. By working to “build a professional relationship and expand your network of contacts,” you strengthen your future job prospects, Brathwaite said.
“Informational interviews are the backbone to any sort of career or job research, investigation, or planning,” said Shane. “They are well worth the time and effort.” Keeping that in mind as the big picture goal will help position you to come away from this conversation feeling successful.
Are Informational Interviews Worth It?
If you’re setting up a time to meet with someone about the workplace, you take care to wear your business best, and you’re putting time and thought and effort into researching the person, the company, and the industry only to know that you’ll walk away without a job, is it all worth it?
In a word, “yes,” said Kim. “Informational interviews are great no pressure networking opportunities where you can explore industry trends and information related to a career path,” she said. As long as you are entering the process with the right mindset, you can walk away with valuable contacts and insight into an industry while building connections that could help you further your career in the long run.
Perhaps the strongest benefit from the informational interview process is learning about an industry or company’s internal culture. Informational interviews can help gauge the industry work environment because “they will help give unique insight into potential companies you are interested in working for,” said Brathwaite.
Ultimately, even though informational interviews are often overlooked by job seekers and career climbers, they can serve as “the backbone to any sort of career or job research, investigation, or planning,” Shane said. “They are well worth the time and effort.”
What Comes Next?
Any time you ask someone for a bit of their time, it’s important to follow up. A thank you or acknowledgement of some kind is always a good idea. Email is generally the best way to send thanks as it will reach your recipient quickly and efficiently, but a handwritten note is also appropriate.
Not sure what to say?
- Keep the message concise
- Acknowledge the time the person spent with you
- Mention at least one specific point discussed in your conversation and explain how you will find it helpful moving forward
- Ask if it would be all right if you check in from time to time, and invite them to do the same
Consider sending a LinkedIn request to connect as well, if you haven’t already done this. Be sure to add a short personal message with your request, again offering thanks for their time. That will allow you both an easy and professional way to stay on top of what is happening in your respective career paths, should opportunities come up that may be mutually beneficial.
Remember that when it comes to informational interviews or any kind of business communication, the importance of interpersonal connections remains strong, despite changes in the workforce due to the global pandemic.
Moving so many of our interactions to virtual spaces does not minimize the level of professionalism we should exhibit. If anything, video calls may help enhance informational interviews because they cut down on travel time and allow you to speak face to face with people who may not be geographically close.
Above all, “informational interviews are definitely worth it,” said Brathwaite. Who you know and the quality of those connections can enhance your career long-term in ways you may not expect.
Marie Morganelli, Ph.D. is a freelance content writer and editor. Connect with her on LinkedIn.
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