Informational Interviewing: A Job Seeker's Secret Weapon
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One of the most powerful but underutilized strategies in finding a job is informational interviewing, the process of conducting highly focused conversations with professionals currently working in your field of interest in order to gather information about a job, company, field or industry.
Informational interviews provide excellent opportunities to gain knowledge that you may not be able to find elsewhere, clarify your understanding, sharpen your focus, make connections, build relationships with influential professionals and, potentially, land a job.
In today’s market, most jobs are found through personal and professional connections; in fact, 80 to 90 percent of jobs are acquired through networking. Based on research conducted by Lee Hecht Harrison, a global career management services company, the average job seeker talks to 25 different decision makers before earning a job offer from one of them. Orville Pierson, senior vice president, clarifies, “These are not 25 interviews. Most are brief, informal conversations. Five are interviews or very serious conversations.” He explains further that, when networking, the average job seeker talks to 14 people before gaining access to one decision maker. “Many job-hunters make the mistake of seriously underestimating the numbers required for success,” he says.
While informational interviewing is an invaluable job search tool, an informational interview is not a job interview. By simply requesting information from a person, you are taking the pressure off. You, the interviewer, don’t have to ask for a job and the interviewee doesn’t have to deliver a job. Both sides make a contact and there’s no obligation; it’s a win-win. Also, unlike a job interview, you are in control of what is discussed; you set the agenda.
Asking strangers for their time and advice can seem intimidating, but, more often than not, people are willing to take the time to meet because they understand the value of networking and receive satisfaction from helping others. If you do encounter people who are unresponsive or unwilling, just move on. There will be others who are more receptive.
“The average job seeker talks to 25 different decision makers before earning a job offer from one of them.”
The benefits of informational interviewing include:
- Learning about the skills needed for a position or field
- Gaining candid, in-depth and up-to-date information
- Better understanding company/industry culture and your potential fit
- Polishing interviewing skills and gaining confidence and poise
- Establishing a professional contact with a person in a field of interest
- Creating the possibility of additional contacts
- Developing name recognition and a positive reputation in your professional circle
- Uncovering an area or field you didn’t know about
- Learning about jobs that have not been advertised yet
- Getting an Interview
Getting an Interview
Even if you don’t currently know someone in your field of interest, start by talking to the people you do know: friends, family, neighbors, employers, colleagues, professors and classmates. Also make use of LinkedIn®, your alumni career center and professional associations.
Once you’ve gotten a contact name at a target company or within an industry, send the person a request for an informational interview via email or LinkedIn, ideally in the middle of the week when they will be more likely to notice and read it. Include your request in the body of the message; don’t use attachments because people are often leery of opening them from senders they don’t know.
The structure of your message should look something like this:
- First paragraph: Let them know how you got their name and why you’re contacting them. Make it clear that you are looking for information, not a job.
- Second paragraph: Provide some background information about yourself, such as how you became interested in their company or industry and any related experience you have.
- Third paragraph: Make your request. Ask for 15 to 20 minutes of their time for a brief informational interview. By asking for only 15 to 20 minutes, it’s more likely that your contact will agree to meet with you, it creates the possibility that they will suggest meeting for a longer period of time and it increases the chances that they will provide you with another referral. Thank them in advance for their consideration and tell them that you will follow up by calling them early the following week.1 Include your phone number in your signature block just in case they decide to reach out and contact you first.
Follow-up is a delicate art; you want to take initiative, but you don’t want to be too aggressive. As a general rule, follow up with your contact by calling them early the following week, as you stated in your introductory email. If you don’t receive a response within a few days, send a brief email to make sure they didn’t overlook your initial request. If you still don’t hear back from the person, move on.
If your contact agrees to an informational interview, be respectful of their busy schedule. Be clear that you will take only 15 to 20 minutes of their time and let them suggest the date, time and whether it will be in-person or over the phone.
Preparing for the Interview
Next, it’s time to research the field or industry and the contact’s company. This will help you avoid wasting precious interview time asking questions that you would have been able to answer by doing a little investigation, as well as demonstrate that you are interested and proactive.
While informational interviews are somewhat relaxed, they also need to be focused and structured so that you can make the best use of your time and collect the information you need. Prepare a list of questions to ask during the interview. Lead with questions about the interviewee and their background in order to express your interest in their personal experience. Then, proceed to question them about their position, company, field or industry to determine if it has the characteristics you’re looking for, to assess if you have the skills to be successful, to confirm any assumptions you have about it, etc. Try to ask mostly open-ended questions instead of “yes/no” questions in order to encourage a more conversational interview and choose your questions carefully, since you will have a limited amount of time. Additionally, bring your resume to the interview, but keep it in your briefcase unless your contact asks for it.
When it comes time for the interview, if it is in person, dress professionally and arrive five minutes early. Arriving earlier than that may inconvenience your host, but you certainly don’t want to come late. Thank your contact for taking the time to meet with you, briefly introduce yourself and recap your background. Let them know that you are focused and excited about entering into the field, regardless of how long that may take. When asking your questions, allow the interviewee to do most of the talking. After all, the purpose of the interview is to gather their insights. However, from time to time, you may need to guide them back to the questions in order to avoid getting too far off-track and to help ensure that you get all of your questions answered. Most importantly, do not ask for a job. However, you can ask if they are aware of any industry openings or companies that are quickly growing.
As the end of your allotted time draws near, let your host know. Say to them, “We have a few minutes left. Let me see which of my questions I want to ask you in our remaining time.” This may prompt the person to offer to spend more time with you. Sometimes, they will schedule a half hour or an hour even though you only requested 15 to 20 minutes.
If they haven’t already offered, ask if they have any colleagues, either in the same company or elsewhere, that they would be comfortable referring you to. Let them know that you’d like to conduct two more informational interviews. You can, of course, conduct more than two, but, in this way, you are keeping your request modest. If they do provide you with names, make certain to ask if you can mention that they referred you. If you’ve kept to the agreed-upon interview time and asked powerful questions, chances are good that they may set up another opportunity for you.
For all informational interviews, it’s important to remember that each summarizes one person’s point of view. Company culture and job descriptions can vary greatly from place to place and personalities differ significantly from person to person, so avoid basing your decisions on one interview. The advantage of conducting several informational interviews within an area of interest is that you are able to expand your breadth of knowledge and gather a variety of opinions and insights.
Suggested Informational Interview Questions
Questions about the interviewee:
- What do you like most about your work? What do you like least?
- How did you first get involved in this field?
- What was your training and background coming into this field?
- Knowing what you know now, how would you have approached this career differently? (Or, if they have worked in this field for a considerable length of time, ask how they would approach this career today.)
Questions about the position, company, field or industry:
- Would you recommend pursuing this career at this time? Is it a growing field?
- What would you recommend as the best course of action for someone who wanted to enter this field?
- What talents and skills do you feel are important in this work?
- What attitudes or values do you view as important in this work?
- Could you describe a typical day/week?
- What hours do you work? What hours did you work when you first started?
- My minimum salary requirement is _____. Could I anticipate entering this field at that level? Under what conditions?
- I’d like to use my _____ skills in my next job. Is that a realistic expectation in this function?
- If I were to set my sights on moving into this field, what would be the odds of breaking in? Within what time frame? Under what circumstances? Given my background, what are my chances?
- Do you know of any outstanding headhunters in this field with whom I should set up an informational interview?
For additional informational interview questions, visit: http://hrweb.mit.edu/system/files/Sample+Informational+Interview+Questions.pdf.
After the Interview
Within a few days after the interview, send a handwritten thank you note to your contact. It can be brief, simply conveying your gratitude for their time and advice and perhaps mentioning what you found most useful about the interview. If you really want to make a memorable impression, enclose a $5 or $10 Starbucks® gift card or forward along any information or articles they may find useful; this positions you as a resource for them as well. Also, it’s very important to follow up on any leads they provided to you.
The Secret Weapon’s Worth
Whether you’re looking for your first job, determining your next career step or considering a career change, the more informed you are, the better able you will be to find a job that’s the right fit for you. And informational interviews aren’t just for job seekers—you can use this approach to learn more about other roles within your current company, broaden your professional network and more.
Informational interviews can help you to keep a positive outlook during your job search, as well as keep you engaged, excited and strategically moving forward. And if you are someone who your contacts come to like—someone who respects their time and asks great questions—there are often opportunities to stay in touch or follow up, as well as offers of contacts, introductions, strategies, industry insight, interview leads and, at times, even a job.
1. “Mastering the Art of Informational Interviewing.” Gahbauer, Marty. January 19, 2012.
2. “8 Job-Hunting Mistakes You Don’t Want to Make: Advice from the Pros.” Abboud, Sharon Reed.