All About Informational Interviewing

When I moved from New York City to Salt Lake City in 2015, I didn’t know anyone except my husband. I had only been to the state of Utah once – 5 years prior to watch my little cousin play college football. It was a fun weekend, but I never expected to come back. (Never say never, right?) The move was made less than a week after my doctoral hooding, and in my haste to get all of my NYC ends tied up I didn’t really think about the life I was going to enter in SLC. In retrospect, I wish I had put out some feelers and made some connections before heading to the mild West because the transition was not the best. One thing that probably would have helped had been conducting some informational interviews.

In this post, I’ll go over what informational interviews are and why they’re useful for a job search. I’ll also go into how to find people to interview and give some tips on what to ask them. I’ve touched on informational interviewing in the past but this post will give you all of the details.

The what and why of informational interviewing.

Informational interviewing is exactly what it sounds like: Instead of interviewing for a job, you’re interviewing someone for information. It’s an inverse of the traditional interviewing situation, but without the stress of a potential position. The only stress of an informational interview is finding and talking to a stranger, but we’ll go into the best practices for this in a sec!

The logistics: Informational interviews typically take place over the interviewee’s lunch break or other small window of time, and usually at a place with food and/or beverages. (99% of mine have taken place at Starbucks!) Since they’re providing you a service, be prepared to pay for whatever is ordered. And since the person you’re interviewing is typically on a tight schedule, your questions should be to-the-point. Introductory small talk is fine, but don’t have too many filler questions. Just as you would in a traditional interview, write down your questions so that you’re prepared. This will both ensure that you don’t miss anything critical, and make you look professional. Both good things!

Since you’re not interviewing for a job, don’t go into the informational interview expecting to walk away with a lead and/or an ‘inside source’ at a particular company. While these might happen, they should NOT be your intent. I’m stressing this point because I’ve been in situations where the person interviewing me has later expected reference letters, inappropriate informational about potential openings, and other liberties that (obvs) left a bad taste in my mouth.

Don’t be this person!

Informational interviews are a chance for you to become more informed about a particular industry, career path, or company. They’re great opportunities to connect with someone and pick their brain about things that will help you develop your career. If you’re trying to get a leg up in an interview or what someone to provide a reference, you’re not approaching this the right way.

When to conduct an informational interview.

It is appropriate to conduct an informational interview in almost any circumstance, but they are especially useful when you’re looking to make a career change or seeking to drastically change your situation. For me, doing some informational interviews when I got to Utah would have helped me get a better lay of the land. Knowing which institutions would have been a good fit for my personality, my work style, and my professional goals would have saved me a ton of stress.

Even if you’re not making as drastic of a move as I made, informational interviews will help you ensure that you’re making the right choices for your career. If you have any doubts or questions about the choices that you’re attempting to make, and informational interview would be a great way to address them. Yes, you could do your Googles and get some general information, but this approach doesn’t guarantee that the information you get will be specific to your situation. Through informational interviews, you can ensure that your answers will have you in mind.

How to find people to interview.

In my experience, people who know what you want will often be able to point you to the right people. Friends, family members, and trustworthy coworkers are the best connectors, so look to them first when trying to find people to informationally interview. You never know who knows whom.

Another great place to go is LinkedIn. Yes, I think it’s trash, but expanding networks and building connections is the whole point of the site and it still serves this function. Outside of the people who are already in your network, the alumni portal is a good spot to start your search. (Use this post for a step-by-step guide for doing this!)

Outside of your circle, networking groups are your next best place. They’re daunting because you’re talking to strangers, but if you find someone you vibe with and who is doing something cool, ask them if they would be willing to meet up again.

What you should ask.

The information that you should be gathering in an informational interview is up to you, and very dependent on your situation. A career changer will have different needs than someone who is in college or grad school. As such, I can’t give you a script and set you free to chat with someone. But what I can – and will! – do, if give you questions to consider about as you formulate your own.

What are you trying to accomplish with this informational interview? Knowing your goals will help you guide the questions that you ask.

What information are you seeking? Are you just generally curious about what the person does, or are you seeking something more specific to guide the next steps of your career? Be specific about what you want to know so that your questions aren’t all over the place. Remember, informational interviews typically don’t last more than an hour, so be concise and direct.

Why is this person interesting to you? Do they (or did they) work somewhere that interests you? Is their job your goal? Was their path one that you’re considering? All of these info bits make for great informational interview questions.

Plan for an hour tops, but keep in mind that some of your questions may be left unanswered if you have too many. As you formulate your list, be sure that you don’t have too many open-ended questions or else you could have story time that leave you with little usable information. It is also a good idea to rank your questions so that if you find yourself running out of time, you know which ones are must asks vs ones that are more for curiosity. (I call these fluffy questions.)

It might feel weird to do an informational interview because you think that the interviewee feels that the task is a chore, but this really isn’t true! Most professionals like to help along the next generation, so keep this in mind as you chat with them. Besides, if they didn’t want to do it, they wouldn’t have agreed to do it!

Informational interviews are great ways to connect with people while gathering more info on a career path that interests you. Find people to speak to via friends, family, and LinkedIn, and be sure to have a good reason for requesting a meeting! The more you know about your own goals for the interview, the more likely you are to conduct a successful one.

About

Dr. Lindsay is career development & academic success coach who loves helping people figure out and proceed to the next levels of their lives.