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Informational Interviewing

By Laura Sweeney

Informational interviews are a networking tool, as well as the very best way to find out what working for a company or in an industry is really like.

The purpose of an information interview is to learn, not to score a job.
Until you've actually sat through a few of them, informational interviews might seem like unnecessary torture. Nobody likes to interview, so why ask for ones that aren't going to get you a job? Because it's going to pay off. We guarantee it.

What it's not
One thing an informational interview is NOT: an interview for employment. Your sole motivation for requesting an informational interview should be to explore a career option or to learn about a company. People will feel misled if you request an informational interview when you're real purpose is to ask for a job. This won't get you anywhere.

An informational interview IS a networking tool. Initiating discussions with professionals in your field (or in the field you hope to enter) will get your name "out there." It's also the very best way to find out what working for a company or in an industry is really like. A little interview practice never hurt anyone, either.

Who are you supposed to talk to?
Talk to people who are doing what you want to do; this includes peers or friends of peers. They'll give you the info straight up, so ask them what you really want to know: What's a typical day? What are the people like? What kinds of things will you learn? Are there any downsides? You also should talk to more experienced professionals who have some perspective on the industry. They can give you an idea of what to expect in the future, and they can advise you better than a friend or peer can.

The easiest people to get in touch with are people you know, of course, or people you are referred to. But cold calling is an option, too. If you come across someone impressive at a conference, in an article, or by reputation, try calling or writing to him or her. If you make your motivation clear (i.e., you're NOT looking for a job) most people will be flattered by your interest. People love to talk about themselves.

No need for nerves
Informational interviewing is not-repeat, not-a tortuous experience. Unlike a real interview, you don't have anything to lose. Your purpose is to learn, not to score a job. So don't be nervous!

But for practice-sake, you should treat an informational interview just like it's a real interview-only this time, you're the interviewer. As long as you have the questions, your interviewee is the one who will do most of the talking. Here are some standard questions to get you started:

  • How did you get started in this line of work?
  • What do you like most about it? What do you dislike about it?
  • What are your views on the present state and future prospects of the industry?
  • What qualifications do I need to break into this company/industry?
  • Can you recommend anyone else with whom I may speak?

Keep the interview brief unless your interviewee is willing to take extra time out of his schedule. It's okay to take notes as long as it doesn't interrupt the flow of your conversation. Finally, thank your interviewee graciously; they just did you a big favor. And send a thank you note immediately afterwards.

Guarantee delivered
As I said, your informational interview will pay off. For starters, you'll walk away with more knowledge of the company or industry than you had before. If you decide to pursue a new job, you'll have an idea of where to step next, plus a few more phone numbers to call. That's the most that you can ask for. But if you're lucky (and if you created a good impression), your contact will think of you the next time he hears of a suitable job opening. Now that was well worth it, wouldn't you say?

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