Informational interviews are an excellent way to find out about specific jobs and career pathways first-hand.  Once you’ve researched career options related to your degree and read occupational information for jobs that you are interested in, this is the next step. It’s about approaching people who work in the occupations you’re interested in, to gain on-the-job perspectives.

Informational interviewing is the process of researching a career, job or organisation by talking to someone who has that knowledge. This usually means someone who is already employed in that job or organisation. Bolles (2010) describes the purpose of informational interviewing as to ‘screen careers before you change to them’ and to ‘find answers to very specific questions that occur to you during your job-hunt’ (p. 233).

Your intention when conducting informational interview should be to find information or answers to questions that will assist you plan your career or make a decision about your career; it is not a technique to obtain a job. The best people to interview are those doing the job you are interested in – these people usually do not have the power to offer you a job.

Informational interviewing is an extremely useful technique.
• It can provide you with knowledge of the industry, including recent trends and developments, so that you are able to make more informed career decisions.
• It can assist you to create a resume that is targeted specifically to the requirements of that position or organisation.
• It increases the network of people you know in that field which may be useful if you decide to follow that career path.

How to… arrange an informational interview

Begin by identifying people you could potentially interview.

If you know someone working in an occupation or industry that you are interested in, consider approaching them to ask if you can arrange an informational interview with them.

If you don’t personally know anyone working in the industry or occupation that you are interested in, you will need to do some research to find someone who is willing to be interviewed. There are a few ways to do this .

Use your network

Talk to your friends, family, and colleagues in your current work. Can they put you in contact with someone they know who works in the occupation you are interested in?

Attend networking events

Attending industry networking events, workshops or conferences can provide you with the opportunity to meet people working in your desired field. You may not even need to arrange a formal interview as you will be able to ask the questions you want when you are chatting to someone over lunch or morning tea. However you still may need more time to ask additional questions, so be prepared to ask people to meet at a future time to continue the discussion.

Tap into LinkedIn

Use the Advanced Search tool on LinkedIn to find professionals working in occupations that you are interested in. The search function will highlight any people that are within your network, such as friends of friends, so you may be able to be introduced to a person through one of your connections. Once you have identified a number of suitable people, send them a request to connect – make sure you tailor your message, explaining that you wish to find out about their occupation or industry.

How to… initiate contact and request an interview

When making contact with your list of potential interviewees, be upfront and honest about why you are contacting them. In most cases, they will be flattered to have been asked to talk about their career. Here’s one approach.

‘I am studying [history] at La Trobe University. I found you through LinkedIn and saw that you are working in the area of [……], which I am interested in. I’d like to ask you a few questions about your career as an [historian]. Are you able to assist?’

Ask your interviewee about their preferences regarding  a time and place to meet. Let them know how much time might be involved. You could offer to meet them at a café and buy them a coffee. Some people may prefer to meet in their workplace. You should also consider alternatives, like conducting the interview over the phone or via Skype, or via email.

Aim to limit your interview to 20-30 minutes. Most people will be happy to spend that amount of time talking to you.

Preparation

When preparing for an informational interview, think about what you want to know and develop your questions from there. Do background research on the interviewee where possible. If you have connected with them on LinkedIn, read their profile. You can ask them questions about past jobs that they have performed, or about specific duties or projects they are currently working on. For example, ‘On your profile it says that you spent time volunteering in Africa. What was that experience like? How did it contribute to your career?’

On the day, dress as you would for a job interview.

Possible questions to use in an informational interview

Make sure you ask open-ended questions – that is, questions that require more than a yes/no response. The exact questions you ask will depend on what you want to know, the person you are talking to, and their answers to the previous question. There is a list of suggested questions you could ask here. For a 20-30 minute interview, you may only need around 5 or 6 questions.

How to… conduct the interview

Informational interviews are not like job interviews where the employer asks you the questions. You are the person running the interview; much like you would if you were a journalist interviewing someone for a newspaper article.

Begin by thanking the person for their time, and develop rapport by engaging in small talk. Give a brief overview of yourself and your education and/or work history, and then move on to your list of questions.

Treat the interview as a conversation, and be flexible so you can follow an interesting or insightful conversation thread if it arises during the interview. Skip questions that have already been answered in response to another question. Asking probing questions can keep a line of conversation going and provide you with a deeper understanding. For example, ‘You mentioned that you took a big risk taking on your current role; how did you make that decision to take this role?’

Tips for the interview

  • Stick to the allotted time for the interview. However, if the conversation is going well, you can ask if the interviewee has time to stay a little longer.
  • Ask for referrals to other individuals in the field or related organisations.
  • Remember the interview is for information gathering. Ask what you want to know.
  • Take notes.
  • Ask the person if you may contact him or her again if you have further questions.
  • If you meet at a café, make sure you pay for the coffee or at least offer to pay.

After the interview…

Make notes on what you learned as soon as possible. Write down ideas on what else you want to know and your thoughts in terms of how this occupation or industry fits with your interests, skills, values, and future career plans. List any follow-up you’ve promised and actions you can now see would be  timely.

Good manners matter – send a letter or email a day or two after the interview, thanking the person for their time and the information they shared. If appropriate or requested, send a copy of your resume.

Finally, make sure you keep in touch with the person, and let them know how you’re going if you followed their advice. Informational interviewing is an excellent way to establish your professional network and this person might become an important part of your network.