Aiming for Your Dream Job? Here’s How an Informational Interview Can Help

Informational interview
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If you’ve ever talked with a career counselor or Googled “how to find a job,” you’ve probably been told to get out and do some informational interviews.

And if you’re anything like me, you’ve promptly cringed at the suggestion.

So what is an informational interview? Basically, it’s a short meeting with a person already well established in their field.

By getting together with the person, you have a chance to pick their brain about breaking into the industry, planning the next step in your career and understanding the future of the field.

“The individual in the field can give you the ‘inside scoop’ about what the field is really like and provide helpful insider tips you might not otherwise get,” says Katharine Brooks, executive director of the office of personal and career development at Wake Forest University and author of “You Majored in What? Mapping Your Path from Chaos to Career.”

While informational interviews are great for younger workers fresh out of school, they can also be useful if you’re changing careers or heading in a different professional direction.

Like most forms of networking, informational interviews can be intimidating. Maybe you don’t know what to ask about. Or you dread asking for someone else’s time or coming across as fake or self-interested.

Whatever your hesitation, informational interviews are effective. Some research finds one in 12 informational interviews result in a job offer.

If that’s the case, sign me up.

So how do you decide who to ask? What are the secrets to setting up an interview? And what do you ask once you’re in the room? That’s what we’re about to find out.

Step 1: Finding a Good Fit

Informational interview
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So you want to do an informational interview. Now what?

You’ve got to find someone to interview. And if that someone isn’t a good fit, you’re wasting their time and yours.

Be sure the person you ask is in a position to answer questions you actually have about the field. Don’t just set up interviews for the sake of having them. This is a sure path to making a poor impression without actually obtaining any useful information.

You’ll have the most luck approaching people you have connections with, even if it’s a few steps removed. Think: your aunt’s neighbor who works in your field or your professor’s college roommate.

People are generally happy to make introductions. You might also consider putting the word out on Facebook, or asking family member with a large network to see if anyone knows someone with a connection to your field.  

When seeking people out, you might also have more success asking middle-level folks, rather than going straight to the top.

For example, you’re more likely to get some time with the marketing manager than the CEO. And the marketing manager probably has more recent experience with the type of job you’re trying to learn more about.

LinkedIn can also be helpful in showing who’s connected to you and how. Each company’s page shows your connections to employees in the company. If you uncover a connection, consider sending a note to the person in your network, asking if they’d feel comfortable introducing you.

Step 2: Asking for the Interview

Many people are more than willing to meet with someone new to the field. However, the people you want to interview are also likely among the busiest.

So you’ve got to make your request concise and explain why you want to speak with that person specifically.

Are you interested in their area of expertise? Did you read (and enjoy) something they published? Does their career trajectory intrigue you?

Tailor your introductory email to each recipient. If you’re copying and pasting the same note to multiple people, you’re doing it wrong. Start with a solid sample email and adjust it from there.

You should offer to accommodate the senior person’s schedule. Generally, a short coffee meeting is a good offer (and you should plan to pay). Or they might ask you to drop by their office.  

You may get a response along the lines of, “Unfortunately, I don’t have the time in my schedule to meet in person. However, I’m happy to answer a few questions over email.”

What now? For starters, don’t ghost them.

Send over a few thoughtful questions that will help you get the information you’re after. If you never reply, it will be clear you weren’t actually interested in learning from them and it could damage the connection.

Step 3: Deciding on Your Questions

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So what should you ask about? You better figure it out, because the onus is on you to steer the conversation.

Don’t show up and expect the more senior person to carry the meeting.

“Having been interviewed a time or two myself, I can tell you the most frustrating aspect of these meetings is an unprepared interviewer,” says The Muse’s Jennifer Winter.

Here are a few questions you might include:

  • What does a typical day at work look like?
  • What’s the hardest part of your job?
  • What’s your favorite aspect of your job?
  • How is your job at this company different from what you did at your last company?
  • Where is the field as a whole going?
  • What do you think job will look like in 10 years?

You can find lists of sample questions across the internet, but be sure you’re showing up with questions you actually want answered. Edit your questions based on your own knowledge gaps and things you’re concerned about, as well as skills you might want to develop.

Step 4: Going to the Meeting

Okay, it’s meeting time. Treat it like a formal interview — dress appropriately, arrive slightly early and conduct yourself professionally. However, don’t approach this meeting intending to land a job offer.

Yes, informational interviews can lead to later job offers. However, that’s for the more senior person to instigate (and it usually happens down the road).

“If you do get an informational interview, do not under any circumstances use it to pitch that person on hiring you,” says management consultant Alison Green. “Misrepresenting your reasons for meeting with someone is not a good way to get a job,”

Your meeting is not going to be productive for either of you if the person senses you’re there to ask for a job, rather than seek information.

Ask your questions genuinely. Listen, take notes and ask follow-up questions. Remember to direct the conversation, but adjust your approach based on the other person.

If they seem especially adamant about the importance of one aspect of the field, ask more about it. If they shrug off your more abstract questions or seem baffled at how to answer, stick with more concrete, day-to-day queries.

Step 5: Wrapping It Up

Informational interview

As your time grows short, wrap things up on time.

“Don’t overstay your welcome,” says New York Times career columnist Marci Alboher. “It’s always better to signal the meeting is ending and let the other person say he or she is open to continuing the discussion.”

You want to show that you value the person’s time. Keep it short, and thank them for speaking with you.

Send a thank-you email after the interview. Be specific about information you covered and re-emphasize your appreciation for their advice.

Again, don’t ask for a job. If the person has an opportunity in the future, they know you’re interested.

Now, you might think that’s the end. But keep your eyes open for opportunities to connect with the person in the future.

Watch for articles related to their areas of interest, which you can occasionally email them. Include a short note about why the article might be of interest. When you attend industry events, skim the guest list in advance to see who you might know and want to connect with.

If all of this sounds like networking, that’s because it is. But, for me, networking isn’t so bad when you reframe it as making and nurturing professional friendships.

Your Turn: Have you ever set up an informational interview?

Lyndsee Simpson is an editor and writer living in Washington, D.C.