Informational Interview Basics

Informational Interviewby Mary Arnstein, ASEEES Communications Coordinator

To facilitate member networking and career growth, ASEEES will be posting occasioanl blogs on job search-related issues. This post on Informational Interviews is the first in a series. Job search topics will also be covered in our next webinar features a professional development topic: “Embracing Change: Marketing Yourself for Employment Outside of the University Setting” on Thur, April 24, 1:00-2:00pm EDT.  Register today. Additionally, ASEEES recently announced its mentoring program to promote greater networking.   

Informational interviewing is an important component in professional development:  in short, it the process of meeting with individuals to gain information about career choices and the job search process. These informational meetings are distinct from interviewing for an existing job.  It is, of course, more difficult to cold call a stranger or a friend of a friend to gather information than it is to draft cover letters and let those resumes float anonymously out into the world.

So why engage in informational interviewing?

  • There is less rejection involved:  Even in a field where jobs are scarce, information is not scarce, and many people approached for an informational interview are willing to spend the time to introduce you to their career.
  • It is a chance to learn about additional resources you can use and organizations you can join to help you in your chosen career.
  • When it comes time for you to write cover letters and to apply for jobs, you will be able to do this more effectively:  when you indicate an interest in nonprofit management or in the history of the Russian Orthodox Church, you can be more convincing about your genuine interest if you do so with a knowledge of what is actually involved in that career.
  • It can help you learn that you are not actually interested in what you thought you were.
  • Research associations, web sites, and trade publications.
  • Learn a bit about the person. 
  • Don't be afraid to script the conversation or write out the questions you would like to ask.  For example, you could start a phone conversation or an email with:  "Hello, I am a student at XYZ and I am interested in pursuing a career in [insert].  I was wondering if you would be able to spend a few minutes with me to discuss how your career developed and what work you are doing in your position at [insert organization here]."
  • If you are terribly uncomfortable with informational interviewing among professionals in the field, start your networking among your peers, many of whom have already gathered the type of information you are seeking.  Faculty members are great resources as well.

Once you have developed a list of contacts, you should begin arranging "informational interviews." Initially, it is likely that you will be more comfortable setting up meetings and networking with people with whom you already have a relationship. Meeting with these individuals first will help you build up momentum before you start contacting people who you consider to be strangers.

There are positive aspects to both methods of contacting people. Put simply, writing (via email or snail mail) is the safer route and calling is the quicker route. Emailing is acceptable, but structure the email in a professional manner and consider what to put in the Subject line, such as "University of Pittsburgh Student Inquiry."  Below are some guidelines that will help you to decide whether you should phone or write.

Consider calling first if...

  • The person is a relative's good friend whom you have met 
  • You worked with the individual and had a friendly rapport 
  • You are calling someone you recently met at a professional meeting and the contact gave you his/her business card and suggested you phone him/her to speak further 
  • You are comfortable, articulate and succinct on the phone

If you choose to call first, be prepared with your introduction. For example, "Ms. Smith, my name is Lucy Brown and we met last week at the ASEEES Convention.  I'm currently a Communications Coordinator and am interested in learning more about communications in a university setting. I found our conversation very interesting and wonder if you might have 10 or 15 minutes for me to drop by your office. I'd like the opportunity to hear more of your advice and ideas about entering the field."

Consider writing first if...

  • The individual knows nothing or next to nothing about your background 
  • You saw the name in a networking directory, alumni database, newspaper article, etc.
  • You listened to the person speak on a panel 
  • Your dentist told you to contact his good friend 
  • You found the contact through a computer search

If you decide to write a note or letter via email or snail mail:

  • Plan to follow-up with a phone call about one week later and remember to reference the note/letter in your phone conversation. 
  • Your note/letter must not sound like a cover letter seeking a job with your contact's organization. Instead, make it clear that you are seeking information and advice.  (One quick tip is to void using the word "interview".) 
  • Introduce yourself and stress your desire to seek only guidance and information during a meeting with your contact. 
  • Do not include your CV, although you might consider bringing it to your meeting and asking your contact to review it for comments and suggestions for improvement.  
  • Always include the name of any mutual acquaintance in the first paragraph (particularly if the person you are writing to is an indirect contact and a mutual acquaintance referred you to him/her). 
  • In the second paragraph, explain why you think a meeting would be beneficial to you. You should also include any relevant work experience you possess. 
  • In your final paragraph, indicate you will be calling within the next week to schedule a brief meeting. 
    • Do not request more than 20 minutes of your contact's time.  
  • Email newsnet@pitt.edu if you would like samples of emails/letters that might be sent to informational interviewees.

Remember, the purpose of this meeting is to gather information that will take you closer to your goal of getting a job. In this situation, you are the interviewer and it is your responsibility to direct the discussion. Your two main goals for each informational interview should be (1) making a positive impression upon your contact; and (2) leaving the interview with additional names of people you can contact.

General Protocol

  • Dress appropriately/as if you were attending an academic conference (For more concrete tips, check out:  http://www.career.vt.edu/JobSearchGuide/BusinessCasualAttire.html)  
  • Have a purpose and agenda 
  • Briefly establish rapport through “ice breaker” topics before moving on to interview questions
  • Always try to get a referral (name, place or journal) before you end the meeting 
  • Ask for a business card so you will have the correct contact information for writing a thank you note and future communications
  • Keep to the time limit initially requested - no matter how well it appears to be going; your contact will respect that you are using his/her time efficiently

Sample Questions to Ask

  • How did you obtain your current position?
  • What has been your career progression since graduating from XYZ university/obtaining your Ph.D?
  • What do you like the most about your job? The least?
  • How do you spend your day? How much time do you spend researching/meeting with the public/raising funds?  
  • What kinds of skills are most essential for success in this field? 
  • Questions that current students might ask:  
  • Are there particular courses that you suggest? 
  • If you were a student again, is there anything you might do differently? 
  • Where might I gain work experience needed for a job in this field? 
  • How receptive is this organization/agency to a candidate who has gained most of her experience in academia? 
  • If the person with whom you are meeting asked to review your resume/CV, you might ask the following:  Do you have any suggestions for improvements on my resume/CV? 
  • Based upon our discussion, how suited is my background for the work you do? 
  • What types of experiences (eg board service, committee work, leadership, publication/writing projects) would you recommend? 
  • What is most rewarding about working in this field? 
  • Is this area growing? How do you see it changing over the next few years? 
  • What professional journals/associations do you suggest I look into? 
  • How do people learn about open positions in this area? Are positions usually advertised, or are they often filled through word-of-mouth? 
  • Can you give me the names of other contacts who may be helpful to me? 
  • May I use your name when I meet with others in this field? 
  • May I call you again?

After the Meeting: Continuing the Relationship

The Thank-You Note
Send a thank-you note after the meeting expressing your appreciation for your contact's time and advice. In your note, mention something you learned during the meeting and/or what further steps you plan to take in the near future as a result of your discussion. If the meeting went particularly well, consider asking your contact to keep you in mind if he/she hears of a position for which you might be well-suited.

Continuing the Relationship
If you feel like the contact was receptive to helping you, consider touching base on an intermittent basis to let him/her know you are still exploring the field (e.g. send an article that you think would be of interest to him/her, email him/her with a quick update about a summer job you've obtained). While we encourage you to keep in touch with your contacts on a regular basis, be careful not to come across as being too pushy.

Keeping a Record
Use a notebook, index cards, or any other filing system that works well for you, to keep track of the following: the contact's information (name, title, email, mailing address, phone number), date of your meeting, names and addresses of additional contacts received, helpful information received during the meeting, and dates on which you touched base with your contact after the initial meeting.

It may also be helpful to take note of the following

  • What positive and negative impression do you now have of the field/work? 
  • How did this interview help you to clarify your own objectives? 
  • What are your next steps? 
  • With whom will you speak next? 
  • What more do you now know about the market in your field of interest?

As you continue to meet with your contacts, you will become more educated on your chosen field, and your questions for contacts may become more specific.

As "practice interviews," informational interviews will enable you to meet employers and present yourself in a more relaxed atmosphere than in an actual interview. In discussing your career objectives with professionals, you will become more comfortable in presenting your qualifications. You will also learn more about what prospective employers are looking for in a successful candidate in your chosen field.