There you are, fresh out of college, degree in hand, wondering what’s next. Or maybe you’ve been there, done that, and you’re looking for a change. Whether you’re a young graduate searching for your first job or an experienced jobholder looking to switch careers, finding employment can be challenging. First you have to figure out what you want to do. Then, of course, you have to get hired somewhere.
One tool that can help with both of those steps is the informational interview, or “informational.” Informationals are, simply put, conversations between job-seekers and key professionals in their chosen industry.
Unlike a standard job interview, informational interviews are initiated, set up, and conducted by you, the job-seeker—and they aren’t meant to solicit a job offer. Rather, they’re meant to help job-seekers sharpen their focus, gain information about an industry, and increase networking potential.
Setting up informationals also lets potential employers know you’re eager and available should a position open up.
“Informational interviews allow you to screen an industry, position, and company before making a transition into it,” Megan Walls, owner of Walls Career Coaching, told The FruitGuys Magazine. “They also expand your professional network, and they are less stressful than a [job] interview, because you are in control of the session.”
Before you set up an informational, make sure you have an idea of what you want to talk about. Are you dead set on a particular career and want to research only that path? Or do you need information about a few different options? Carefully consider what you want to learn; that will help narrow down who to contact. “Only have informational interviews with people actually working in the ... career you’re interested in,” Walls says.
How do you go about getting an informational interview on the books? Finding an actual connection to someone in your chosen field requires research—and reaching out.
Start by scouring social networking sites such as LinkedIn. You can research companies there as well as expand upon connections you might already have within the industry you’re targeting.
When you’re identifying the individuals you’d like to meet with, don’t contact only the highest-level professionals, such as CEOs or directors. Speaking to people on that level can be useful, but make sure you also seek out employees who are a little lower on the ladder. Not only do these individuals generally have more time to talk, they also might be more in touch with the day-to-day operations of their workplace.
And, of course, make sure to use your personal network. Does that guy you sat next to in Chemistry 101 still work in marketing? Find him on Facebook. Does your mom’s assistant know someone? Ask her to ask him. Keep trying to set appointments until one or two stick, and then ask your informational contact for more names and email addresses when you meet.
Pro Tip: If you know you’d like to speak with someone at a particular company but you’re having trouble setting up an informational, try going through the HR department.
Once you’ve identified a list of people you want to speak with, begin reaching out. Contact them, introduce yourself, and explain why you’d like to speak with them. Most people love to talk about themselves and their work and are happy to schedule some time if they have the availability. Make sure to clearly specify how long the interview will take (no more than 15–20 minutes).
Once you’ve scheduled a time, do your research. Look into the company, any available positions, and prepare a list of questions in order of priority. The more research you do, the better your questions, and the more you’ll get from the process.
During the actual interview, remember a few rules of thumb:
- Don’t offer a résumé, but bring one in case your interviewee asks for one.
- Do be cognizant of your allotted time, and don’t forget that, as the interviewer, you’re the one in charge of making sure you don’t exceed it.
- If you’ve met for coffee or lunch, do pay for both parties. After all, this interview was your idea.
- The biggest don’t: do not ask for a job. You and your subject have agreed that this is an informational interview—asking for a job in this context can make you look deceptive or manipulative, at the least. It’s okay to note that you’d love to stay in touch, especially if there’s an opening down the line.
- Do send a follow-up email—just a quick thank-you with a line or two about the value of the interview.
They may not seem like a big deal—especially since you’re not directly asking for a job—but informationals are one of the most useful ways to eventually find the job you’re looking for. “One out of 12 informational interviews results in a job offer,” according to Walls. You might find that 15 minutes is all you need to change your life.
Jonanna Widner lives in Portland, OR, where she writes about sports, music, travel, and fitness.