Getting the Most from Informational Interviews

In the workplace today, a growing number of professionals are taking a closer look at their career aspirations. If you decide a career change is in your future, one effective way to test the waters is by arranging informational interviews with professionals who work in the fields that interest you. By meeting with people currently employed in your targeted industry, you can learn what a typical “day in the life” is like for these individuals. You may also gain insight about whether or not it’s the right choice for you.

The following tips will help you arrange – and get the most out of – these meetings:

Activate your network. Start with the people you know professionally. Explain that you’re looking for opportunities to set up informational interviews and ask them if they have any suggestions or contacts to share.

Do your research. Even though the point of the interview is to gather information, you should still have some basic knowledge about the industry in advance. Find out which companies are the major players and what the effects of recent economic trends have been. Look for news about mergers, acquisitions, downsizing, crises or triumphs. You’ll also want to conduct a little research into what sort of degree or work experience might be required for the occupation in which you’re interested. Your research should help you create some focused questions for your meeting.

Prepare questions. Here are some you may want to ask during your informational interview:

  • What is a typical workday like?
  • What qualities are needed to be successful in this field?
  • What are the most important skills required?
  • What kind of pressures are typical?
  • What are the opportunities for career growth?
  • What’s the average tenure in a position?
  • What do you like most (and least) about your profession?
  • What made you decide to go into this field?

Set up the interview. Don’t feel embarrassed about calling to request a meeting. Assuming their schedules permit, most people will be happy to speak with you. They will likely be flattered that you’ve asked for their help and insights. Make sure the logistics of the interview are convenient for the person you’ve called. Offer to meet them at their office and ask what time is best for them. If you already know the contact, consider inviting him or her for coffee or lunch if it seems appropriate.

Observe proper etiquette. Dress as though you were going to a job interview. Be sure to arrive on time, and call ahead if you will be unavoidably delayed. Be courteous and professional. Smile, relax and exchange pleasantries before you dive into your list of questions. If you’re asked to talk about yourself, keep your answers brief and to the point. It helps to have a three- or four-sentence summary of your current job and work experience prepared in advance. Bring along a copy of your resume and ask the person granting the interview to review it to help you determine what skills or experience you may need to build to make a transition to your field of interest. He or she may also help you pick out your most transferable skills, which will give you an idea of what you should highlight during job interviews. Remember – you’re seeking information, not a job offer. When the other person signals that the interview is ending, ask your final question and take your leave. Since you asked for the meeting, you should expect to pay for the meal if the discussion is over lunch or dinner. Be sure to bring along enough cash or a credit card.

Follow up with a “thank you.” No more than a day later, send a brief note (or e-mail) thanking your contact for generously sharing his or her time with you.

Informational interviews may not lead directly to employment, but they are an excellent first step. Such meetings give you a current and accurate snapshot of the employment prospects in your area while helping you gauge your own marketability. After a few interviews, review your career plan to make sure your goals and timeframes are realistic. Then, when you’re ready to launch a job search, you’ll be well informed.