Informational Interviewing 101
When people are intimidated by the thought of informational interviews, it’s likely that they have a misunderstanding of what they’re supposed to be used for. Although they are referred to as interviews, informational interviews or other forms of networking are not intended to lead directly to jobs. Instead, they serve to connect people with similar interests so that when the time comes for you to look for the right job, your new connection may know the right person or company to contact. Everyone on the planet has something you could learn from them, and if that weren’t the case, no one with a job would accept an informational interview from a college student with no professional experience. Finding the right career is a difficult task for anyone, so speaking with others certainly can help:
LinkedIn is the most effective tool for informational interviews and general networking. Before you start reaching out to people for interviews, you should have completely, if not mostly, established your profile and core connections. This will demonstrate to anyone you contact how much thought and effort you have already put into your career search, and it essentially serves as your resume. LinkedIn allows you to share work and academic achievements, allowing you to relate with the people you interview. The Braathe Career Service Station will also gladly assist you in setting up your LinkedIn account. It’s important not to contact anyone until you’re completely confident in your profile, so you don’t mislead anyone who reads it.
Before you conduct your interview, you should have an idea of what you hope to gain from it. Choosing a career path can be difficult for anyone; I remember relating to Barry B. Benson’s experience at the Job Board when it came time to start my own job search:
Fortunately, unlike Barry, you will not be forced to pursue a single career path for the rest of your life. Our freedom to change careers is especially evident right now, as the COVID pandemic has resulted in millions changing their careers. With that in mind, it’s ridiculous to think that you’ll know what kind of job you want right away, so what’s important is to focus more on the things you know you’re good at and enjoy doing. These can be as simple as being a good conversationalist or keeping things organized, or as complex as math or computer programming. Once you’ve established your skill set, you can begin to consider the many different industries in which you could work. LinkedIn can be an excellent resource for this, as many businesses use the platform to both spread the word about their company and reach out to future potential employees. This is undoubtedly one of the more difficult aspects of the process, but as you will learn from conducting these interviews, most people in the workforce are constantly considering what job might be best for them.
Once you’ve narrowed down your career interests to a few industries, you can begin looking for people to interview. If you find a company that you know you’re interested in, LinkedIn will show you employees who attended the same school(s) as you. The career center at your college or university may also be a good place to look for these opportunities. Some schools, for example, keep an alumni database in which they keep track of all of their alumni, including contact information and current employer and role. Talk to anyone who has worked in an industry you’re interested in, even if it’s just someone who used to work there. They’ll almost certainly have something to say to you that you can benefit from.
It can be intimidating to speak with someone you’ve never met professionally before, so many people may benefit from interviewing someone they know personally first. This allows you to gain potentially useful industry knowledge without appearing confused or unprofessional, and they will likely feel comfortable giving you feedback on how you conducted the interview.
When you’re ready to start reaching out to others, keep your messages brief and to the point. No one enjoys reading long messages or emails, so they will be much less inclined to read a long message from someone they do not yet know. Your main goals in your message should be to establish your connection or how you found that person, what your career interests are, and what you’re looking for from them. It’s critical to keep your message open-ended and avoid making it feel like you’re setting up an appointment, as well as to express your gratitude for the opportunity (if they had accepted an invitation to connect on LinkedIn). It can be discouraging if you don’t receive a response, but in order to avoid being perceived as arrogant, give the prospect ample time to respond to your message before sending another follow-up. Sending the follow-up message shows persistence and interest, but it’s also important to understand that if they accept, they’ll be doing you a favor, so it’s in your best interest to be patient for a few days after your initial message.
Now that you’ve scheduled your interview, make sure you’re prepared with questions and basic knowledge of the company or industry you’ll be discussing. It’s very likely that you’ll have a lot of questions while speaking with the person, but it’s still a good idea to prepare a list of questions ahead of time to ensure that you’re consistent in the level of interest that you’re showing. I like to tell people that while it’s important to prepare for an interview, it’s also important not to over-prepare when you’re the one conducting the interview.
The point of having the conversation in the first place is to make a strong connection with someone who has been somewhere you may like to see yourself someday. It’s difficult to get to know someone over the phone however if you’ve already googled everything there is to know about their life story and the interview starts to feel like you’re telling someone else about their own experiences. Personally, the main thing I look for in people I interview is shared experiences, which can be especially useful if you’re speaking with an alumni of your school. Other examples of shared experiences include a similar sport that you both participated in, another company that you both worked for in the past, or growing up in a similar area. Once you’ve given the person you’re interviewing something to which they can relate, the rest of the conversation should go fairly smoothly.
It may not feel like it your first few times, but once you get to the actual interview, it’s the easiest part of the whole process if you’ve prepared effectively. Obviously it’s important to be punctual when you call or to be sure you’re ready if you had arranged for them to call you. In order to give your prospect an idea of where you’re at in your career search it’s nice to start the conversation with a brief introduction of yourself and what led to you conducting the interview (your relevant past experiences and skills or interests). After that you can essentially lead off with the question “How did you get to where you are today?” and that will more often than not give your prospect plenty to discuss. While they may have a particularly interesting story that you’d like to know more about, it’s important to keep in mind that your time with them is limited and you should be trying to gain as much knowledge from them as you can that can be applicable in your own career search.
After you’ve finished your interview, tell your prospect that you’d like to stay in touch with them in the future. If you haven’t already, make sure you have a way to contact that person once you’ve hung up the phone (email address, phone number, LinkedIn connection, etc.) Always thank the person you interview within 24 hours of getting off the phone with them, both as a professional courtesy and to ensure that they remember your name. You can now contact this person with any future potential industry-related questions now that you’ve established a solid connection with them. Check in with all of your connections every few months or so to ensure that you have a strong and reliable network.