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Informational Interviews

An informational interview enables you to gather information about careers, by initiating contact with someone for the purpose of learning. It is not the same as a job interview!  Think of the approach of a journalist interviewing someone in order to learn; that's your purpose.

Fundamentally to learn more in order to make informed decisions related to your career journey, including exploring career options, seeking experience, determining whether grad school is appropriate for your career plans, and preparing to pursue post-graduation jobs.

Specifically, to:

  • Learn from individuals who work in jobs, to bring life to information you read.
  • Get advice about your coursework, getting experience, the types of entry-level jobs you could pursue with a bachelor's degree, whether and when a graduate degree might be needed.
  • Get advice about the characteristics that help individuals fit and flourish in a job or career field or industry, to help you determine if the job, career field, or industry is a fit for you.
  • Learn more so you can effectively interview for experience and post-grad jobs, by showing knowledge of the job, career field, and/or industry. Employers call it doing your homework, and they expect you to do this.
  • Begin in your comfort zone. 
  • Practice the process with parents and relatives, your friends' parents/relatives, friends of your parents/relatives, etc. You get the idea. 
  • Start with people with whom you don't feel intimidated and practice. 
  • Practice, practice, practice is the key to learning and mastering anything. 
  • It does not matter if their career fields are different from your interests!!! The key is to learn the skills of asking, listening, being curious, and learning.
  • Email and/or or call your contact. Indicate how/from whom you found the person's name. You might start with an email of introduction, and follow up with a phone call a few days later. Don't ask/expect the person to call you. You're asking for a favor, so you must make most of the effort (which has the benefit of showing initiative). 
  • Include a brief, basic introduction of yourself: full name, major (considering or enrolled), university, academic level, your interest in learning about a job, career, or industry.
  • Request 15 or 20 minutes of the person's time, to be scheduled at that person's convenience considering your schedule. Indicate if you would like to talk by phone or Zoom. [You might be arranging to talk with someone near your university or near your home during a school break, or elsewhere if you are traveling.] When it's safe to do so, meeting in person at the workplace has the advantage of letting you see (and perhaps tour) the work environment; but that's not always possible. When it's safe, you could offer to take the person out for coffee or lunch. (The person might accept your offer, but not let you pay for her/his lunch. Be prepared, regardless.) Obviously if you met for lunch, that takes more than 15-20 minutes, but do ask your contact when s/he needs to be finished (shows you appreciate and respect the person's time).
  • Plan well in advance: Allow ample time between your request and when you expect to meet; people are busy with full schedules. While some people may have schedules that allow meeting on short notice, most don't; it could take two to four weeks to find a time to meet. If you are trying to arrange meetings during school breaks, begin to work on this about a month ahead of time. Asking for a meeting on very short notice does not make a good impression; you'll look like you don't plan and don't understand work-world realities.
  • Confirm the planned meeting in writing (email). If in person, when that's safe, learn anything you need about how to get to the meeting place (parking, rules/security, checking in to a building or reception desk, etc.); and allow ample time to arrive. 
  • Be slightly early. If it's a Zoom meeting, be on a minute or two early. If in person, arrive five minutes early to the meeting place. If you've never been to the location before, plan to arrive a little too early and visit the restroom to freshen up. Never be late; you've asked for a favor, and being late will make a negative impression.
  • What to wear: Dress in business casual or business attire, depending on the formality of the person's career field. Think about how you'll look on Zoom. If in doubt, better to be dressed too nicely than too casually. People will be impressed by your effort.
  • Respect the person's time. If in person, and if it's safe to do so, have a good handshake. Have good questions (next) ready. Watch your time. Initiate ending your meeting in a timely manner to respect your contact. Allow extra time for yourself in case your contact offers to talk longer. Don't appear as though you need to rush off to something else (like feeding your parking meter).
  • Write a thank-you note preferrably by the end of the next day, but later is better than never. A handwritten note on appropriate stationery is ideal. A nicely written email will also be appreciated. Thank the person for the time and advice given to you. Mention something you learned and what follow-up you will do. 
    [Stationery and thank-you note advice @ Huffington Post]
  • Key is to be prepared, listen, and be flexible.
  • Your purpose is to start an informative conversation in which your interviewee does most of the talking. You might need to ask only a few questions, then listen carefully and ask follow-up questions. Don't follow a question script so closely that you are asking about things the person already told you. 
  • Tailor your questions to the level / seniority of your interviewee. You might ask more direct questions to a person who is just a year or two out of college and newer in her/his field. With a person with high seniority, you might frame your questions to seek advice for someone in college.
  • Be careful how you refer to the organization.
    • Research before you say "company," "agency," "firm," "business," department," etc. 
    • What's correct? Don't use "company" to refer to a government office, a not-for-profit organization, or a school or educational institution. "Organization" is usually a safe term. Look up the organization's website to see how they reference themselves. Note you may be talking to someone who works in a department, unit or office of a much larger organization.

Below are some samples for inspiration. Make your own list that works for you!

  • Plan to ask about seven to ten questions, and have a few more ready if needed.
  • As the interviewer, you should take the lead, but prepare to take cues from your interviewee. If s/he is very talkative, you might not need to ask many questions. If s/he gives you brief answers, you might need to ask more questions.
  • Craft your questions based on your advance research, your knowledge of the person you'll interview, and your true interests and curiosities. If you are unsure if your questions are appropriate or how to construct them, we will be happy to help you through advising.

Sample questions are numbered for reference only; order your questions to fit the career field and your interviewee.

  1. What does your job entail? What are the duties and responsibilities?
  2. Is there a typical day or week at work, and, if so, what is that like?
  3. What preparation is required to qualify for an position like yours?
  4. What college courses would be helpful to prepare me for a position like this one?
  5. Is there certification, licensure, or an advanced degree necessary to perform this job?
  6. What experience outside the classroom would you recommend I seek to prepare myself for this career field?
  7. Are there any professional groups, organizations, or activities that I can join that would be beneficial to me?
  8. What personal qualities do you see as important for success in this occupation?
  9. What criteria would you use if you were responsible for hiring someone in this field?
  10. What led you to this type of work? What has your career path been?
  11. To what extent is travel involved in your work? (If so,) how much and what type?
  12. What are typical work hours, or does this vary? Is weekend work involved?
  13. What do you like most about your work? What are the satisfactions in your work?
  14. What do you like least about your work? What are the challenges you encounter?
  15. How do you deal with challenges?
  16. What portion of your position involves interacting with others such as co-workers or the public?
  17. What other personnel and/or departments work closely with you?
  18. What is a typical career ladder in this field? What are the opportunities for advancement in this field?
  19. What is the current demand for people in this occupation? Do you see any changes in the future?
  20. How is this field likely to be affected by technology? ... by governmental policy? ... by trends in society? ... by (whatever might be relevant based on your research)?
  21. How would you describe the culture in your organization?
  22. How much flexibility are you allowed in terms of dress, hours, vacation, etc?
  23. How are you made aware of your supervisor's expectations? How easy or difficult is it to meet these expectations?
    OR: As a supervisor, what are your main expectations of your staff members?
  24. Are you allowed input in defining your goals?
    OR: How do you guide your staff members to set and achieve goals?
  25. How independent can you be in this position?
  26. Where would you suggest I look or ask to learn the typical salary range for entry-level positions in this occupation? (Notice the subtlety. You're not asking directly, but asking where to look. The person can choose to answer you directly or otherwise.)
  27. Can you refer me to others with whom I might also discuss this career field?