Advice

Informational Interviewing 101

April 13, 2001

People love to talk about themselves and their careers.

If you stop reading after this paragraph, you will have already have taken away the most important message. If you're intrigued enough to keep reading, the rest of this column will guide you on how to handle "informational interviews" -- i.e., how to research career options by talking to people who actually hold jobs that you think you might enjoy.

Most academics turn to archives, libraries, and databases when faced with a research project. And indeed there is much to be learned about the subject of careers from those sources. However, on the journey of self-discovery that will lead you to a meaningful career decision, you will need to grab your field journal and work among live subjects.

Just as an anthropologist would not consider embarking on field work without having done background research, so too will you need to do yours before beginning informational interviews. The first step is to identify the intersection between the things you love to do and the things you're good at doing. (For guidance on this process, check out a previous column on the topic.)

Then you'll want to round out your preliminary research by taking advantage of your campus career center, local library, and the Internet to discover what kinds of jobs exist that would coincide with your skills and interests. At the same time, you'll want to assemble lists of people to interview. Literally anyone and everyone you can think of is fair game. A few suggestions for your list:

  • Family and friends should be at the top. I've often met with graduate students who admit that even though they have a sister in, say, consulting, they've never actually asked this sister about her job with an eye toward learning whether it might be a career they would enjoy.

  • Many universities have developed lists of alumni who have volunteered to serve as mentors or to provide an introduction to a career for students. Some have even put their lists online as searchable databases or e-mail discussion lists. Check with your alumni office or career center to see if your university provides such a service. If there is no such formal service for finding alumni to interview about their careers, you may have luck asking your department administrator to share the names of previous graduates who have gone on to nonacademic careers. These people do exist, even if it is not commonly shared information.

  • Six degrees of separation is another effective strategy. Your neighbor's brother in Chicago might be an advertising copywriter, and your cousin's best friend might be dating a museum educator. However tenuous the connection, this is someone who will probably be willing to spend 15 to 30 minutes on the phone with you to tell you about his or her career.

  • Tap into the Ph.D. sister and brotherhood. We are everywhere outside of academe, and we have all been in the same place you find yourself -- not certain what kind of career you desire and wary of how to approach the world beyond the ivory tower. If there is a specific company or kind of job that interests you, do some research and see if you can uncover a Ph.D. who works there already. (This process will be made easier by the phenomenon that the further afield we move from academe, the more likely we are to put the pedigree after our names on company rosters, business cards, and other professional credentials.)

I have spoken with countless Ph.D.'s who work outside academe, and most welcome informational interview requests. Of course you may run into a Ph.D. who is not so eager to chat with you. And even people who would normally be helpful have times when they are too busy to return your e-mail message or grant your request for an interview. Don't take a rebuff personally; just move on to the next source on your list. If someone tells you they simply don't have time to talk, you might try asking quickly whether they can suggest a colleague who may be able to help.

Before you conduct an informational interview, you'll want to have some basic understanding of the person's career field. You don't want to waste valuable time in the interview learning information readily available elsewhere. The Princeton Review publishes a wonderful volume called Guide to Your Career that offers short summaries of a substantial range of careers. Also, the Web sites run by Wetfeet Press and The Vault both provide some free content on various careers as well as for-fee access to their popular insider guides to different careers and corporations.

Armed with background information, you are ready to approach your interview subject. The degree of formality you should use will be largely influenced by how well you know the person. I recommend using your close friends and family members for the first few interviews, since there will be less formality involved and presumably less nervousness on your part. When you're requesting an interview with someone you don't already know, it's a good idea to first send the person an e-mail message or letter explaining your agenda. This way you won't have to worry about stumbling through a self-introduction on the phone, and you'll be giving the person some space to consider your request without the immediate pressure of a phone call. Here is an example of such a letter:

Dear Dr. Frankel, I am a fifth-year graduate student in English at the University of the Midwest, and our department administrator, Lisa Smith, suggested that you might be a good person for me to contact. I have been interested in learning more about writing careers, especially in advertising, and Lisa remembered that you joined the Leo Burnett agency after you graduated from our department a few years ago. I'm hoping that you would be able to spare a little time to tell me more about your career. I am planning to be in Chicago during the latter half of May, and would enjoy the chance to meet you in person. Barring that, I'd be happy to call you at your convenience for this informational interview. If you are unable to help me out at this time, perhaps you could suggest a colleague who would be able to answer my questions? I can be reached at (608) 555-1212 or by e-mail at jsanders@umid.edu.

Thank you in advance for your help. Jim Sanders

In setting up these interviews, remember that you have asked the subject to do you a favor. Therefore, if you arrange to meet for coffee, you should be prepared to pick up the tab, and if you are going to talk on the phone, you should initiate the call, especially if there's a long-distance fee. Sometimes the interviewee, remembering what it was like to be an impoverished graduate student, will insist on treating; however, you should nonetheless be prepared to serve as the host. Also be mindful of the clock so that you are sure to wrap up the conversation in the time specified. Often people outside of academe have heavily scheduled days, and 15 minutes really is all the time that they have available for you.

In order to make the most of your informational interview, prepare your list of questions in advance. Some of the questions will be similar for all of your informational interviews, while others will be specific to the individual subject. Remember that with a live subject, you get to ask questions that can't be answered by the library. The other side of this opportunity, though, is that you will get the subjective responses of one individual. Here are some sample general questions:

  • How did you get into this career?

  • What type of preparation did you bring to the field? And is that the typical preparation for people in your line of work?

  • Do you use any of your graduate training in your job, and if so, how?

  • What is your typical workday like?

  • What do you enjoy most about your job? Least?

  • Where do you envision your future career path heading?

  • May I ask what the typical salary structure for your field is? Entry level, midcareer, highest salaries?

You may also have very specific questions, depending on the field and your own interests. For instance, if you had to find a job in Chicago, it would be important to ask the person whether he or she knew much about the Chicago area job market for his or her field. Or say you are looking for work in marketing. You may have already interviewed someone who worked as a marketing writer for a manufacturer. So when you talk to a copywriter for an advertising agency, you might want to ask questions that clarify the difference between the two jobs.

As you wrap up an informational interview, there are two essential bases you want to cover. You will certainly want to ask the person to provide you with the names of other people they know whom you could interview. Even if you weren't keen on the career this person described, he or she might have friends doing other jobs that might interest you. Also, you'll want to make some type of follow-up arrangements. For instance, you will want to ask the interview subject if it will be O.K. to call again if you have further questions. The subject may have promised during your chat to send you a document, look over your résumé, or put you in touch with the hiring manager of his or her company. Now is the time to remind the person of that promise.

Be careful at this point in the interview not to promise too much yourself. For instance, if the interview subject offers to hook you up with a hiring manager, you should only accept such an offer if you are truly interested in applying for a job. If you are unsure, it is better to thank the person for the offer and say that you will be in touch. Informational interviews are not meant to be job interviews, and indeed it is a giant faux pas to ask someone during an informational interview for a job. Yet, good talent is often hard to find, and sometimes interviewees are thinking of their own organization's needs whenever they are talking to new acquaintances.

Finally, after the interview is over, send a thank-you note as soon as possible. Many people are quite happy to receive such a note by e-mail. Yet there are still many pockets of civilization in which a handwritten, snail-mail note is still the gold standard.

Keep track of the people you've interviewed. It may help to know who told you what. And sometimes interview subjects will develop a personal interest in you and your career aspirations. They will appreciate hearing updates from you periodically. Once you have landed a new job, it is a thoughtful touch to send a brief note to each of these people and let them know the outcome of your job search. You are now part of each other's network. And someday one of your former interview subjects may want to send a friend your way for an informational interview about your new career.

Robin B. Wagner is associate director for graduate services in the career- and placement-services office of the University of Chicago.