The informational interview: A job-hunter’s secret weapon

This article originally appeared at I Will Teach You to Be Rich in a slightly different format.

Finding a job can be tough. Competition is fierce, and even if you've got the skills, it's a challenge to make yourself known to the right people. According to Michael Hampton, Director of Career Development at Western Oregon University, informational interviews are a valuable networking technique that can give you an edge on your competition.

The informational interview is designed to help you choose or refine a career path. You can learn how to break in and find out if you have what it takes to succeed. Spending time with one of your network contacts in a highly focused conversation will provide you with key information you need to launch or boost your career.

An informational interview is not the same as a job interview. It's an opportunity to find out more about a particular career or company. These sorts of interviews can be valuable for anyone, not just those looking for a new job. You might consider this approach if:

  • You're a recent graduate exploring possible career opportunities.
  • You have an established career, but would like to discover what it might be like to work for another company.
  • You feel as if you've done as much as you can in your current job and are interested in changing fields.

By meeting with somebody experienced in the field you're considering, you can find out more about what the work is really like, about how much it pays, and about the drawbacks.

The First Rule

Before you begin seeking informational interviews, it's important to understand a couple of rules:

  1. The first rule of informational interviews is: do not ask for a job.
  2. The second rule of informational interviews is: do not ask for a job.

If you meet with somebody under the pretenses of gathering information and you attempt to turn the encounter into a job application, you're just going to make her angry. If, after the interview is finished, she thinks you're promising and she has a position available, she'll contact you. Do not ask for a job.

Conducting the Informational Interview

Your first step is to find people with jobs that look intriguing. Once you've identified some likely candidates, prepare a simple phone script to make sure you get everything you need in your initial contact. It can be helpful to approach the informational interview as if you were a reporter. Pretend you're gathering information for a news story. This can help calm your nerves. Make sure to adhere to the following guidelines:

  • Ask politely. If the person declines the interview, respect her boundaries. If she accepts, select a time and location that works for both of you. (Phone interviews are fine.) Confirm the time and location.
  • Be prepared. Dress appropriately. Be punctual. Do your homework — learn what you can about the company from trade magazines, press releases, and past (and present) employees. Research will allow you to skip questions that could have been easily answered via another source. You want to use this opportunity to ask more intelligent, relevant questions.
  • Listen. Be ready with a list of open-ended questions. Let the interviewee talk about herself. Good questions include:
    • “What is your typical day like?”
    • “What do you like most (and least) about your job?”
    • “How does your company differ from its competitors?”
    • “What is the future like for this industry?”
  • Take notes. Remember that you're conducting this interview to gain insight into a possible career. Write down anything that might be important. Ask follow-up questions.
  • Be brief. Keep track of time. Don't rush the interview, but don't overstay your welcome, either. If you've done your homework, you know which questions to ask. Get the information you need in a timely fashion, and then let the person return to her workday. Pay attention to signals that it's time to leave.

Don't forget to send e-mail or a brief hand-written note to thank the person for taking time out of her day to meet with you.

Informational interviews aren't just for job seekers. You can use them to locate mentors or to pick the brains of experts on a favorite subject. I'm preparing to write a book, for example, and have been fortunate to find half a dozen authors who have been willing to take time to describe their experience with the publishing process.

Further Reading

If you'd like more information on this subject, follow this inter-related web conversation:

Although the primary rule of the informational interview is to never ask for a job, there is an exception. Says Western Oregon University's Michael Hampton:

If you discover a job that you want to apply for during the interview, wait. The next day, call the employer and tell your contact that the informational interview not only confirmed your interest in the field, but made you aware of a position that you would like to formally apply for.

The best part about the informational interview? Few people use them. Add this weapon to your arsenal, and you'll have an advantage on everyone else who's out there looking for a job.

More about...Career

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B Smith @ Wealth and Wisdom
B Smith @ Wealth and Wisdom
12 years ago

JD-Great post. This goes in depth to a key part of my job hunting strategy. I can personally attest that informational interviews work. I use them always. Several things I’ve found that weren’t mentioned in the post were: -They let you know about the company. I’ve found that by meeting with my contacts at a company I can find out the good and the bad. This can save you from a painful job working for a terrible company. -Uncover jobs. I’ve gotten three job offers for jobs that weren’t on the books. If the company likes you they will find… Read more »

Kelly
Kelly
12 years ago

While skimming your article, I came across a few grammatical errors, and have copied the text so that you might correct them.

…succeed. Spending time with one your network contacts in a highly focused…

… You feel as if you’ve done as much as you can in your current job and are interested in chaging fields…..

I would be happy to become a part of your editing team. Feel free to contact me at your earliest convenience.

Kelly

fathersez
fathersez
12 years ago

Though (after reading this post), it looks like common sense, I did not think about this interesting concept.

I must discuss this with my daughter.

Thanks for sharing

J.D.
J.D.
12 years ago

Hm. Thanks for the copy-edits, Kelly. I’ve made the corrections.

Wesley
Wesley
12 years ago

One thing the article doesn’t mention is the wording to use when approaching this type of meeting. I think it’s important to use disarming words like “advice”. If you ask someone for their advice, they’re likely to give it. If you ask them for some of their time…that’s another story, especially if they don’t know you that well.

Great article!

Joe G
Joe G
12 years ago

Amen. Never ask for a job in an informational interview. I have even had people come in prepared to talk about a job, even after I told them THERE ISN’T A JOB!!!

Jay @ Personal Finance Hacks.com
Jay @ Personal Finance Hacks.com
12 years ago

Great post JD. I used an informational interview to get my current position. I was fresh out of college working an internship with a telecom company. The three month internship was about to end, and I had no full time job prospects. Out of despiration, I called the director of my department and asked if I could take him to lunch. He said yes. It wasn’t until about half way through lunch that the subject of my employment came up. We talked about it for a few minutes, and then he informed me that a position would be opening up… Read more »

Finally Frugal
Finally Frugal
12 years ago

As someone who often ‘gives’ informational interviews, I agree that they can be extremely valuable to the person interested in the field. I work in a fairly specific area of education—it’s a small field, and one in which it’s difficult to get a foot in the door without substantial education and experience (often unpaid or extremely low-paid). It makes sense for someone to come and talk to us before making an educational and time commitment that may not 1) pay off and 2) be what they thought it would be. I’m careful to present the pros AND the cons of… Read more »

Red
Red
12 years ago

Really interesting. I never followed Ramit’s blog because of the sleazy title, but this is good stuff.

at some point in the next 3-4 years I intend to move up the coast to Oregon/Washington, and this would be a good way to get my foot in the door.

plonkee
plonkee
12 years ago

I think informational interviews are a brilliant idea. I haven’t taken one up myself as I’ve lucked out on a really interesting career, but when/if I want to switch they’re definitely something I’d consider.

I agree that the key is to not be wanting a job out of them. Someone is doing you a favour. Do not push them too far.

Andrea >> Become a consultant
Andrea >> Become a consultant
12 years ago

I have had many information interviews. These days, I’m more likely to be the one asked to provide the information. There’s just one thing that irritates me… If you invite me for lunch or coffee or whatever, don’t *expect* me to pay for you. In fact, since you suggested the meal, you should really be doing the paying. But, as a basic guideline, pay for your own meal and perhaps offer to pay for the other person’s as well. It’s pretty rude to ask for someone’s time (and hard earned knowledge) and then not to even bring out your wallet… Read more »

Ryan McLean
Ryan McLean
12 years ago

I just went to a job interview yesterday and I got a job. I know it wasn’t an informational interview but I just wanted to share it.
I got a job to help support me while I continue to work on my financial blog and grow that and make it amazing.
Great post thanks for the info

Hooper
Hooper
12 years ago

What is all of this “her” business. It just sounds goofy.

dan
dan
12 years ago

I got my first job using informational interviews and I advise people trying to get their first job to do the same. I “closed” a little differently. I tell recent grads this: “Here’s how you end your informational interview. Even if it was the most boring conversation of your life, you say, “This was SO interesting and helpful! I’d like to learn more about the field … would you be willing to give me the names of a few people you know who may be willing to chat with me?” Even though you *say* you’re not looking for a job,… Read more »

Rachel
Rachel
12 years ago

Yes @Wesley, I asked once for an “informational interview” with a suspicious response. Later, I asked the same woman to have lunch with me to catch up and she not only said yes but gave me loads of advice. Avoid calling it an informational interview if you are not sure if the person knows what that is!

If you know the person, it should be a way to catch up and get advice. If you don’t know the person, or have a very weak connection, it might be a good idea to pay for coffee/lunch.

Dale Callahan
Dale Callahan
10 years ago

I have found this method to be very powerful – in fact I would say it is the “guaranteed method to find a job” But the KEY is to ask them to talk about themselves! The questions you suggest that force them to tell about how they feel are critical – otherwise you end up with them giving you the company line. You need to ask those suggested – but also “Tell me your story – how did you get from where I am to where you are?” Getting people to talk about themselves is a great way to get… Read more »

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