Since graduating college, like many twenty-somethings, I’ve applied for and interviewed for a lot of jobs.

I’ve been fortunate to find opportunities along the way that have brought me closer to my career goals and from which I’ve learned a tremendous amount. It wasn’t an easy path and I stumbled and fell many times.

In thinking back to when I was 22 and just graduating college, there are five pieces of advice I would give my 22-year-old self. Over the next few blog posts, I’ll walk through each one.

Piece of Career Advice #1: Informational interviews = low risk, high reward

Once I figured this out, a whole new world of insight into job searching opened up to me. Through informational interviews I began building my professional network, crossed out entire career paths, and found myself my current job.

Wait, hold, up. What’s an informational interview?

Unlike a formal job interview, where you – the candidate – are the one who is answering all the questions about your experiences, goals, and dreams, in an informational interview, you get to sit back and listen.

An informational interview is an opportunity for you, the job seeker, to talk to someone who either already has the job you want or works at an organization you’d like to work at. The goal of an informational interview is NOT to ask the person you’re talking to if they can hire you – it is an information gathering opportunity and a good way to make a new connection with someone in your field of interest.

Why should I do an informational interview?

Particularly when we’re early in your career, we don’t know what the realities of a job or industry are like.  Through an informational interview you can have a candid, low stakes conversation with someone in the job or at the organization you’re interested in and get to know if that life would actually be a good fit for you.

Last summer, after conducting five informational interviews with people in a role I’d thought was a perfect fit for years, I learned that the reality was nothing like what I’d imagined. It wasn’t the direction I wanted to go in my career and I promptly stopped applying to jobs in that role. I also learned that summer, that what I really wanted to be doing was program management. I then spent this past year building my program management experiences and focusing my interviewing for jobs in this field, and just started my current job as a program manager on a fantastic new team.

Who should I ask for an informational interview?

You can ask virtually anyone for an informational interview! A couple recommendations for places to start, if you’ve never done one before: reach out to family members, friends, and acquaintances. Is there someone in your personal & professional network who is working at an organization you’ve dreamed of working at? Do you have an aunt whose job as a human resources manager has always sounded fascinating?

When I first began informational interviews, I asked my friends’ parents and my parents’ friends if they’d talk to me. To my surprise, they were more than happy to set aside 30 minutes to talk about their careers. And that’s the beauty of it: 99% of people are willing to spend 30 minutes of their day to tell you about what they do, how they got there, and what they’ve learned along the way. All you have to do is ask!

What I was most surprised by was that this same principle applies to strangers as well. Over the years, I have emailed several hundred acquaintances and absolute strangers, requesting an informational interview and have never been turned down.

What should I ask during an informational interview?

Depending on your goals for the informational interview, your questions will vary. If you’re looking to learn more about an organization, I’d recommend asking questions about their organizational culture, how decisions are made, what collaboration looks like, what employee morale is like, and how different teams within the organization work together. If it’s a toxic work environment, you want to know well before you interview or sign an offer letter.

If your goals are to learn more about a particular role or someone’s career experiences to date, I’d recommend asking open-ended questions to get them talking about what they love about their job, what they find frustrating, and what kinds of skills/experiences make someone good at this job.

If you’re exploring careers or seeking to understand an industry, I’d also recommend one bonus question at the end: who else should I talk to? If the conversation has gone well, it’s appropriate to ask them if there’s anyone else they’d recommend you talking to OR if there are any resources/trainings they’d recommend you check out.

Last year, when I began my summer blitz of informational interviewing, I had several people recommend other leads for future informational interviews. Most helpful though, was a professional email list-serv that someone recommended me. It was through this list-serv that a year later, I learned about my current job opening up. So, you never know what leads might be helpful down the line!

Here are a couple of my go-to questions:

  • What led you to your current role?
  • What do you love most about your job?
  • How would you describe your organization/team’s culture?
  • What are some challenges that lie ahead for your team/organization over the next six months?
  • What do you wish you’d known when you’d first started working at [organization]?
  • What do you wish you’d known when you’d first started your career?

You can also ask them for insight into what the hiring cycle/process looks like at their organization – do they tend to always have more openings every spring? Do they tend to hire within? Do they rely heavily on employee referrals? I’d discourage spending too much time on this, because unless they are someone who works in HR/hiring, they won’t know the details.

How do I prepare for an informational interview?

Just like a regular interview, it is critical that you prepare! If someone has agreed to set aside 30-minutes or an hour just to talk to you, it’s disrespectful of their time if you come in without a game plan. You don’t need a list of 500 questions that you fire at them in rapid succession. You just need to have clearly defined goals for the conversation and a handful of questions ready. This way, you find out what you need and can make the most of your time.

During a few of my first informational interviews, I’ve hopped on a phone call and sat there in the awkward silence as the other person waited for me to say something. After one or two of those, I’ve since always written out a couple guiding questions beforehand as back-up, if I got nervous. As a quick note, I’ve gone into informational interviews with a notebook in hand a list of questions to refer to – that’s not a negative; in fact, it actually adds to your credibility and lets the person you’re talking to know that you’re taking this seriously.

So, make sure to know why you’re having this conversation and identify what you want to ask them before hand.

The last piece of preparation: make sure to send a follow-up thank you note within 24 hours of your conversation. This is a must! I’ve had colleagues comment on informational interviews they’ve had with family friends or acquaintances who never followed-up and how it came across as ungrateful and rude. Know that a quick thank you note can go a long way.

Is this going to be awkward? How do I structure this conversation?

Informational interviews don’t have to be awkward! Remember: the stakes are low – this person does not expect anything from you. All you have to do is to listen and ask them questions.

I recommend beginning any informational interview – whether an in-person coffee chat or a phone call/Skype chat – by thanking them for their time. Give them a bit of background for why you’re doing this informational interview (ex: you’re hoping to switch jobs or you just graduated college and are exploring careers) and if you’ve never met this person before, give them a brief overview of your background (what are you currently doing? What are your career goals?).

Then, a good way to start out the conversation is by asking them one broad & open ended question to get them talking. You could ask them to tell you about their experiences in their current job/organization so far or to tell you about the path that brought them here.
From there on, if you’ve prepared questions beforehand (I recommend having at least 3-4 written down or otherwise in your head), ask them those questions if there’s a long pause. Otherwise, focus on listening to what they’re saying and follow-up for more details, if they mentioned something you’d like to learn more about.

In Summary

  • Informational interviews are a fantastic opportunity to broaden your professional network, learn more about a role/industry/organization before you commit to it, and to generate leads for future job openings down the line.
  • Most people are willing to give you at least 30 minutes to talk about what they do and why – all you need to do is ask!
  • Preparation is key to a successful informational interview.
  • Make sure to follow-up with a thank you afterwards.

Good luck and happy informational interviewing!