Want to learn more about a potential industry or position within your chosen field? Consider setting up informational interviews.
These casual meetings are a great way to gain insight without having a lot at stake. “An informational interview allows you to tap into the pulse of your industry at the moment,” says Anna Tsui, an international entrepreneur, writer, speaker and founder of Anna Tsui International. “You can get an idea of who the players are, their reputations, and the trends in the marketplace. You may be able to garner insight that’s not necessarily mainstream or easily accessible.”
You can set up these meetings to learn more about a potential career while you’re connected to industry insiders at your internship, before or after you graduate, or even years into an existing career if you want to change fields.
Understand the benefits of informational interviews
Lara Schulte, certified behavior specialist and business coach, explains that there are several benefits to setting up these interviews. The primary benefit is getting to learn more about a potential position, career, or industry before jumping in feet first. It’s also inherently more natural and less awkward than a traditional job interview, since there is no job offer on the line.
But even more valuable is the connection you can make with an expert already established in the field. “Informational interviews allow you to create a network of people in the career field that interests you,” Schulte explains.
Identify the right people
When you want to set up an interview, start by looking within your existing network, such as family friends or professional contacts you may have interacted with at a former job or internship. “The best way is to go through your personal networks and the people you’ve met at networking events,” explains Tsui. “These are people who know you and will be more likely to spend time with you.”
Schulte says it’s also acceptable to reach out to strangers. But do your research first. “When I started my business, I used Google, Yelp, and LinkedIn to research other coaches. I spent time on their websites looking into how they ran their business and got a feel for who they were as a coach,” she explains. “I’d reach out to those who impressed me on email and LinkedIn, and I’d follow them on social media.”
Don’t forget that you can also find potential interviewees by simply remaining curious about others. “Whether you are intentionally trying to set up a meeting or not, ask people questions about themselves when you meet them and listen,” Schulte suggests. “People love to talk and share information about themselves — and even more than that, they like to feel heard.”
Reach out and schedule the meeting
Once you identify someone you want to meet with, reach out via email and keep your request brief. Politely ask if you could take them out to lunch or coffee in exchange for an hour of their time. An approachable way to phase the request could be, “I’m thinking about a career change and would like to hear about your experience in the field.” And wrapping up with a compliment never hurts.
Tsui points out that you may have more luck if you request just 30 minutes of someone’s time rather than a full hour. “Make sure you travel to them — and that you buy the coffee,” she says. “Remember, these people are in the industry that you may want to move into, and it doesn’t hurt to create a few allies.” These courtesies help build rapport with important (and busy) people.
Prepare ahead of time
Again, do your research ahead of your meetings. Run a Google search on their name, pull up their social media profiles, and check out their business website. You may see areas you want to learn more about after reading a bit about them.
When it comes to specific questions, remember that you’re only looking for information. You don’t want to ask for favors or directly ask anything about positions within the person’s company or for details like job compensation or benefits. Tsui provides a list of questions as a potential starting point for informational interviews:
- What should I know about this company? What should I know about the industry as a whole?
- Do you think I would do well in this industry? (skip this question if the contact is a stranger)
- What do you love about what you do?
- What are some of your gripes about your role? What’s the work culture like at companies in the industry, from your experience?
- What are the expectations in a role like yours?
Schulte also suggests asking if there are others you should set up meetings with. “They’ll think of someone they work with or have worked with in the past,” she says. “Let them help you continue to create your network of professionals.”
Follow up after the interview
Always remember to touch base with the person you met with by writing a follow-up email expressing your gratitude. It’s a small gesture that takes a few minutes of your time but can make a big impact on the other person. You can also offer to return the favor — consider asking the other person if there’s anything you can do to help them, as well.
Remember: Informational interviews are useful when it comes to career research —they are not actual interviews. Just because you landed an informational interview with an executive at your dream company doesn’t mean you’ll be walking away with a new gig — but it will give you an in at the company, someone who can perhaps vouch for you when a position does become available.