Why you should book informational interviews, even during a pandemic

A woman waves at a laptop video camera as she starts an informational interview.

Informational interviews — conducted virtually online or by phone — can help you expand your network and plan your future amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Interested in learning more about a particular industry or a 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 meetings like this in order to learn more about a potential career at any point: during an internship (including a virtual internship), before or after you graduate, or even years into an existing career if you want to change fields.

The best news? The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t eliminated the ability to conduct informational interviews. It just means they’ll need to be done online or by phone. Informational interviews can provide powerful insight that you can use to plan what’s next for you. How is the coronavirus pandemic impacting a specific industry or company? Will a graduate degree help me in this field? What is the competition for positions like right now? An informational interview might be the best way to find out.

Understand the benefits of informational interviews

“I see informational interviews as having two purposes,” says career counselor L. Michelle Tullier, Ph.D. The former executive director of the Georgia Institute of Technology’s career center recommends setting up these interviews primarily as a key part of your career exploration and decision-making and also as a great way to network. “If you do it right, it’s a little of both,” she says. “If you’re impressing the person, they will likely want to help you and connect you to opportunities.”

In this time of uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Tullier adds, try to take the long view and be patient.

“Hiring at the entry level, whether it’s interns or recent grads, is mission critical to most companies’ long-range talent-management strategies,” says Tullier. If there is a certain organization or company you want to work for, “they will come around and will hire again.”

Identify the right people

“Start with who you know, and who your family knows,” says Tullier, “but don’t panic if you feel your family doesn’t know a lot of people.”

University alumni groups are a great resource for identifying informational interview subjects, as are professors you know well and people you’ve worked with in the past.

LinkedIn is useful for networking today, for most professions. (Some careers, however, such as K-12 teaching, are not well represented on LinkedIn.) “You can not only search your first- and second-degree contacts, but also people who match the keywords for fields you are considering,” says Tullier.

You may want to talk with someone who is almost a peer — just a few years out of college — in a position you can aspire to. They can give you an on-the-ground perspective, which could complement any information you get from a department head or CEO.

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,” suggests Lara Schulte, certified behavior specialist and business coach. “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

Remember that you are requesting a favor. You should make things as easy as possible for the other person and keep the back-and-forth to a minimum.

  • Let them know two to three options for times you’re available to talk. (‘I could connect any time after 2:00 p.m. on the fourth of this month or any time before 11:00 a.m. on the ninth.’)
  • Check your email inbox frequently for their reply or any alert that they’ll need to adjust the time.
  • Offer to do the meeting by video chat, phone, or whatever digital media they prefer.
  • Lock in the meeting digitally with a calendar event to their work email address. In the calendar item, include the specifics of how the meeting will happen (such as teleconference meeting links) and your contact information for any rescheduling needs. Set the event to request a reply.
  • Don’t ask for more than 15 minutes of their time, but also be available for longer if the meeting is going well or the interviewee extends the conversation. Let them lead.

Informational interviews in the quarantine era

As many informational interviews are being conducted online — at least for the time being — you’ll need some particular approaches for making a good digital impression.

  • If you are connecting on an unfamiliar digital platform, try it out ahead of time to head off any technical glitches.
  • If there is a video option, use it! It helps make the experience similar to meeting in person.
  • Make sure you’re comfortable and feel confident. Sit as you would during an in-person interview. Be mindful of your posture.
  • Don’t have your unmade bed behind you; try for a nice, neutral background.
  • Minimize background noise. In your test run, see if things like a typing keyboard or your air conditioner create distraction.
  • Turn off other apps or software that could steal your focus. This isn’t the time to text with your bestie or get an email alert noise.

Prepare ahead of time

Preparation is key. Although this is not a job interview, you want to open with a concise summary of who you are and what you are looking for — your “elevator pitch.” This will help the interviewee understand up front what kind of input might help you determine if the company/field would be a good fit for you.

In addition, consider mentally organizing the interview so that you have a strong introduction and closing. In between, be ready to pivot or anticipate where the conversation may lead. It’s OK if you don’t know the answer to any questions right away. Just ask for some time to think about it and if you could circle back to it later.

You should also research the company and the person you’re meeting withTullier says, “You want to show you’ve done your homework.” Knowing something about the company, especially if it’s been in the news recently, could be beneficial throughout the conversation.

Familiarize yourself with your interviewee’s resume (even if you already know them personally). Avoid simpler questions such as, “What is your job?” or “What was your major?” Instead, dig deeper by asking what they have done to be more effective or satisfied in their career, or whether their work involves more solo projects or team collaborations. It might also be useful to know what skills have served them best in their career.

Include questions that are customized to your interests. If you love to write or travel, you might ask how those might be involved in the job.

If the person knows about you already, ask if they think you would do well in this industry or company. Ask about company culture, such as what aspects of it people like or find challenging. Inquire about the company or industry, and about overall expectations for a role in both.

Schulte notes that it’s worth 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.”

And one last recommendation: Don’t request favors or directly ask anything about positions within the person’s company or for details such as pay or benefits.

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, but 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 may give you an in at the company, a connection with someone who can perhaps vouch for you when a position does become available.

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