While many people associate the word “interview” with applying to a job or professional program, you can use the interview structure for other purposes, such as learning more about a job or profession from someone in the industry. If there’s a position or career path that interests you and you want to learn more, an informational interview might be ideal. Understanding the basics of informational interviewing can help you maximize the benefits of this professional tool.
In this article, we provide a guide explaining everything to know about informational interviews.
What is an informational interview?
An informational interview is a useful technique for learning about potential careers that involves asking experienced experts questions about their professional experience. The expert may be someone who has worked in their field for several years, such as an executive, a professor or a career counselor.
You can conduct your informational interview in person, over the phone or even via email if the interviewee is unable to meet during your availability. Informational interviews tend to be more casual than job interviews because they are low-stress and are exclusively for educational and networking purposes.
What are the benefits of an informational interview?
Conducting informational interviews requires preparation and an investment of your time, but you can enjoy a range of benefits from your efforts. Depending on the questions you ask, you can gain information on a variety of subjects while making an authentic connection with someone who works in the same industry. Some of the positive results of hosting an informational interview include:
Receiving specific advice
Because you’re the person asking the questions in an informational interview, you can curate the questions to your unique professional and personal goals. You can learn about the aspects of a career path that directly relate to your life, interests and values. The more you personalize the interview questions, the better guidance you can gain from the interviewee’s answers.
Expanding your network
You can conduct an informational interview with anyone who agrees to be interviewed, which means you have a great opportunity to grow or strengthen your professional network. If you interview someone you already know, you can use the informational interview to get better acquainted. You can also contact new people in your industry and use the interview to introduce yourself in a professional context. Once the meeting takes place, ask for your interviewee’s contact information so you can initiate conversations in the future if you have questions or need advice.
Gaining inside details
An informational interview can teach you details about a company, industry or position that you may not be able to find on your own. While researching career paths and employers online can gather some vital information, an informational interview can give you someone’s actual experience, which is often more accurate and realistic.
If you’re interviewing someone from a company that you’re interested in working for, ask them about the company’s interview process and what qualifications can impress the employer. You can also ask the person you’re interviewing if they’re willing to refer you for a role in the company.
By interviewing someone else, you can gain valuable practice interviewing others in a professional context. It gives you the opportunity to see the interviewer’s perspective, helping you improve your own interview strategies for your job search.
How long is an informational interview?
The length of an informational interview can vary, ranging from as short as fifteen minutes to over an hour. It’s a good idea to discuss how much time the interviewee can dedicate to an informational interview ahead of time so you can plan an appropriate number of questions. A successful informational interview might lead to an extended conversation based on your rapport with the interview subject if you have extra time and want to learn more.
Do you pay for an informational interview?
Informational interviews are generally unpaid opportunities. When someone agrees to meet for a meeting, they’re essentially doing you a professional favor by taking time out of their day to help you learn about your career. You can thank them for their time by paying for their coffee or a meal if you meet in person, or even giving them a small present as a token of appreciation.
How can you find an informational interview subject?
You can find an informational interview subject by contacting employees of companies you want to work at, asking colleagues for connections, messaging industry experts through online platforms or asking professors and friends for introductions to their industry contacts. You might even contact the author of an article or book related to the career path you want to explore. Compile a list of people who you want to interview and gather their contact information as a starting point for finding one or more people to meet.
How do you ask for an informational interview?
One of the best ways to ask for an informational interview is to send a polite email or message. Use a polite, professional tone and carefully proofread your message. Include a subject line with your name and the words “informational interview request” to help your message stand out. When preparing your message, include the following information:
How you learned about the interview subject
Why you want to interview them
How much time you want to reserve for the interview
Suggested dates and times
A polite thank-you with your name
If the person you ask doesn’t respond within a week or two, you can send one polite follow-up in the event that they have a busy inbox and didn’t see your message. After that, consider a lack of reply as them declining the invitation and moving on to another possible subject. Remember that top industry experts have hectic schedules and you may have to contact multiple people before securing a meeting.
Types of questions to ask during informational interviews
Your informational interview questions can cover a variety of professional topics based on what you want to learn. Asking thoughtful questions on a range of subjects guides the interview and helps you develop a holistic understanding of a person’s career path. Brainstorm professional and appropriate questions to ask. Some popular subjects to cover include:
Most positions have additional responsibilities that the job description doesn’t reflect. Ask questions about the interviewee’s daily duties to understand what your workflow could look like in that job. Examples include:
“How do you spend a typical workday?”
“What skills do you use every day at work?”
Learning about someone’s professional history can provide you with information about what qualifications you may need for a similar position. Education, accomplishments, jobs, internships and other professional opportunities are all great topics to discuss. Here are some sample questions that target history:
“What accomplishments and experiences set you apart in this field?”
“How did your education impact your career path and prospects?”
When deciding whether or not to pursue a career path, it’s important to know how you can grow and advance within the field. Asking about growth opportunities can give you an honest perspective on how hard it is to gain a leadership position in a field or business. These questions about career growth can provide you with insight into how candidates in your field get promoted:
“What do you see as the next step in your career?”
“How long did it take to receive your first promotion?”
Understanding how a job impacts your personal life is essential for choosing a career that suits you. Lifestyle and work-life balance questions can help you decide if you’re willing to make the necessary sacrifices to succeed in a specific industry. Examples of work-life balance questions for an informational interview include:
“How does this job fit in with your lifestyle?”
“Have you made personal sacrifices to succeed in this industry?”
An informational interview is a perfect opportunity to learn about the culture of a workplace from someone within that culture. Each company has its own unwritten expectations and rules for how employees accomplish work and interact with one another. You can learn about these cultural attributes with these questions:
“How can you describe the management style at your company?”
“What do you want to change about your current company culture?”
Best practices for conducting an informational interview
Once you’ve scheduled your informational interview, keep these strategies and best practices in mind before, during and after the meeting:
Identify your goals
Prior to the interview, write down your reasons for wanting to meet with this person. If you want to learn about their specific role, you can ask different questions than if you want to learn about the industry as a whole or the company that hired them. By keeping your goals in mind, you can guide the interview in a productive way from beginning to end.
Research the interviewee
Search for information about the interviewee, their professional history and their employer. Learning about the person you’re interviewing can give you inspiration for questions to ask and provide context for their answers. Coming into the interview prepared with knowledge about the interviewee can leave a good impression and show your professionalism.
Compile your list of questions
Create a list with enough questions to fill the allotted time, then add a few more. Some people may easily talk about themselves at length while others may need more prompting, so having extra questions is a good measure to ensure you get what you want out of the interview. Order your questions based on importance, starting with what you most want to know.
At the end of the meeting, ask the interviewee if they have any additional information they want to share. This offers the opportunity for details that they feel are important that you may not have inquired about during the interview.
Show up early
Being punctual and meeting your interviewee on time is essential for making a good impression. Remember that the interviewee is a busy individual who’s doing you a favor, so it’s especially important for you to respect their time. You can also make sure you dress professionally to make a good impression, regardless if you’re meeting in person or virtually.
Share your appreciation
At the beginning of the meeting, express your thanks to the interviewee. Briefly explain that you appreciate their time and are excited to learn from them. This starts the interview off in a positive way and starts a friendly rapport to encourage the interviewee to open up.
Briefly introduce yourself
Take a few moments to explain who you are and what you hope to gain from the interview. The other person can use this information to give you the most relevant answers possible. Your introduction is also an opportunity to connect with the interview about shared goals and work passions.
Bring a notebook with you to the interview and write down details for each response. You may even consider recording the conversation with the interviewee’s permission. Taking notes documents the interview for future reference, allowing you to reflect on their answers and save their most valuable insights.
Stay on topic
Remember that you’re in control of the interview and it’s your job to stay focused and on task. You have a limited amount of time and it’s critical that you get the most out of the experience by guiding the conversation in a productive manner and avoiding side conversations. If you connect on a topic but want to move on to the next question, you can always ask to continue the discussion later and then proceed with the interview.
Ask follow-up questions
Your list of questions is a great way to guide an interview, but don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions about answers that intrigue you. The interviewee may surprise you with a topic that you didn’t consider but still want to learn more about. As long as the questions are relevant to your goals for the interview, follow-up questions can enrich your interview and deepen the conversation.
Send a thank-you note
After the interview, send a thank you note or email. Mention specific parts of the interview to show that you were paying attention and got something valuable from the conversation. Include your contact information as a way to integrate this person into your professional network. Now that you have a personal connection with an industry expert, consider using the thank-you note as a way to ask for referrals to other experts in your industry that could teach you more.