Empowering your intern & job search with informational interviews

Informational interviews flip the tables from a job interview in that:

  1. There is no job being offered. So relax.
    • Job leads & offers can come from an informational interview, but it is not implied–more on this below.
  2. They are designed for you to get to know more about a person, job, and/or organization.
  3. Good job interviews will give you a chance to ask some questions (as above), but in the informational you are directing most, if not all, of the questions toward the person(s) of interest. This is the heart of the informational interview.

Informational interviews give you a chance to learn more about the types of jobs you’d like to have, KSAs you will need to get those jobs or might learn in those jobs, and organizations you’d like to work for with that job. By talking to people who have those jobs, KSAs, and/or work in organizations of interest, you can learn if those jobs & organizations might be right for you, where you excel or are deficient, and suggestions on next steps to explore. Informational interviews can help you get an inside edge into the sorts of questions asked at job interviews, weight given to different types of experience and education, and offer far more extensive views into organizational culture and employment practices. They take you far deeper than looking at job boards and company websites can ever go.

Who to ask

I usually advise having at least 3-6 informational interviews. If you can get more, great, but there are marginal returns–after awhile, the more you have, the less new information you might get from each one. If you find getting them doesn’t take much time (including time spent being ignored or denied), then by all means do more, but be mindful that your time is also valuable.

Try to do at least 2-3 of those informational interviews with people working in job positions that interest you. Try another 2-3 with people working in organizations that interest you. 4 informational interviews total might be a sweet spot with people that can satisfy working in positions at organizations of interest.

When looking for people to interview, consider different experience levels. People in junior positions may be more familiar with their own hiring experience and their work-experience gaps being newer on the job. Junior employees might also have wider networks for you to tap into with the places & groups they used while on the job market or connect you with others in similar roles & teams in their organizations. Those in mid-level and senior positions can offer insight on what could be looked for in a good job candidate, offer historical reflections on what has changed in the job/industry over time since they were in junior roles. Mid-level and senior employees may have a higher-level view of their organization or leadership / mentoring experience with professional organizations and groups, which are different types of guided networks for you to tap into. If you have 4 interviews, then half in junior roles and half in mid-level/senior roles is a good balance.

Type of industry, on-the-job experiences, and organizational structure can widely vary when a person moves between junior, mid-level, and senior positions. Job titles that include clear labels of junior or senior in the title are a great indicator. Time on job can also be useful, e.g <3 years on the job for juniors, but be mindful that someone can be hired into mid- or senior level positions so use their total industry experience time rather than time in a single job.

A couple other things to keep in mind…

Warm & Cold Contacts. Cold contacts are people you don’t know (yet) and/or do not (yet) have things in common. They are complete strangers to you. Warm contacts those with whom you share something in common, such as going to the same school. Warm contacts can also be made when someone else helps introduce you to each other. Warm contacts are more likely to respond positively to your request for an informational interview than a cold contact.

What is in a name? Some jobs may share the same name, but have very different duties depending on the organization. Likewise, you may find that some positions have similar duties across different organizations but have different job names. For example, data science jobs can vary widely both on duties and other positions that may have similar duties. While these issues complicate your search, they also help you become familiar with the job landscape and develop targeted questions for your interviewees who might have valuable information on navigating this space when you are ready for the job hunt.

Where do I have them

Great thing about modern technology is all the different ways we can meet people. The most convenient methods are usually a phone or video chat. These days, both can be done from your phone or a full-sized computer. Meeting in-person also becomes an option for those living and/or working in the same locality as you. If you and/or they are traveling and will be in the area at the same time, consider an in-person meeting if possible.

My personal preference is in-person > video chat > phone chat.

Meeting in-person can help open and read conversations better. Body language also can be taken into account. Additionally, you don’t have to worry about connectivity issues.

When you initiate the request for an interview, offer both phone and video chat options, and in-person if they are local. There are many video chat platforms, and it is ok to suggest any you already use. However, I suggest avoiding those tied to social networks such as Facebook Messenger as those platforms could require higher levels of engagement and scare off potential interviewees.

If you are able to offer a local in-person meeting, suggest open, neutral places such as coffee shops. Let the person help guide the meeting location, which might be near their place of employment particularly if you’d meet during their work hours. If you’re lucky, they might even offer to host you at their place of employment. Such opportunities are pure gold. If you meet in-person in a public place, be sure to communicate your appearance, perhaps share a professional, up-to-date photo so that the person can recognize you. If you meet at their workplace, you may need a photo ID depending on building security–hopefully the interviewee will prep you on any such details.

Regardless of where you agree to meet, be sure to also agree to an amount of time for your meeting.

What to ask

Although this the informational interview is not a job interview, it is expected that you would ask the sorts of questions that are 100% relevant to job interviews and searches. Example question include, but are not limited to:

Questions to show interest:

1. Why did you choose this career?
2. How did you get into this job?
3. What current projects are you working on?
4. What’s it like to work at your company?

Questions about job fit:

5. What past work experiences help you most?
6. What’s the greatest challenge your department faces?
7. What’s the biggest challenge for your job?
8. How would you describe the perfect person for this job?
9. What’s the most important preparation for a role like yours?

Questions to get an inside edge:

10. What do you wish someone would have told you before you started this career?
11. What’s the biggest reward of your job?
12. What would surprise people about your daily work?
13. What’s the biggest downside of your job?
14. If you could go back in time, what would you do differently?
15. How will this job change over the next 10 years?

Question to gain advocates:

16. Could you refer me to a couple other people who could give me tips about this job?

List of questions are entirely credited to Zety’s informational interview blog page. Check out their site for other good suggestions on informational interview tips and tying it back to your resume.

Other solid lists of informational interview questions can be found on:

Doing a search for informational interview questions in your preferred search engine will likely come up with these and many other useful sites.

Explore a wide range of question lists. Sure, you’ll have extensive overlap between them. Parse out the ones that make sense for the types of people, jobs they hold, and places they work. Balance out questions, and target & probe them based on who you are interviewing, such as junior or senior level individuals. As you do more of these, you’ll get more comfortable asking and adapting the questions.

The Do’s and Don’ts

Please note that the Don’ts and Do’s are not complete lists and have my experiential bias and cultural context to them. Depending where you are, there may be many other things considered to be inappropriate or welcomed behavior.

The Don’ts

Let’s start with the faux pas first.

Do not communicate using a non-professional email address. This should go without saying and definitely applies to your intern/job search. Only communicate via email and other digital platforms using professional and professionally named accounts. Using a student provided email address is fine. Using a Gmail, Yahoo, or similar major email service provider is also fine, so long as the account name is appropriate. For example, shawn.janzen[at]email.com is fine, but shawn.likes.tech[at]email.com is not ideal and binaryman01[at]email.com is not appropriate. I’ve seen plenty of other inappropriate email names, some of which I’d be shocked to see (like these here), but people still seem to use them. Your email name might also set off spam and other security filters as well if they trigger certain flagged keywords.

Do not ask for a job. Do not ask for job leads or referrals. Part of the unwritten social contract between you and the interviewee is that there is no job on the line. If the interviewee is comfortable & able, they may offer these, but don’t push or pressure them. Be mindful that there might also be human resource (HR) restrictions upon the interviewee, so let them guide this process. If they do offer, you can ask clarifying and probing questions, but keep it professional at all times.

Do not provide gifts to the interviewee. You might be inclined to purchase thank you gifts, but this can be problematic on many levels.

Having said that, if you are meeting in-person, it is alright to purchase them a coffee, tea, soda as a minor consideration. Avoid offering to buy an alcoholic drink, meals, etc. Generally, a $5 rule is a good guideline here. Do not insist further if the person declines your initial offer.

Sending a thank you card is also acceptable, but do not include any gifts inside or with the card.  If you send a card, physical, handwritten cards are better than electronic ones.  They come across as more genuine and meaningful.  Of course, you might not have a physical address, so if you send an e-thank you, keep it concise.  An email thank you is fine–do not use e-card service sites and designs which quickly lose the professional edge and/or could trigger spam or security flags depending on the person’s email security settings.

Do not bombard a person with requests for an informational interview. After you send an initial request, give the person time to reply–a week is acceptable as we do not know the person’s schedule demands. Usually one request is sufficient, but if the person is very central to your search, then send one follow-up request. If it is ignored, move on. Expect that far more of your requests will be denied or ignored completely than accepted.

Do not assume they will make you part of their network or let you access their network. Can it happen? Sure. Should you ask? Let the situation help decide this. If the conversation is going well, consider asking about a LinkedIN or similar connection or if they know someone else that might be useful & willing to do an informational interview. If they say no, leave it at that.

Do not go overboard with flattery. There is a line between complimenting someone and when it becomes excessive. It’s fine to express interest in work you know they’ve done–in fact, such acknowledgement can be a great way to gain their interest to speak with you. Yet, overdoing it can come across as insincere, annoying, or worse.

Do not be hyper-critical of their work. This should go without saying, but this is also a line. Finding a flaw or offering an engaging critique can signal your skillful aptitude on a topic and score you some major points that might help you gain additional access to their network and potential offers. However, going too far can come across as condescending, a ‘know-it-all’, open you to heavy counter-critique that you might not be prepared for and leave you off-balance, and they might lose interest in you.

The Do’s

After some major faux pas, what can you do?

Do ask lots of questions. This is your chance to get key information, but be respectful of the interviewee’s time.

Do ask if there are other people the interviewee knows with whom you should speak. This is a snowball method of network building and can help open doors to other opportunities. Again, asking this is best when the conversation is going well. If the conversation is guarded or cool, you can ask, but just be even more mindful about how you approach it.

Do be mindful of their time. Interviewees are taking time to meet with you when they are unlikely to have any specific incentive or other reason to do so. Keeping to the agree upon meeting time helps demonstrate your timeliness and commitment. Let them initiate any additional opportunities to extend the time and/or meet again.

Do thank the interviewee for their time and consideration. Keep your thanks professional and brief. You may send an optional thank you card, see the mention about gifts above.

Why else are informational interviews useful?

Although informational interview are not the same as job interviews, they can be good practice for job interviews. You can build confidence and become more comfortable with back & forth process of asking questions, devising answers, hear how others devise answers to your questions, and practice with probing questions.

Also, for better or worse, much of the job scene is still influence by who-you-know elements. This translates to your professional network. Informational interviews are another tool in your toolbox to build your network. Interviews that go well can lead to other connections and opportunities. Even if not directly to other people, then to other groups & places where you can meet people of interest. Leverage your network to your advantage and continue to grow it.

One day, someone may come ask you for an informational interview. Pay it forward.

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