Informational Interviews

How To Conduct Informational Interviews

One great method to explore a career is to utilize people in the appropriate field. This is also known as "informational interviewing." You ask professionals about their careers to get a glimpse of a field "up close."

If the thought of contacting people to arrange such a meeting makes you anxious, that's only natural. For the most part, you will be in for a pleasant surprise. Almost everyone is flattered to be asked for advice. Remember that you do "people research" informally almost every day when you ask friends or acquaintances for suggestions about a good restaurant, or what they think of a particular course, etc.

This technique is most effective after you have done some initial research in the Career Management Library and/or online, have an overview of the occupation, and would like more detailed information about the field. You can then put more emphasis upon the specifics ("Is there a typical career path in this field?" or "What are some of the recent trends and developments in the field?") rather than starting at square one ("Exactly what do auditors do, anyway?").

Be aware that it is a good idea to talk with several people for a variety of perspectives. Length of time working in a field, work setting, and area of specialization are just a few factors which may influence the vantage point of an individual. For instance, a sales representative with a spouse and children may consider extensive travel an occupational obstacle, while a single person may see travel as a "perk" or benefit.

Informational interviewing is different from other kinds of interviewing in some key respects:

  • You select people with whom you wish to talk.
    You initiate the meeting.
  • You are in charge, asking the questions, guiding the flow of information, and taking care not to stifle the interviewee's spontaneity.

Step One: Getting Started by Finding Someone in Your Field of Interest to Interview
There are several ways to go about this.

  • Ask all your friends, family members, professors, and acquaintances if they know a person employed in the career you are researching. When you call your prospective interviewee, you can mention that you were referred by a mutual friend.
  • Go to Career Management and get hooked up with Mercer alumni who are willing to talk to students about their careers and how they got there.
  • Try the Yellow Pages. For example, if you are looking for an accountant to interview, you'll find several under "accountants" in the phone book. You can call a firm, explain to the receptionist that you want to interview an accountant and ask who in the firm might be willing to give you a half hour of time, or ask for a specific accountant whose name you have.

Here are some sample ways of introducing yourself:

"Hello. My name is Mary and I am a (friend/sister/student) of your friend Tom. I'm calling you because I am doing some research on the field of accounting and Tom suggested you might be willing to help. If I met you at your office or over lunch or simply called you back at a more convenient time, do you think you might be able to find some time for me?"

OR

"Hello. My name is Dan and I am a student at Mercer University. I am doing some research in the field of technical sales and got your name from the Alumni Association, where you are listed as being employed as a computer sales manager. I was wondering if you would be willing to help me in my research by telling me a little about your job sometime. I could come to your office, meet you for coffee or lunch or..."

OR

"Hello. My name is Sue and I am a student at Mercer University. I saw your ad in the Yellow Pages and thought your firm might be a good place to start. I am doing some research on the nonprofit organizations and was wondering if someone in your organization might be able to meet with me for 15 or 20 minutes sometime to answer some questions I've written up..."

Meet With Your Interviewee As Arranged
Meeting is a bit scarier than having a phone conversation, but it is much more rewarding for you both. It is more personal and more productive in terms of getting to know each other. Dress appropriately. You don't have to dress up as much as you might for a job interview, but pretty close.

Although this is just an informational interview, you may have the opportunity later to ask your interviewee for referrals for job openings or to help you network into the profession. Begin thinking and acting like a professional.

Sometimes the interviewee will ask you if you are looking for a job. A good answer is "I don't expect you to have a job available right now. The purpose of this meeting is really to help me learn more about the field."

Be Prepared. At the end of this section is a list of questions you can use as a guide to design your own interview questions. Your goal is to learn about the field, get advice and get information. Ask questions that are pertinent to you and help you become better informed. Remember: You are the interviewer and should provide the structure for your meeting. When you introduce yourself, you can chat briefly about who you are so that the interviewee can get to know you, but remember the purpose of the meeting is the interview.

People often enjoy talking about themselves, their work and giving advice. Be prepared to spend more time than the 15 or 20 minutes. Interviews usually do run overtime because it is a very enjoyable experience for your interviewee to be the "expert", to give advice, to talk about herself or himself. But be sensitive and don't overstay your welcome.

After the interview, drop your interviewee a thank- you note to express your appreciation for all her/his time and information. This is good business etiquette and is a useful habit to cultivate.

Step Two: Second Interview
Once you know that you are really interested in this kind of work, call your interviewees back. Thank them again for all their help and let them know that because of the information they gave you, you have decided on this field for your career. Ask them if they might have any leads or advice for you on finding an entry-level position. You may even want to ask if they'd be willing to meet with you one more time and critique your resume so that it might look more interesting to other people in the field.

Step Three: Follow-Up
The following are just a few pointers on thorough career research:

  • Be sure to keep notes of your meetings for future reference.
  • Send a thank-you letter (preferably within a week) in appreciation of the information and courtesy extended to you.
  • Stay in touch, especially if the person expressed interest in your progress.
  • If given a referral which turned out to be a gold mine of information, drop a note to the person who made the referral. People appreciate knowing when they have been helpful.
  • Later, when you do enter the field and accept a promising position, a follow-up thank you would be polite, as well as wise.

The Questions

Job Description

  • What is your job title? Are there other titles used for what you do?
  • What is a typical day like? What is a month like?
  • Would you please describe the kinds of interactions you have with others in your organization and with people outside your organization?
  • How much freedom do you have?
  • Do you mostly work at your desk? On the sales floor? Outside?
  • What are some of the likely problems/decisions you face on a daily basis? What skills are required for handling them?
  • What are the most satisfying aspects of your work? Most frustrating?

Lifestyle

  • What hours do you normally work? Is overtime common? Is there flexible scheduling in this field?
  • How much travel is there in this occupation?
  • What civic and social participation is expected of, or advantageous to, a person in your field?
  • Does the ability to relocate geographically affect one's opportunities for advancement?
  • What are the professional organizations in this field? How do they serve members?
  • What is the typical salary range for a beginner in this field? For an experienced or management person?
  • What are the stresses with which you contend? Are there deadline pressures?
  • How does this occupation affect your social and/or family life?

Advancement

  • Would you trace your own career path for me? Is this typical, and if not, could you tell me what a beginner might expect now?
  • What kinds of entry-level jobs do you think are good training grounds for a person entering this field now?
  • What are the trends and developments in the field that you see as affecting the career of someone just entering this occupation now?
  • What are the possibilities that you see for advancement in your department? In your field in general?

Preparation

  • How did you prepare for this occupation? What do you recommend for a person just entering the occupation now?
  • What education/degrees/training/licenses are needed? If not mandatory, recommended?
  • What university courses do you recommend for an undergraduate/graduate as preparation?
  • What is the effect of an advanced degree or specific training?
  • Mandatory? Helpful? Required or helpful for upward mobility?
  • What are the best places to go for education/training for a position like yours? For higher positions?

Job Search

  • What do you recommend in order to obtain a first job in this field?
  • How do people go about entering your field?

Referrals

  • Could you give me the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of other people in this occupation that might be willing to talk with me about their careers as you have done?