If you’ve ever read any job search advice, you’ve probably come across the recommendation to do “informational interviews,” especially if you’re early in your career or trying to switch fields. But what are informational interviews? What are the best informational interview questions to ask? And can they really help you?
The answer is … maybe. It depends entirely on what your goals are in doing them and how you approach them.
The idea behind informational interviews is to reach out to strangers to learn more about their field. They’re an opportunity to learn things like the inside scoop on a particular company, what salaries are like, what a typical career path in the industry might look like, and so forth.
Unfortunately, the recommendation to do informational interviews is almost always accompanied by the implication that they’re a way to get strangers interested in hiring you or giving you job leads. As a result, way too many people ask for “informational interviews” when what they really want to say is, “Will you meet with me, get to know my background, and then recommend me for a job with your company or with your contacts?” And asking for the former but expecting the latter is actually quite rude — and when people agree to spend time answering your questions, they generally won’t be thrilled to realize that you weren’t up front about your intentions, and instead you’re doing an end-around outside their companies’ normal application process.
That doesn’t mean informational interviews never lead to jobs. Sometimes they do! Sometimes someone who gets to know you in the process of answering your questions about their field will say, “You know, we have a job opening up soon that I want to get your résumé for” or, “I have contacts who sometimes hire people with your background; let me send your resume over to them.” But if you go in expecting that to happen, (a) you’ll probably be disappointed, and (b) it’s likely to be obvious to the person you’re meeting with, who’s likely to feel annoyed that you took up their time under false pretenses.
Instead, you should only ask for an informational interview if you genuinely seeking to expand your understanding of a field, and if you have questions that can only be answered by someone already working in the field. That last part is important — you don’t want to take up someone’s time with questions that you could have answered with a moderately thorough Google search. Informational interviews are for the inside scoop, the stuff that you can’t find out by reading company brochures.
Good questions to ask in an informational interview are things like:
• What do you wish you had known about this field before starting to work in it? Are there common misconceptions people have about this work?
• What types of people do you think really thrive in this field? Are there particular types of people who have more trouble in it?
• I’ve heard not-so great things about (the hours/the culture at the big firms/the emphasis on X over Y/anything else you want to ask about). What’s your experience been with that?
• What are the best things for me to read to stay current in the field?
• Who do you think are the best employers in the industry? Are there any you would caution me to stay away from?
• What’s your sense of the pros and cons of working at a big firm like X versus a smaller firm like Y?
• What kind of starting salaries do you usually see for a job like X?
• How long do people normally stay in a role like X before moving up? Do you generally need to go to another firm to move up, or it is common to get promoted from within?
• What are most people’s hours like? Do you need to stay pretty connected in the evenings and on weekends?
• Why do you think people leave this field? Where do they tend to go when they do?
• Can I tell you a little bit about my background so far and see if you have any suggestions for skills I should focus on developing or other ways I might be able to strengthen myself as a candidate?
• I’m targeting jobs like X and Y. Do you think I’m being realistic about my ability to get hired for jobs like that at this stage in my career?
So, how do you set up an informational interview in the first place? Start with the people you know and see if they’re willing to connect you with people in their networks who are doing the type of work you’d like to do. Having a mutual contact connect you will often increase your chances of people agreeing to talk to you. But you can also go through your alumni network, or even reach out to strangers on LinkedIn. Your success rate with the latter may be lower, but sometimes total strangers will agree to talk to people in your shoes, simply because they like the idea of helping people in a position they themselves were once in.
To up your chances of a positive response, be sure to explain why you’re contacting that person in particular. For example, you might explain that it’s because their career path has been similar to the one you hope to have, or that they’re working on a project that aligned with where you’d like to focus. Or you might appeal to commonalities, like that you went to the same school or grew up in the same area.
Your initial email should also include a couple of the questions you hope to ask, in order to demonstrate that you have real questions that you’ve put real thought into and won’t be wasting their time by showing up without a concrete idea of what to ask (which is a thing people do!).
And of course, if someone accepts your request and takes the time to meet with you, make sure that you thank them afterward. One of the main things that people like about agreeing to give informational interviews is the satisfaction of knowing that they were truly helpful to someone. So hold up your end of that bargain by following up to let them know they were, ideally highlighting the specific things you’re most appreciative of (such as key info they gave you or an especially helpful insight). And then, once you do get hired in your targeted field, let anyone who gave you an informational interview know! Most will be delighted to see they invested time in your success.
Order Alison Green’s book, Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work, here. Got a question for her? Email email@example.com. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.