How to Make the Most of an Informational Interview

In an informational interview, a person with specialized knowledge of a company or industry meets the interviewer to discuss the job and career possibilities within that area, rather than a specific position being offered at his or her company. It’s a great way to meet people in your field, informally investigate job options and plan your future without directly asking for a job offer. Here are some tips on making the most of this situation.

Get everything you can from the person you’re interviewing. This will probably involve two-way gifts; he or she is teaching you and you are thanking him or her for the advice and information.

A good way to start an informational interview is: Peter DeCaprio

  • “I’m exploring options in (name of field) and have been told that you have a lot of experience in this area. I’d appreciate it if we could meet occasionally over the next few months so that I can keep learning from your insights.” In other words, indicate that appreciation is your primary agenda, rather than a job inquiry.
  • Don’t begin by asking about jobs – unless it’s to be told that there are no jobs available at the moment – but save the question until well into the conversation so as not to offend your mentor. Make your questions thoughtful, not perfunctory. If there are several people to interview, group very similar ones together, e.g., if you’re interviewing three experts on marketing in various industries, begin with general questions about what marketing entails and how it works and then ask each expert the same set of more detailed queries:
  • “I’d like to learn everything I can about working as a (name of career) – what does an average day entail? What do you see happening during the next five years? How did you get into this line of work?”
  • Ask for informational interviews from everyone you know who could reasonably be called an “expert” or “authority” on any aspect of your job search, not just the obvious choices.
  • If you’re just getting started in your career, ask people who are three to five years ahead of you for advice, since they have a little more objectivity. If you’re already mid-career or more, you’ll probably get more candid responses from older people with less job security than younger ones who might be worried about insulting the interviewer. After all, this is an informal conversation so don’t hesitate to probe deeper when someone disagrees with your premise or keeps dodging your questions by bringing up irrelevant information. Don’t take offense if your interviewee gets testy; it’s often indicative that he or she really cares about giving you good advice and is frustrated that he or she isn’t able to communicate well.
  • Don’t talk about yourself and how great you are. This is not a time to self-promote. The whole point of this exercise is to find out about the world of your chosen profession so that you can decide whether or not to pursue it as a career, and what major obstacles may be in your way to achieving whatever goals you set for yourself. If the person really likes you, he or she may mention openings at his company or contacts that might lead to job offers – but even then don’t push.
  • “I want you to know that I’m just meeting people and getting information at this stage – not looking for a job.” Say this early on and repeat it frequently during the interview if it comes up naturally, since people like to be reassured that they’re giving you good advice and not wasting their time. The whole point of an informational interview is that it’s a gift; even getting a contact or two out of it is important, but there’s no reason to expect the expert to offer you a job as well.
  • If someone offers you a job outright, don’t take it unless you really want the position – this person isn’t likely to help your career again if later on things sour between you and your employer. You should also make it clear that hiring at this point wouldn’t have any effect on what kind of opportunities he or she might have for you in future.

Conclusion by Peter DeCaprio:

The job market is competitive, but informational interviews can put you at an advantage because you are directly interacting with people who are already successful in your chosen field. That means more information about the profession and less guesswork on your part.