One of the best ways to explore career options and plan your job search is to talk directly with people who work in fields that interest you. This process is called informational interviewing and adds a dynamic, personalized dimension to your career research. When combined with reading and experiential learning, such as internships and fieldwork, informational interviewing can help you to feel more knowledgeable and thus more comfortable with career decisions. Whether you are a sophomore trying to make the connection between careers and academic majors, a senior planning to look for a job in an unfamiliar city, or an alum anticipating a career change, informational interviewing is a helpful tool.
Use an informational interview to:
- Obtain job information on issues that matter most to you.
- Confirm your interest in specific career fields, and decide which ones to rule out.
- Meet people who share your enthusiasms, have similar talents, and are putting those factors to use in their careers.
- Begin creating a professional network of contacts for internships and full-time positions.
- Learn about hiring and employment practices for certain industries and organizations.
- Gain experience, confidence, and skill in communicating with employers.
- Understand if a particular graduate or professional degree is the right choice for you, or learn more about the career options that a degree can prepare you for.
Identifying contacts for informational interviews
Vassar alums are a wonderful resource who can help you learn more about a specific industry, occupation, or organization; get advice on how to “break into” or advance in a given industry; and/or explore graduate and professional school programs. To find alums in your fields of interest, you can use the Alum Directory and LinkedIn.
Also, tap into your personal network of family, friends, professors, and acquaintances. Friends of parents, parents of classmates, former teachers, and neighbors all are people you could turn to for assistance. Even if they don’t share your career interests, they may be able to refer you to someone who does.
Setting up informational interviews
The most common way to make initial contact with a potential interviewee is via email. Many systems, like the Alum Directory and LinkedIn use a type of blind messaging system, which makes it possible to send emails without knowing an email address. In your initial outreach, make it clear that you are not interested in a job interview, but simply in gathering information. Set up a specific meeting time at their convenience (a half-hour to an hour should be sufficient), if possible at the interviewee’s workplace. If getting together in person is not feasible, you might suggest a phone or Skype interview.
Preparing for informational interviews
As you prepare for your meeting, think about the sorts of questions you will want to ask. Make a list, if you like, to take along with you. Do some advance research on the career field or organization so you will have a better sense of how to direct the conversation.
Your interests, values, and personal style will dictate what topics you will want to address. For instance, if you are a highly creative person, you may want to find out about job independence, the degree to which innovation is prized, or the amount of flexibility in scheduling office time. If high achievement and prestige motivate you, you might want to focus on questions regarding leadership opportunities, requirements for advancement, or the degree of competition among people in the field.
Your stage in the career development process (career exploration, active job seeking) will also determine what sorts of questions to ask. Sample career exploration questions
- How do you spend a typical day or week? What tasks do you perform? How much variety/routine is there in your job?
- How did you get into this line of work? Was yours a typical career path?
- What do you think are the most important skills/qualifications for someone in this job?
- What are the most/least interesting aspects of your work?
- What type of environment is this to work in? How would you describe others in this field?
- What kind of work schedule does this career require? (overtime, weekends, freelancing, travel, 9-5, etc.)?
- What is a typical entry-level position? What about starting salaries?
- Can you think of other jobs that would enable me to combine my skills in _____ and interests in _____?
- What professional organizations are active in this field? What trade or professional journals do you read?
- What advancement opportunities exist beyond entry level?
- What advice would you have for me if I chose to pursue a career in this area?
Sample job search questions
- How and where are job openings publicized in this field?
- What departments in this organization might have jobs that would use the skills and interests I’ve shared with you?
- I’m interested in relocating to ______. Do you know of anyone in your industry that I could talk to there?
- How do most people get hired into this organization? Are some methods more effective than others?
- Are there opportunities for part-time or freelance work here?
- Does this organization require application forms or exams?
- How competitive is the entry-level job market in this geographic area?
- What is the turnover rate for this type of position? Do you anticipate any vacancies in the near future?
- Do you know of other organizations in this field to which I might apply?
- Have you heard of any vacancies that might be appropriate for me?
- Can you provide me with feedback on my resume?
- May I leave a copy of my resume with you?
Final words of advice
Each time you conduct an informational interview, you have the opportunity to expand your list of contacts. Try not to leave an interview without the name of at least one more potential interviewee. Follow up with that person, ask for additional names, follow up with those people and… you get the picture.
Courtesy and professionalism should be your guides throughout the informational interview process. Remember that although they are willing to help, your interviewees are busy people. Most will feel flattered you sought them out for advice; however, they may have periods of time when it simply is not convenient to talk with you.
It is important to dress neatly, call or email with plenty of advance notice if you must cancel an appointment, and follow up each interview with a thank-you letter.
Maintain the connection! Email your contacts when you have decided on a career field or accepted a job offer.