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How to conduct a proper informational interview

(CAREER) Informational interviews comprise a technique in which you ask an employer or current employee to explain the details of their job to you. Try doing this before you transition into your next occupation!

informational interview

At some point in your career, you may ask for someone’s time to do an informational interview — a process in which a job-seeker asks questions about a field, company, or position in hopes of receiving information which will inform both their decision to go into the field and their responses to the specific job’s actual interview. Since the power dynamic in an informational interview can be confusing, here are a few tips on how to conduct one. Not how to obtain one, but how to conduct one once both parties agree to connect.

The process of an informational interview typically starts with finding a person who works in your desired field (and/or location if you have a specific company in mind) and setting up a time during which you can ask them a few questions about things like their job responsibilities, salary, prerequisites, and so on. Once you’ve set up a time to meet in person (or via Skype or phone), you can proceed with putting together a list of questions.

Naturally, you should understand the circumstances under which asking for an informational interview is appropriate before requesting one. Your goal in an informational review should be to ask questions and listen to the answers, NOT pitch yourself as a potential hire. Ever. Nobody appreciates having their time wasted, and playing on your contact’s generosity as a way into their company is a sure way for your name to end up on their blacklist.

Once you’ve set up an informational interview, you should start the conversation by asking your contact what their typical day is like. This is doubly effective: your contact will most likely welcome the opportunity to discuss their daily goings-on, and you’ll be privy to an inside glance at their perspective on things like job responsibilities, daily activities, and other positive aspects of their position.

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They’ll also probably detail some drawbacks to the position — things which usually aren’t explained in job postings — so you’ll have the opportunity to make a well-informed decision vis-à-vis the rigors of the job before diving head-first into the hiring process.

After your contact finishes walking you through their day, you can begin asking specific questions. However, unless they’ve been unusually brief in their description of their duties, your best course of action is probably to ask them follow-up questions about things they’ve already mentioned rather than asking targeted questions you wrote without context. This will both indicate that you were listening and allow them to expand upon information they’ve already explained, ensuring you’ll receive well-rounded responses.

You should save the most specific questions (e.g., the most easily answered ones) for the end of the interview. For example, if you want to know what a typical salary for someone in your contact’s position is or you’re wondering about vacation time, ask after you’ve wrapped up the bulk of the interview. This will prevent you from wasting the initial moments of the interview with technical content, and it may also keep the contact from assuming a strictly material motive on your part. And be willing to ask “what does someone with your job title typically earn in [city]?” instead of their specific take-home salary which might not be reflective of the norm (plus, it’s rude, and akin to asking someone their weight).

This is also a good time to ask for general advice regarding breaking into the field, though you may want to avoid this step if you feel like your contact isn’t comfortable discussing such a topic or if you’re intending to apply as someone with experience.

Of course, you won’t always be able to meet with your preferred contact directly, especially if they work in a dynamic field (e.g., emergency services) or have a security clearance which negates their ability to answer the bulk of your questions. If this happens, you have a couple of back-up options:

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1. Send an email with a list of questions to the contact, or send them your phone number with a wide-open calling schedule. This is useful if your contact has a random or on-call schedule.

2. Ask your contact if there is someone else you could connect with (it could even be their assistant).

3. Speak to the company’s HR branch to see if you can request a company-specific job requirement print-out or link. These will usually be more particular than the industry requirements. But don’t ask for something you can find yourself on the company’s Careers page online.

Nothing beats an in-person interview over a cup of coffee, but — again — wasting someone’s time isn’t a good way to receive useful information about the position in which you’re interested.

Before transitioning to your next position or career field, consider conducting an informational interview. You’ll be amazed at the amount of insider information you can glean from simply listening to someone discuss their day in detail.

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Jack Lloyd has a BA in Creative Writing from Forest Grove's Pacific University; he spends his writing days using his degree to pursue semicolons, freelance writing and editing, oxford commas, and enough coffee to kill a bear. His infatuation with rain is matched only by his dry sense of humor.

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