Counselling and career development

Talk to others (informational interviewing)

Once you have done some research about specific options, your next step is to talk to individuals in the type of job/ industry that you are interested in. The goal of these conversations (informational interviews) is to explore your career options, to expand your network, to build confidence, to access information and to identify your own strengths and areas of development.

What are informational interviews?

  • It is an interview designed to produce information.
  • It involves the process of spending time with one key industry network in a highly focused conversation.

Why do informational interviews?

  • To explore career options and clarify goals.
  • To expand professional network.
  • To build confidence in a non-threatening environment.
  • To access up-to-date information.
  • To identify personal strength and areas for development.

For example, you read an article about a new programme for addiction treatment and you are curious about how the researchers went about evaluating the programme. You could contact one of the authors of the article to ask if they would be willing to share how they went about gaining access to the information they needed for their evaluation.

  • Before you interview someone, do research about what you would want to discuss with them – you could ask this person to “fill in the gaps” for you.
  • Start with people you already know: friends, family, neighbours, colleagues, lecturers, tutors and fellow students.
  • Use online social networks such as LinkedIn to further identify potential people.

The best informational interviews are two-way exchanges of information, more like a conversation than an interrogation. You are offering the information you have collected via your research and the interviewee is adding his or her thoughts and ideas. You come across not as the novice looking for a favour and more as a colleague brainstorming ideas.

People are busy and don’t always take the time to read business news, attend trade association meetings, or do the in-depth research you will be doing. They will appreciate you bringing them the latest news. By being well researched and prepared, you do not have to feel like you are imposing on someone when asking for an informational interview.

Guidelines for informational interviews

  • Identify one or more occupations and industries and jobs you are interested in: Assess your own interests, your abilities and skills and your values.
  • Evaluate the labour market and labour trends.
  • Prepare your questions: Make a list of topics that you need more information about, as well as where you think you would be able to find this information.
  • Identify people to interview.
  • Start with a list of people you already know (family, friends, colleagues); locate alumni from your institution; use organisation directories; ask lecturers; visit Career Offices; search the internet.
  • Schedule your meeting by letter or by phone. Do this with a purpose: Introduce yourself. Explain why you are contacting him or her specifically. State what your interest and experience in this field are and why you would like to converse: explain that you need information and advice.
  • Research before the interview: Do thorough company research to increase the quality of your interview.
  • Resources available to you: Company websites; annual reports; company brochures; Career Office material; professional society magazines; magazines and newspapers

The Day Before

  • Phone to confirm your appointment.
  • Send a copy of your CV for context.
  • Plan route to arrive 10 minutes early - allow for possible delays.
  • Have a notebook and pen ready.
  • Think about what you are going to wear.

On the day

  • Pretend you are a reporter.
  • Be enthusiastic.
  • Listen carefully and show interest.
  • Share information about yourself.
  • Use your time allocated effectively - if your appointment is only for 15 minutes, do not go over this time.
  • As you listen, try to link the information to what you already know and ask questions based on the answers you receive.
  • Ask for one other contact.

And the day after

  • Send a thank you letter (always include your contact details).
  • Record, analyse and evaluate information by answering these questions: What did I learn (positive and negative)? How does what I learnt fit with my own interests.
  • As you listen, try to link the information to what you already know and ask questions based on the answers you receive.
  • Ask for one other contact.

Sample informational interview questions

Getting to know your interviewee

You want to get to know your interviewee by asking questions such as the following:

  • How did you get involved in this job, organisation, or industry?
  • What do you like most about it? What has been most rewarding?
  • What is most challenging? Was there anything that surprised you?
  • What is a typical day, week, or month?
  • What skills are most critical to have, develop, and maintain to be successful?
  • What personality types are most successful?
  • What do you know now that you wished you knew when you started?

Interest in their specific background establishes rapport because it shows you care about them specifically. It also gives you a foundation for questions to ask later because you know more about their experience.

Getting to know the industry

You want to get broader information about the industry, so you ask questions that reflect your research:

  • According to my research, the top competitors are [name the competitors]. Am I missing anyone you think is significant? Is there a new player I should know about?
  • According to my research, [name a trend, challenge, or innovation] is a major trend, challenge, or innovation. Is this affecting your job or organisation? Is this overestimated in the media? Are there other trends, challenges, or innovations I should be concerned about?

This is why research prior to the informational interview is so critical. You use your research findings as a springboard for conversation. You are not relying on the interviewee to think of everything and be the sole source of information. You are offering ideas, too.

Pick several research findings to test, and choose what to ask based on what level and type of experience your interviewee has. If your interviewee is very experienced and senior, you can ask broad strategy questions. If your interviewee is focused on a very specific area, say technology, focus on technology-related issues in the discussion.

Getting to know the career

You want to get career-related information, such as salary and environment, and a candid sense of your chances in this job, organisation, or industry:

  • According to my research, it is customary for people in this job to make [name salary range] and experience [name lifestyle, travel, or work culture]. Is that accurate? Are there any nuances to this that are not publicised in general media?
  • According to my research, the typical career path is [name different titles you have seen for the job]. Is this accurate? Does this differ by company?
  • How would you describe the culture of your organisation? Does this vary greatly for companies in the industry?
  • According to my research, it is customary for people in this job to have [name skills and experiences]. Is my background of [summarise your skills and experience] competitive? If you knew of an opening for this type of job, would you consider me or refer me?
  • What about my background is most relevant to this job? What would I need to do to improve my chances?

These questions enable you to get information on the touchy issues of compensation and lifestyle, as well as candid feedback on your hiring prospects. By offering ideas, you take the pressure off the interviewee to reveal sensitive information. People will also appreciate that you have done some salary research, as they might not have time to see what is happening in the market, and they may want to reciprocate by sharing something they know.

Other sample informational interview questions include the following:

  • What department are you in (ie, the specific name if it’s not revealed in their introduction or on their business card)?
  • Who oversees this department?
  • How does it fit in with the rest of the organisation?
  • Is this structure typical, or are your competitors organised differently?
  • I am doing research on [name another organisation] and trying to find who runs the [name department you want]. Do you know anyone there whom I could ask?

If you look at the structure of the preceding informational interview, many questions use the secondary research as a springboard for the question.

  • You want to give information so it is less presumptuous to ask for information in return.
  • You want to establish your knowledge so the interviewee sees you as an insider and is more open to sharing. You want to save the interviewee from having to do all the work of thinking of what to talk about.
  • You want to confirm and refine your research to date.
  • In this way, you are not just asking a series of questions, but you are testing hypotheses that you have formed from your secondary research and other informational interviews.

When you invite your interviewee to an informational interview, make sure they know that you have done some interesting research and would like to share and confirm the results with them. Many job seekers do not do this research, so you differentiate yourself immediately and assure the interviewee that it is worth their time to see you. You are more likely to land informational interviews if the interviewee knows that you have done some work in advance and have interesting insights and questions to share.

Remember to keep track of the information you have gathered and how you make sense of it. Also, track the questions you still have and how you think you would be able to get answers to these questions.

A current student, Ms Nomalanga Mnisi, shares her experience of conducting informational interviews:

How did you prepare for the interviews?

I started by reflecting on my career vision, as well as making notes of how I think my vision is related to the organisation I will be contacting for interviews, as well as the possible career fields within the company that are related to my studies and career vision.

I did research to help me understand more about the organisation, for example, the different divisions, where they are, what their main business is, and the kind of jobs available. This helped me to know which questions I need to ask so that I could clarify uncertainties.

I also wrote an introduction letter (who am I, previous and current qualifications, why I am interested or what I know about the organisation, the purpose of the information interview and how it will contribute to my career development and also careers that I am interested in within the organisation).

I made a list of aspects I am curious about, including in which department is my qualification in demand within the organisation, which career positions I can be considered for with my qualifications?; different career titles within the company related to my studies?; other requirements for those positions, e.g. skills, drivers licence, physical health etc.; how to structure my CV and cover letter; what to include when I apply for positions in the organisation?; information about internships, learnerships or volunteering programmes that I can apply for to enhance my skills.

What did you do before the interview?

I sent an email confirming my appointment and also I included keywords that I wanted the interview to cover and specified that among others those are features I wanted to discuss with them. Both gave me feedback that my email also helped them to prepare for the interview.

What did you gain from the interviews?

The two individuals I spoke to helped me to understand what I needed to ask during my next interviews in specific sections.

Further resources for informational interviews

Watch these videos to learn more about informational interviews:

Last modified: 2019/02/27