One of the most powerful but underutilized strategies in finding a job is informational interviewing, the process of conducting highly focused conversations with professionals currently working in your field of interest in order to gather information about a job, company, field or industry. Informational interviews provide excellent opportunities to gain knowledge that you may not be able to find elsewhere, clarify your understanding, sharpen your focus, make connections, build relationships with influential professionals and, potentially, land a job.
In today’s market, most jobs are found through personal and professional connections; in fact, 80 to 90 percent of jobs are acquired through networking. (1) Based on research conducted by Lee Hecht Harrison, a global career management services company, the average job seeker talks to 25 different decision makers before earning a job offer from one of them. Orville Pierson, senior vice president, clarifies, “These are not 25 interviews. Most are brief, informal conversations. Five are interviews or very serious conversations.” He explains further that, when networking, the average job seeker talks to 14 people before gaining access to one decision maker. “Many job-hunters make the mistake of seriously underestimating the numbers required for success,” he says. (2)
While informational interviewing is an invaluable job search tool, an informational interview is not a job interview. By simply requesting information from a person, you are taking the pressure off. You, the interviewer, don’t have to ask for a job and the interviewee doesn’t have to deliver a job. Both sides make a contact and there’s no obligation; it’s a win-win. Also, unlike a job interview, you are in control of what is discussed; you set the agenda.
The benefits of informational interviewing include:
- Learning about the skills needed for a position or field
- Gaining candid, in-depth and up-to-date information
- Better understanding company/industry culture and your potential fit
- Polishing interviewing skills and gaining confidence and poise
- Establishing a professional contact with a person in a field of interest
- Creating the possibility of additional contacts
- Developing name recognition and a positive reputation in your professional circle
- Uncovering an area or field you didn’t know about
- Learning about jobs that have not been advertised yet
Asking strangers for their time and advice can seem intimidating, but, more often than not, people are willing to take the time to meet because they understand the value of networking and receive satisfaction from helping others. If you do encounter people who are unresponsive or unwilling, just move on. There will be others who are more receptive.
Getting an Interview
Even if you don’t currently know someone in your field of interest, start by talking to the people you do know: friends, family, neighbors, employers, colleagues, professors and classmates. Also make use of LinkedIn, your alumni career center and professional associations.
Once you’ve gotten a contact name at a target company or within an industry, send the person a request for an informational interview via email or LinkedIn, ideally in the middle of the week when they will be more likely to notice and read it. Include your request in the body of the message; don’t use attachments because people are often leery of opening them from senders they don’t know.
The structure of your message should look something like this:
- First paragraph: Let them know how you got their name and why you’re contacting them. Make it clear that you are looking for information, not a job.
- Second paragraph: Provide some background information about yourself, such as how you became interested in their company or industry and any related experience you have.
- Third paragraph: Make your request. Ask for 15 to 20 minutes of their time for a brief informational interview. By asking for only 15 to 20 minutes, it’s more likely that your contact will agree to meet with you, it creates the possibility that they will suggest meeting for a longer period of time and it increases the chances that they will provide you with another referral. Thank them in advance for their consideration and tell them that you will follow up by calling them early the following week. (1) Include your phone number in your signature block just in case they decide to reach out and contact you first.
Follow-up is a delicate art; you want to take initiative, but you don’t want to be too aggressive. As a general rule, follow up with your contact by calling them early the following week, as you stated in your introductory email. If you don’t receive a response within a few days, send a brief email to make sure they didn’t overlook your initial request. If you still don’t hear back from the person, move on.
If your contact agrees to an informational interview, be respectful of their busy schedule. Be clear that you will take only 15 to 20 minutes of their time and let them suggest the date, time and whether it will be in-person or over the phone.
See “Part II” for more information.
(1) Gahbauer, Marty. “Mastering the Art of Informational Interviewing.” Loyola University Chicago
(2) Abboud, Sharon Reed. “8 Job-Hunting Mistakes You Don’t Want to Make: Advice from the Pros.”