Getting out and talking with people in the field is one of the most important parts of the career exploration process. This can be intimidating for many students, but keep in mind that most people enjoy talking about themselves and are happy to help others. If you politely ask someone to share half an hour of their time, you'll be surprised how often they agree.
Consider this—if an undergraduate student approached you for advice on graduate school, would you agree to a brief chat?
Informational interviews and networking are important strategies for learning about career options and understanding the job application process. By having discussions with professionals within your desired field or organization, you gain information about potential career opportunities and build your professional network. While the informational interview itself will not secure you a job, it may eventually lead to one as you build your network and make yourself known to others within your desired career field.
Building Your Network
To identify a contact to speak with, start with your own network. Talk to your friends, coworkers, neighbors, or advisers for recommendations. If there is a specific organization you are interested in learning about, explore its website or publications to find an appropriate connection.
An informational interview can be initiated by calling, writing, or emailing the person with whom you would like to speak. If you contact someone by telephone, be certain to leave a clear and concise message about what you would like to discuss. If you do not receive a response within a reasonable amount of time, you may wish to follow up with an email outlining your request.
Social networking tools like LinkedIn can be a great way to renew connections with your network and learn about their current activities. As you begin talking to these people, you will gradually find people who can put you in contact with others and build your network. If you would like to build new relationships in particular areas, try these strategies:
- Start by asking people you know if they know people in your field of interest.
- Join professional organizations or attend conferences.
- Seek out events where people in this field meet. If you aren’t sure how to make the most of networking events, read this guide to networking at events (PDF).
Reaching Out to a New Contact
When writing to or speaking with your contact, you should provide a brief synopsis of your background and mention how you were put in touch with them. Briefly explain why you are seeking an informational interview and request a short meeting, either by phone or in person. You might also consider asking the contact if you may send them your résumé prior to your meeting in order to supply additional information about your credentials.
Here is one example:
Dear Dr. Agyapong,
My name is MyName, and I am a PhD student in Microbiology at the University of Illinois. I’m currently in the process of exploring career options, and I’m very interested in learning more about science policy. I am very impressed by your work connecting scientists with legislators, which I learned about from an article in the Washington Post. I would love a chance to hear more about what you do and how you got where you are.
Would you be available to talk for 20 minutes sometime in the coming weeks? If so, I am generally available to meet in person, by phone, or by Skype Mondays 10am-3pm, Tuesdays anytime, Wednesdays from 4pm-8pm, Thursdays 11am-3pm, or Fridays 3pm-8pm.
Thanks so much for considering my request!
Note that this sample email makes a clear connection with the recipient, articulates why the sender wants to speak with her, and makes a very specific request. This email is also very easy to respond to, because it provides possible times to meet.
Preparing for the Informational Interview
Preparation is crucial prior to an informational interview in order to maximize the time you have. Determine your goal(s), and do some basic research about your contact's field and employer. Prepare a list of questions and take them to the interview. Potential questions include:
- How did you enter this field?
- What made you decide to pursue this type of career?
- What is the typical career progression in your field?
- What training, credentials, or experiences were critical for you to obtain this job?
- What advice do you have for someone starting in this field?
- What are your responsibilities and what do you do on a typical day?
- What are the greatest satisfactions you derive from your work?
- What do you like least about your job or organization?
- What are the most common issues or problems confronting people in your field?
- What are the best sources for learning more about your field?
- What entry-level opportunities are available in your field?
- What are the most effective techniques for obtaining work in your field/organization?
- How do individuals learn about job opportunities?
- How would you describe the work environment in your field/organization in terms of teamwork, culture, workload, etc?
- How does your field/organization differ from others?
- Do you know anyone else in your field/organization who would be helpful for me to talk to?
Conducting the Interview
What You Should Do:
When requesting the interview, be clear and direct about the goal of your interview—information, not jobs.
- Be prompt.
- Dress professionally.
- Be prepared. Arrive with a list of open-ended, evaluative questions to ask the contact.
- Be enthusiastic and positive.
- Stay within the time limit you agreed upon.
- Ask questions and listen intently to your contact.
- Ask for your contact’s business card.
What to Avoid:
- Don’t be too pushy, by doing things such as giving out your business card before the conversation has begun or by talking about a potential job at their organization.
- Don’t hesitate to contribute to the conversation.
- Don’t overstay your welcome.
- Don’t act in an unprofessional manner.
After the Interview
After the interview, record some notes about your interview, and be sure to follow through on anything you said you would do. Write a personalized thank you note and send it to the contact. Make sure it’s timely and gracious. Not only is this a courtesy, but it also gives you the opportunity to provide your contact with additional information about yourself. Finally, remember that Informational interviewing is a two-way street: always be willing to help your contacts when they need your assistance.