• Phyllis Brust, PhD

Networking Part 2: Informational Interviewing Step-By-Step (with Excellent Tips)


Informational interviews are a great way to get insider information and advice about careers. An informational interview is different from a job interview because: 1. You are in control (and ask the questions); 2. The goal is not to get a job--it is to become more knowledgeable. Such interviews can be done in person, remotely or in writing. Info interviews are rewarding but easy to mess up. This post teaches you the right way to do them.


This is the second of our two-part series. Read Networking Part I to learn more about informational interviews (especially if this is new to you), how to find people (even if you don’t think you know anyone) and the etiquette for inviting them.


Included in this post: format of an info interview, questions to ask (my favorite part), intro (elevator speech), Zoom preparation, tips about writing, sounding focused even if you don't feel that way (I love this tip), even more tips, what to do after the interview, should you meet remotely or in person?, what to wear

Key Points (adapted from a list I wrote for The Wall Street Journal)

1. The purpose is advice and information—not getting a job.

2. Choose a time limit for the meeting—20 minutes to one hour—and offer to pay for any check if you go out.

3. Inform the person when the allotted time is up. They may invite you to continue.

4. Don’t ask any question that you could easily have researched the answer.

5. Be genuinely enthusiastic and interested in your interviewee. You are cultivating a relationship (aim for a conversation not an inquisition).

7. Be yourself. Remember, the person was once in your position.

8. Follow up/Keep in touch.

Information Interview Adaptable Framework

3 areas: 1. Introduction; 2. Questions; 3. Thank you/End

Plan to be on the call or at the site at least 10 minutes early. If via Zoom, test the connection and the screen. More tips about Zoom are in the Addendum below.


Introduction

1. Thank the person for meeting with you.

2. Give a brief summary of your background (otherwise known as an elevator speech) and explain why you are interested in the field and that person. For example, “I hope you can answer a few questions, tell me about your own career and give me advice about _____. I’ve been reading about the field, but I am eager to learn more.” This can be done before or after your brief bio. (See tip about sounding focused when you do not feel that way.)


Your questions

You are not limited to the questions listed below, which are a mix of those about the field and the person. (Tip: If you aren’t sure what you want to do, ask how other people made their career decisions.)


Do not ask any question that you can easily find the answer.

Example: Acceptable: Tell me about a typical day on the job. (He or she will invariably say that there is no typical day and you can respond, “How about yesterday.”)

You can also ask what his or her main responsibilities are.

Unacceptable: What does a veterinarian do? (The Occupational Outlook Handbook and other sources have this information.)


Yes-no questions are conversation killers.

Acceptable: What do you like the most and least about your job?

Unacceptable: Do you like your job?


“ADVICE” is a great word. Everyone has advice.

Two fine examples follow.

What advice do you wish you had received?

What advice do you have for someone starting out (or changing careers, etc.) in your field?


More Questions

How did you decide to go into this field?

How did you get started?

If you could do it again, would you? What might you have done differently?

What are the trends in your field?

What do you suggest I read to keep current? I found these publications (list one or two).

How can I learn about job openings or internships? (This is different than asking for a job.)

Are there professional associations that you recommend I join?


The University of California, Berkeley has an excellent list of questions online.


The Last Question

The last question is, “Is there anyone else you recommend I speak with?”

The goal is to expand your contacts.


End of the Meeting

When the scheduled time is over, you can say,“Our 30 minutes are over and I want to thank you.” You are welcome to stay if invited.

Tip: Worried About Sounding Unfocused? "Putting the Pieces Together"

There are two ways you won’t sound that way—One is to show that you did your homework. The other is to say, “I’m putting the pieces together”—one of my favorite phrases. For example, “I am putting the pieces together. I enjoy research and writing and am very interested in the well being of animals. I'm not yet sure what direction that will take.” You could even mention a course you took or an article you read that spurred your interest.


You don’t have to use the phrase, "I'm putting the pieces together," but it works like a charm. You will be seen as someone who takes initiative.

More Tips

-Be prepared: Your interviewee may ask you questions back such as "Why this field?"

-It is acceptable to read questions and take some notes but don’t stare at your page. You want eye contact.

-If you are uncomfortable, you can let them know. “I’ve never done this before.” The person may also be unaccustomed to informational interviews.

-Ask questions of genuine interest. Don’t ask a question because you think it will make you sound smart.

-If these were normal times, you would shake hands at the start and end of an in-person meeting, but not these days.

After the Interview: Thank You Notes and Keeping Your Contacts Posted

That contact is now a part of your network. Send a thank you note (email is fine; you can also hand write a note, depending on the situation). Stay in touch periodically. Record keeping is covered in my previous post.


Thank the original recommender before and after any follow-up with the contacts he or she gave you. For example you can write, “I want to thank you, again, for your help. Since we spoke, I…”


Tip: People care more than you think. Let them know when you get a job or take that next step—or even if you decide on a different field. If you let time slide, you can send a note, “I’ve been remiss in not writing,” for example. Holiday cards also cover a multitude of tardy sins. “I am appreciative of your help and kindness.”


Then pay it forward by helping others (and won't that feel good).

Addendum: Additional Information

Meet Remotely or In-Person?

Do what you are most comfortable with. This is being written during the pandemic, which makes Zoom the safer choice. It might be slightly harder to develop rapport, but that is easily overcome.


Zoom Preparation

Be careful with your background. There’s a reason that television journalists and their sources primarily have bare walls or bookcases as a backdrop when reporting from home. Who knows if they read them? Don't have anything on camera that can construe, for example, racist, sexist, homophobic or violent tendencies or political affiliation (unless the political affiliation is relevant). Sports team loyalties might be as controversial as you want to get although even that can get dicey. You may not want a Dallas Cowboy poster showing during an informational interview with someone from Philadelphia. Unless you are 12 or info interviewing with someone from Hasbro, this is not the place to have a My Little Pony collection in the background (unless you can overcompensate with something with gravitas, but why take a chance).


What to Wear

Clothes are symbolic. The world is getting more casual, but you need to be careful.


Business casual is a good guideline unless there is reason to dress up, go casual (still avoid jeans) or be cutting-edge. Here is a link for those who may be confused by business casual.


Attire may depend on the type of career. You may dress differently if you were going to meet someone at a law firm rather than at a ranch. If in person, you can check with the person (particularly if very senior) as well. For example, “If you don’t mind my asking, I was planning to dress business casual if that would be acceptable."


Tips About Writing

Check your grammar. Don’t rely solely on spellcheck. After I spellcheck, I review a document word-by-word because I’m prone to typos. Spellcheck will skip a word like “tow” when you intended it to be “two.” It also doesn't check wrong numbers. Mistakes will happen. I know it well. If (oops!) you sent a note with a typo, follow-up with a corrected version. Don’t hope readers won’t see it—they will and that can undermine your credibility. You can even put “Corrected:” in the subject line. In the body of the note, add that you inadvertently had an error in the first version. Readers understand a corrected message; they are not tolerant of an uncorrected one.


Be deferential. If you aren’t sure whether to call someone by their first or last name, either use Ms./Mr./Dr./Prof., etc.) or “Dear Ed (if I may).” If you aren’t sure, go more formal. Use common sense, too. If you are a student writing to another student, you can be more informal but still respectful.


Helpful Reference

https://abaforlawstudents.com/2018/08/01/5-essential-networking-tips-for-law-students/ (helpful advice not just for law students)


Dr. Phyllis Brust is an award-winning career counselor and writer and the founder of Careermutt, which focuses on pet-related careers. She has published in "The Chronicle of Higher Education," "The Wall Street Journal," "Careers and the MBA," "Resumes for Dummies" and SHRM.org. She consults with private clients, business and government organizations. Previously, she advised students, alumni and faculty (and their partners) at Yale University, the University of Chicago, Thomas Jefferson University, Muhlenberg College and Haverford College. She is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania.


Visit CareerMutt to learn more about careers with pets (in business, non-profits and government) and general career and job searching information. (We're about to revise the site.)


The site is not a substitute for individual legal, medical and other expertise, and recommendations, advice, etc. may not apply in your situation. Do your due diligence. We try our best to avoid, but cannot be responsible for, errors.

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