Whenever you hear the word “interview”, you immediately picture a conversation with a recruiter or a possible employer. But that’s not the only type of interviews you can have in a professional setting.
You can also have interviews with specialists whose background or employers you admire without making your case for hiring you. This is called an informational interview.
What is an Informational Interview?
An informational interview is an informal conversation you have with someone working in a field that interests you. Similar to mentorship, an informal interview gives you the opportunity to learn more about a particular role, industry, or company — also talk about available career paths and overall employment prospects. Most informal interviews run under an hour in the form of a Q&A session.
By attending an informal interview, you can get an inside scoop from a professional working in your field (or the one you want to break into). Specifically you can learn about:
- The realities of working in a particular company or role
- Different specialties and sub-niches within the profession
- Alternative career paths and adjacent occupations
- Main skills employers look for a particular role
- Industry outlook and latest shifts and changes
- Extra training & development activities worth pursuing
The purpose of an informational interview is to show you a spectrum of opportunities available, rather than direct you towards a particular job. Though one of every twelve informational interviews results in a job offer. It’s also a great opportunity to see how your skills, interests, and personality would fit into different roles.
Whom You Should Approach For an Informational Interview?
Julie Lythcott-Haims, former dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising at Stanford University and NYT best-selling author says it best:
“Let’s talk about your network, which is made up of the people you know — family, friends, acquaintances, current and former coworkers, teachers, and neighbors — and the people they know. These people may be able to help you get informational interviews”.
In other words: Take stock of people you know. See what they are doing professionally — then approach them with a quick request for an information interview.
If you are not immediately seeing a good person to talk to, cultivate a new connection. Look up people on LinkedIn, browse Twitter, attend a local meet-up, or get more active in online communities. The Internet makes it easy to find a potential “role model” to observe and reach out to for guidance!
Networking events, in particular, a great way to chat people up on the subject of work — and then request a longer informational interview. So take a look at what’s happening in your area or virtually.
How to Ask for an Informational Interview on LinkedIn
Don’t request an informational interview straight in your connection request message. Before you make the ask, do some basic prep work:
- Update and optimize your LinkedIn profile to best reflect your skills and career interests
- Research the connection to understand what they specialize in and how exactly they may be helpful
- Send a short introductory message, explaining who you are and why you’d became interested in their profile
Then send a short, respectful follow-up message asking for the informational interview.
“Name, I realize you’re busy, but perhaps you have a free slot in your calendar for networking? As I’m just getting started in [industry], I would really love to talk with a more experienced professional about [a particular relevant question]. Is this something you’d be open to doing?”
How to Ask for an Informational Interview By Email
If you already have a “warm” connection and a verbal “yeah, we can do an informal interview sometime”, structure your email the following way:
Subject line: Informational interview [Name] x [Your Name]
Thanks again for agreeing to talk with me about [role name/company name]. I am available [your time slot options]. Does any of these overlap with your availability? We can do Zoom or meet-up in person — whichever works better for you.
To keep the conversation productive, I did some research about [company, role, industry] and wanted to discuss the following matters:
- Subject one
- Subject two
- Subject three
Once again, I immensely appreciate your willingness to have an informational interview with me.
What are Good Questions to Ask in an Informational Interview?
Now that you’ve locked an appointment date, you need to prepare your set of questions to ask in an informational interview. Remember: your questions should be well-formulated and highly-personalized to what the person does.
By asking overly-general questions, you’re showing the interviewer your lack of preparedness and — by proxy — genuine interest in the industry. Also, you then miss out on getting the ‘insider’ knowledge and just receive general information you may have googled up yourself.
Before you go into the meeting, research the person’s background and their career path. Try to understand how they moved through their career and what possible takeaways they could share with you. It would also make the conversation feel more amicable and personal. Also, don’t forget to bring a copy of your resume (just in case).
Good questions to ask in an informational interview are:
- Specific to the person’s background
- Open-ended to prompt a more thorough reply
- Organized around themes — industry, roles, skills, etc.
Now, let’s move onto the list of questions to ask in an informal interview. For convenience, we grouped them all into themes.
Questions About the Occupation and Industry
Informational interviews are a good tool for recent graduates and career changers to get a better feeling of what a particular role is actually like. It’s also a great way to low-key assess if you may be a fit for it.
To collect this type of information, try asking the following questions:
- What made you personally select this line of work?
- Did you immediately settle for this career track? What were your earlier roles?
- What common traits people who are successful in this role share?
- Do you need to be good at [particular skills] to succeed in this industry?
- I heard that X is a common issue in this industry. Do you think it is true?
- What types of skills are a “must” for candidates in this role?
- Are there any issues that frustrate you in this role?
- I really like doing [specific tasks]. Do I get to do that type of work in this career?
- What types of career advancement opportunities are available for this role? Is it easy to transition to an adjacent position?
- What do you like most about your current [role]?
- How is the industry changing? What trends are you personally seeing?
Questions About the Company
If you are bent on joining a specific company, replace some of your industry related questions with those centered around the employer. Again, show that you already did some research. Instead of asking “what are the general company values?”, ask something like “what prompted the company to focus more on sustainability?”.
Also, you should avoid bluntly asking about the average compensation in the company (unless this information is available publicly). This can drive the conversation into awkward territory. If you want to bring up the subject of money, say that you’ve looked up average market rates for a certain role. Then ask if these are close to what the company is paying.
Here are sample informational interview questions to ask about the company:
- What prompted you to join this company?
- I read you’ve been with the company for [x years]. What prompts you to stay with them?
- What sort of training and development opportunities does the company offer?
- How would you describe the [company culture], [management philosophy], [work environment], [standard work practices]?
- Is the turnover rate high at your team? What is the most common reason why people leave [company]?
- What do you think is the best way to get an internship (or job) in your company?
- Was there something that surprised you when joining [company]?
Questions About Career Paths
Allocate some portion of your interview towards discussing the entire spectrum of roles and positions, available within your occupation. Your counterpart can direct you towards overlooked options and better explain what it would take to get from an entry-level position to more senior ones.
Try asking these questions to get the best insights:
- I know of [role 1, 2, 3, 4]. Are there any other new ones that I’m missing?
- If you didn’t settle for your current role, which others would you consider?
- Do you think [role/job] will remain in-demand in the future? In what ways might it evolve?
- Did any unrelated professional experiences help you excel in your current position?
- What skills or experiences would be necessary to grow from [role 1] to [role 2]?
- In your opinion, how long does it take on average to advance from entry-level to mid-level positions in [industry]?
- Where do you see yourself in five years?
- How often do people get promoted in [company/industry]?
- Are there any certifications or extra training that would help advance in this role faster?
Extra Questions to Ask
A regular informational interview should provide you with room to ask under 10 questions and get detailed replies. So you have to be strategic with which one’s you’ve selected from the above list.
Then you should also leave about ten extra minutes to ask a couple of closing questions such as:
- Perhaps you know some other people in [role/industry] that I could talk to?
- Are there any other questions I should have asked (but didn’t)?
- Is it okay if we stay in touch?
This triumvirate will nicely round-up a discussion, plus maybe even lend you some more contacts to approach for an informational interview!
Final Tip: How to Thank Someone for an Informational Interview
You must absolutely send a follow-up thank you email after your informational interview. Keep it short and on-point. Express your gratitude, mention a fact you’ve learned, and provide any extra information (if the other party asked for it).
If you happen to be good acquaintances, you can also make a bigger gesture by thanking them with a handwritten note, flowers, digital gift card, or some public praise on social media.