Since you’re reading this, you probably don’t love networking and are wondering what the hype…
Note: This is an updated version of a previous article on informational interviewing.
Years ago, when I was in grad school, I conducted my first and only informational interview. Much to my surprise, I landed a job offer! I literally said, “Oh, no! I can’t take a full-time job now. I’m writing my dissertation, working part-time, and taking care of an infant. I scheduled this to learn about the role, not to try to get a job.” (Clearly, I could have used some coaching on how to respond.) From that day forward, I recognized the benefit an informational interview or networking conversation can offer to people contemplating what they want for their careers.
My process of career exploration through an informational interview advanced at lightning speed—from timidly sending an email inquiry to receiving a job offer during the conversation. Even though I didn’t accept the offer, I walked away with a confidence boost and confirmation that I was qualified for the type of role that interested me.
However, you may be experiencing the same reluctance I initially felt. In that case, I encourage you to follow a step-by-step plan, which I will outline after I cover some basics about informational interviewing and networking conversations.
Informational Interview or Networking Conversation: Sometimes the Difference Depends on Your Stage of Career
“Informational interview” is a phrase that many people don’t intuitively understand, so it warrants a definition. An informational interview is an interview in which a job seeker or career explorer gathers information from a person about the company they work for, the person’s career path, and/or the person’s job function. You may also think of it as a networking interview or a networking conversation. In a networking conversation, you either reconnect with people you haven’t spoken to in a while or “reach out” to new people to learn about opportunities and trends.
However you frame it, the specific label for the conversation is less important than the intent: to learn and gather information. The goal is not to solicit a job offer (although an offer can occasionally be made, as I found out).
However you frame it, the specific label for the conversation is less important than the intent: to learn and gather information.
The Benefits of Informational Interviews and Networking Conversations
Conducting informational interviews shows initiative, provides you with practice in having one-to-one “interview-like” conversations, and gives you visibility. Visibility is helpful across the board.
If you are a student, an informational interview might be your first time speaking with an industry professional who works in your desired field. If you are an experienced professional who is looking for a change, an informational interview might be the first time in years that you have had a serious career conversation outside of your current organization. Networking conversations can also offer much-needed practice in case you haven’t interviewed in a long time. They can prepare you for formal conversations about your career interests and the value you bring to an organization.
The visibility you gain from doing informational interviews leads you to pop into someone’s mind when there is an opening at the company. In this way, an opportunity may come your way without ever having been posted in a formal job announcement. In a similar fashion, if you speak with people in the company you currently work for but who are in different departments, there is a stronger chance you will be considered when a position opens in those other departments.
By doing informational interviews and having networking conversations, you can stand out from the crowd, sharpen your communication skills, and become a “top of mind” resource when positions open.
A Step-by-Step Plan for Your Informational Interview or Networking Conversation
Step 1: Identify the interviewee(s).
LinkedIn is a tremendous tool for this. If you are uncomfortable contacting people you don’t know, your existing network can be a great resource. Perhaps a fellow gym member has a job in the same field you are interested in. A conversation with that person could be an easy place to start your career exploration.
Step 2: Contact the potential interviewee.
Ask interviewees for a 20- to 30-minute conversation about the company they work for, their career path, and/or their job function. The request should be clear, concise, and direct. Specificity shows focus. Many people suggest meeting for coffee, but oftentimes the interviewee is too busy to meet in person or prefers a virtual setting. I recommend always giving the option for a phone or video conferencing call. It is also acceptable if you prefer phone or video conferencing. For in-person meetings over coffee or lunch, I encourage you to explicitly mention it will be your treat.
Step 3: Follow up.
People lead busy lives, and the potential interviewee may have forgotten to respond. When this happens, you should follow up by sending a subsequent email after a week if you haven’t heard anything. If the potential interviewee declines, don’t take it personally. Write a concise thank-you email (e.g., “Dear Tony, Thank you for taking the time to respond to my inquiry.”). And it should go without saying: If the person replies that they are happy to have the interview, you should respond promptly and establish a clear date, time, and location (physically or virtually) for the meeting.
Step 4: Prepare!
Make a list of questions for the interviewee. Ideally, the interview will feel like a natural conversation and not a rigid question and answer session. You will feel more comfortable and as a result be able to have a more natural exchange by coming prepared with the topics you want to cover.
Step 5: Keep your commitment.
Informational interviews should be treated as seriously as an employment interview. Cancelling should be reserved only for true emergencies. Punctuality is crucial, and you should confirm the call/meeting 24-48 hours in advance.
Step 6: Be a good timekeeper.
At the 20-minute mark during the interview, you can offer your thanks and wrap up the interview. Alternately, you can inquire whether the person still has time to continue the conversation. This attention to detail and respect for the interviewee’s time will likely leave a good impression.
Step 7: Express gratitude.
Thank interviewees for their time during the meeting and also in a follow-up thank-you email.
There are many compelling reasons why you should ask for an informational interview or networking conversation: to obtain valuable information and insight, nurture existing relationships, build new connections, practice succeeding in career-driven conversations, and communicate your goals and aspirations to those who might be able to help you down the road. By embracing this activity, you have a good chance of accelerating the pace of your job search campaign.