Informational interviewing is the process of gathering career information from people who are already working in target occupations, organizations, or geographic locations. 

Informational interviews can happen in person, over the phone, or through e-mail. In-person, these interviews usually last about 20 minutes. 

Why Informational Interviewing?

The main goal of informational interviewing is to obtain information and advice through one-on-one, comfortable conversations with people already working in a particular career. Informational interviews are initiated and controlled by the student.

  • To gain information and advice about career fields or job search strategies;
  • To validate the choice of career by investigating the day-to-day experiences of someone working in the field;
  • To narrow the list of potential employers to those who form the most likely market for your qualifications;
  • To make contacts and obtain current information;
  • To get additional leads to jobs and/or informational interviews;
  • To develop a knowledge of the vocabulary of the field;
  • To gather information that will make a positive impression on employers in a cover letter or a job interview;
  • To build confidence in your ability to discuss your career interests and goals; and
  • To develop your professional network.

Setting up the Informational Interview

Contact each person to ask for a time when you can meet to discuss his/her organization and, in particular, what this person does on the job. Be sure to make it clear that you are interested in gathering information and advice—not a job. Be prepared to explain the kind of information you want.

If you feel a bit nervous or anxious about arranging your first few "interviews," here are some ways to overcome your reticence:

  • Practice what to say before you call, perhaps even jotting down the important points and questions you want to mention
  • Begin your interviews with people who are "low threat"—family, friends, previous employers
  • Practice the process with a low priority organization or in an area where you feel you have nothing to lose (e.g., talk to someone working in a hobby area of yours).

If your nervousness is compounded by wondering why any busy professional would be willing to take time to grant you such an interview, keep in mind that:

  • People enjoy helping others—information and advice are free to give—jobs aren't
  • People enjoy talking about themselves, their ideas, and their opinions
  • Very few people are actually so busy that they don't have a free half-hour during a week

There are four major strategies in contacting the person you'd like to meet:

  • Write a letter or send an e-mail, and follow it up with a phone call. Introduce yourself, explain your interest in the individual's organization and job, and propose a meeting or phone call. 
  • Telephone the person directly. The response will be quicker, whether yes or no. If no, always ask who would be an appropriate person for you to contact. You should then begin again with that person.
  • Drop in on the person in hopes of meeting right away without an appointment. This approach is more risky, yet the spontaneity may be impressive and generate a favorable response.
  • Have one of your contacts (e.g., a parent, friend, sibling, professor) arrange an appointment for you.

Preparing for the Informational Interview

This is a critical step! Too many students set up interviews, then "drop in" for their appointments without doing any homework. Employers are often frustrated when they talk with a student who knows nothing about their field. Like any interview, preparation and research before the interview is key for success.

Also, the more you know about an area or an organization, the more intelligent and productive your questions can be – plus your interviewees will be impressed by this knowledge and preparation on your part.

You can prepare for your informational interview in the following ways:

  • Research recent magazine or newspaper articles written about the organization
  • Search for and read about the company or organization on their website or LinkedIn. If they do not have an online presence, contact someone in the organization and request a prospectus, an annual report or other printed information about the organization
  • Read literature on the specific career field in the UVA Career Center. Handshake also contains a link to“Career Insider by VAULT” which provides in-depth industry guides.
  • Talk to someone (a friend, neighbor, parent, alumnus, a person who knows this field or organization) – and ask him or her about the career or company.

Before your informational interview, plan open-ended questions that will stimulate discussion and enable both of you to learn about each other. See the list of sample questions below.

Plan ahead what you want to communicate about yourself: skills, traits, and goals. Think about ways to get these attributes across by means of the questions you ask and the way in which you conduct the interview.

Focus on the interviewee's views, opinions, thoughts, and feelings rather than cold facts. Your interviewer will enjoy the interview more, and will feel more positive about you as a result.

Questions to ask in the informational interview

Preparation

  • What credentials or degrees are required for entry into this kind of work?
  • What types of prior experiences are essential?
  • How did you prepare yourself for this work? 

Present Job

  • Describe how you occupy your time during a typical workweek.
  • What skills or talents are most essential for effective job performance in this job?
  • What are the toughest problems you must deal with? What do you find most rewarding about your job?
  • If you were to leave this kind of work, what factors would probably contribute to your decision?

Lifestyle

  • What obligation does your work place upon your personal time?
  • How much flexibility do you have in terms of dress, hours of work, vacation schedule, place of residence?
  • How often do people in your line of work change jobs?

Career Future/Alternatives

  • If things develop as you'd like, what sort of career goals do you see for yourself?
  • How rapidly is your present career field growing?
  • If the work you do was suddenly eliminated, what different types of work do you feel that you could do?
  • What types of employers hire people with your background; what are some representative job titles?
  • Which related fields are you exploring/ have you explored in the past? 

Job Hunting

  • How do people find out about these jobs? Are they advertised online (which websites?), by word-of-mouth (who spreads the word?), by the personnel department?
  • How does one move from position to position? Do people normally move to another agency (company, division), or do they move up in the agency (company, division)?
  • If you were to hire someone to work with you today, what factors would be most important in your hiring decision and why?
    • Educational credentials
    • Past work experience
    • Personality, personal attributes
    • Specific skills, talents
    • Applicant's knowledge of your organization, your department, your job

Advice to Me

  • How well suited is my background for this type of work?
  • Can you suggest other related fields?
  • What educational preparation do you feel would be best?
  • What types of experiences, paid employment or otherwise, would you most strongly recommend?
  • If you were a college student and had it to do over again, what would you do differently to prepare for this occupation?

Referral to Others

  • Based on our conversation today, can you suggest other people who may be able to provide additional information?
  • Would you suggest a few of these people who might be willing to see me?
  • May I have permission to use your name when I contact them?

Questions regarding the employer

  • What is the size of the organization/geographic locations?
  • What is the organizational structure?
  • How does the size and structure of your organization compare to that of others in your field (in this city and/or nationally?)
  • How does the work of your division or office fit into the work of the organization as a whole?
  • What is the organization’s commitment to diversity?
  • What is the average length of time employees stay with the organization?
  • How much freedom is given to new people?
  • What types of formal or on-the-job training does the organization provide?
  • How often are performance reviews given?
  • What are the arrangements for transferring from one division to another?
  • How much decision-making authority is given after one year?
  • What new product lines or services are being developed?
  • Where is the organization expanding? How does it compare with its competitors?

Follow up!

Remember to send thank-you notes! A few lines thanking them for their time and help will indicate your appreciation and will keep you in their memory. Be specific about information you learned during the interview.

Additionally, you should keep a record of your interviews for your own information. Names, titles, addresses, dates, and major points of discussion will enable you to remember who told you what, and how to get back in touch with your contacts.