Want to know what a career is really like? Ask someone with first-hand experience.
Many people wonder anxiously about which type of job they'll like or how they can break into the career of their dreams. Surprisingly, very few people ever take advantage of one of the best ways to answer their questions about careers: asking the workers already in them.
Talking to people about their jobs and asking them for advice is called informational interviewing, a term coined by career counselor and author Richard Bolles. And the technique usually works very well for people exploring careers. Stories abound of students who used informational interviewing to decide among occupations or to find a way to convert their interests to a paying job.
Some people who conduct informational interviews discover their dream job isn't so dreamy after all. By learning the truth in time, they can change course and find a career that suits them. Others have their career goals confirmed.
Informational interviewing can be as simple as striking up conversations with friends or others about their occupations. But taking full advantage of this career exploration tool requires a more methodical approach.
Read on to learn the purpose of informational interviewing; whom to interview; how to set up, prepare for, and conduct an interview; and what to do afterward.
The What and Why of Informational Interviews
An informational interview is a brief meeting between a person who wants to investigate a career and a person working in that career. The interviews usually last 20 to 30 minutes.
The purpose of an informational interview is not to get a job. Instead, the goal is to find out about jobs you might like—to see if they fit your interests, skills, and personality.
Specifically, interviews can help you:
- Learn more about the realities of working in a particular occupation
- Decide among different occupations or choose an occupational specialty
- Focus career goals
- Discover careers you never knew existed
- Uncover your professional strengths and weakness
- Find different ways to prepare for a particular career
- Gather ideas for volunteer, seasonal, part-time, and internship opportunities related to a specific field
Informational interviews also provide an inside look at an organization you may want to work for in the future. And these interviews aid in polishing communication skills, helping jobseekers gain confidence and poise before the high-pressure situation of a job interview.
Deciding Whom to Interview
Before selecting someone to interview, you'll need to decide which occupations you want to learn more about.
You may already have some ideas about the kinds of work you want to do. But, if you are stymied, consider visiting a career or guidance counselor. He or she can help you to clarify your interests and favorite skills and goals for earnings, work setting, and future education. Career guidance tests also can produce lists of careers that match one's temperament. Browsing occupational descriptions online, including those in the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Outlook Handbook and O*NET occupational database, is another good way to identify careers—as is reading books written by career experts.
Additional detailed information is available from professional associations and trade magazines. The more you research possible occupations, the better your questions will be when conducting informational interviews.
After identifying a few possible occupations, it is time to choose people to interview. Look for people actually working in the occupations you are considering. These people probably know more about what the work is like than human resources specialists or hiring managers do. It's also important to choose people with the same level of responsibility you would have if you entered the occupation. If you would be working in an entry-level job, interview workers who are at or close to entry level rather than interviewing supervisors.
How can you find these people? The easiest way to start is to ask people you already know. Family members, friends, teachers, or past coworkers may work in the occupation you want to explore, or they may know people who do.
Career centers and alumni offices of high schools or colleges are another good source of contacts. These offices usually keep track of graduates and their occupations. Many schools maintain lists of graduates who have agreed to give informational interviews. Schools also may have the names of other community members who have offered to provide career assistance.
In addition, professional associations maintain membership directories and often publish them. Many also produce trade magazines and newsletters describing the activities of specific members. These members might be potential interview subjects. Speaking to association administrators can be useful, as well. They often know a few members who are especially willing to talk with students and career changers.
Interviewees also can be found by contacting businesses and organizations that hire the types of workers you hope to consult. To find a person to interview, call an organization and ask to speak with the human resources department or another appropriate office. If a caller wanted to interview a graphic designer, for instance, he or she could ask for the design department.
After finding people to consult, you are ready to arrange interviews. Contact the people you hope to meet, and ask to speak with them briefly about their careers, making it clear that you want information—not a job.
For most people, this is the most difficult part of informational interviewing. Asking strangers for career help can be daunting, and some people wonder why anyone would agree to be interviewed.
But, in fact, many people are willing to help students and career changers explore occupations. People often like talking about themselves and their careers. Some are happy to advance their profession by encouraging others to enter it. And a few found their own careers as a result of informational interviews and are eager to pass on their good fortune. Even if some people are not willing or able to talk with you, chances are that others will be. Also, as standard practice, many employers recommend that their managers conduct a certain number of informational interviews every month.
There are three main ways to arrange for an informational interview: through an introduction from a mutual acquaintance, by letter or email, and by telephone.
Mutual acquaintance introduction.
Friends and family can be very helpful in setting up an informational interview. If someone you know knows someone you would like to interview, that person might be willing to make the initial request for you. After he or she makes the first request, you can call to arrange a date and time for the interview. Friends, family, and acquaintances also can become referrals—people whose names you can mention when writing or calling contacts yourself. People are usually more willing to talk to those with whom they have a connection. A mutual acquaintance can be that connection.
Letter or email.
A more common way to ask for an interview is to send a letter or email. Some employers prefer to receive written correspondence before you call to set up interviews. In part, this is because letters give them time to check their schedules before responding. When writing, explain who you are, why you want to meet, and how long you expect the meeting to take.
You also might mention how you found the person's name. Did someone suggest that you write? Did you find the name through your school? Did you read about him or her in a newsletter or industry publication? This kind of information adds credibility to your request.
In the last part of the letter or email, state that you will telephone for a response on a particular day. Be sure to make this followup call. (See the sample letter below and the sample email on the facing page.)
Calling people directly is a faster—but often more stressful—way to arrange an interview. Callers give the same type of information they would give in a letter. They say hello, ask if it is a good time to talk, mention who they are and how they got the person's name, and explain that they would like to meet to learn more about the person's career. To help this introduction go smoothly, experts advise practicing once or twice before making calls.
Be prepared to meet resistance. Some people might think you are calling for a job. You should reassure them that you are only exploring careers. Other people might say they have no time to talk. Being careful not to be too forceful, you might ask if there is a better time to call. Suggesting a telephone interview instead of an in-person meeting is another option. With a phone interview, you lose the chance to see the work environment but gain speed and convenience.
If people still cannot speak with you, some career counselors suggest asking them if they know of anyone else who might be able to help. Also, a good rule of thumb is three attempts at making contact with someone you are interested in interviewing. After a failed third attempt, it's best to move to the next name on your list.