Posted by Brian McCullough
So you’re on the job hunt, and you’ve sent out hundreds of applications with few or no callbacks for interviews. It’s a common story, but as pointed out here on Job Bored before, most hiring transpires through networking. Now, networking can be a pretty nebulous notion, made all the more complex by social sites on the Internet like Linked In and Facebook. Instead of rehashing the networking mantra, I’d like to zoom in on one aspect of networking that’s somewhat “old school” the informational interview.
So what, exactly, is an informational interview, and how does it differ from a traditional interview? For one, an informational interview is initiated by you, the job seeker. You are the one who will ask the questions. The primary purpose of an informational interview is not to secure employment or fill a job opening per se; rather, it’s to find out more information about the industry in which you wish to work. Perhaps you are impressed by a specific industry leader and would like to know how he or she developed her career. Maybe you want to switch careers completely and want to find out what skills you would need to break into the industry. Most importantly, an informational interview enables you to broaden your professional network on a very personal level. If you’re lucky, you might walk away from an informational interview with not just a better idea of what you want to do with your life, but you’ll also leave with a supportive mentor who can continue to advise you throughout your career.
Since the people who you will be potentially interviewing will be doing you a favor, an extra dose of courtesy is required setting one up and following through. Send out emails explaining who you are, why you want to speak with them, and precisely what it is you hope to achieve by meeting with them. If you don’t get any response, move on to others.
Once you do get affirmative feedback, respond promptly and graciously. Set up a time and place that is most convenient for her, or, if your interviewee prefers, speak with her on the phone. Agree to keep the meeting short thirty minutes max should be a rule of thumb. Before the interview, be sure to do your research. Find out as much as you can about the person you are meeting so that you can ask precise, intelligent questions. As with traditional interviews, you should dress professionally and be prompt. If you are meeting at a cafe or for dinner, be sure to pay any associated bills, since you are the one who is taking up their time.
If your interview goes well and your interviewee demonstrates a desire to keep in touch, be sure to follow up with her, but don’t turn the potential for a solid professional connection into an excuse to stalk someone you admire. Another general thing to keep in mind about informational interviews is that they are handy even when you are employed. Keeping your options open and learning more about what you want in the future by seeking out successful people always strengthens a sound career strategy. For more insightful advice about informational interviews, check out these two New York Times blog articles here and here.