Monday, March 23, 2009

Can We Talk? Informational Interviews.

About fifteen years ago, when I was the clinical director of small mental health agency, I answered a phone call from a graduate student at a nearby university who asked if I would mind give him some time to discuss how I got into the field of counseling. I was very flattered and immediately began to rehearse in my head what wonderful insights about a life in counseling I would share with him. As I recall, he asked exactly one question about me and then the interaction descended into "I-need-a-job Hell." It was over a decade before I did another informational interview and it was very difficult for me to recommend info interviewing as a means of finding out about a field. I have recovered somewhat and will occasionally grant time to someone who makes such a request. What follows are a few pointers for those of you considering added info interviews to your career development arsenal.

Foot in the door... NOT!

This is the starting gate of this post and I wish to inform you clearly and unequivocally that an informational interview should never be about getting your foot in the door. Your visit should be fairly structured with a definite time limit. Here's the deal. The person you wish to talk to is likely to be at least moderately successful or you wouldn't even want to talk to them. If they are moderately successful, they are likely to be moderately busy as well. Respect their time and schedule by being organized and thoughtful.

This is not to say that these interviews do not sometimes become networking adventures, but that is rare and should never be the primary purpose of the meeting. I encourage interviewers to not take resumes or CV's with them. If the interviewee asks to see your resume, politely say, "Thank you, but I did not bring it with me today because my primary purpose was to talk with you about this field and get an idea about whether or not I would find it a good fit. I would be very happy to email it to you later for your feedback." This actually accomplishes three things. First, it makes you appear to be a principled person of your word... you asked for an interview and that is what you came to do. Second, it gives you a reason to contact him or her later. Finally, it creates a context for real networking.

Where do I find these folks?
In many of our career workshops, I do recommend info interviewing in passing and inevitably someone will stay after and ask how to find people to interview. On one hand, it is very easy and on the other hand, very difficult. I am on the gregarious side and talk to complete strangers all the time, others break out in a cold sweat at the idea of asking a cashier for change. So, if you are like me and want to interview an architect, then you plop open your MacBook, Google "architects," and start calling and emailing.

If you are at the other extreme, talk with your family members and ask if they know an architect. Another strategy might be to put together a group email from some of the folks in your email address book and send out a simple message like:
Hi! I have been considering several important career decisions lately and would like to know more about architecture and design, but I cannot think of anyone with enough of a background to help me in my process. I am hoping that some of my friends and family might know of someone in the field who would be willing to talk to me to answer some basic questions about how one prepares for a career in architecture or design. If you know of someone, I would be very grateful for a shove in their direction. I have a list of 10 questions to ask and would not take up more than 30 minutes of their time. Thanks in advance. Sally Job Hunter
I guess you could Tweet this if you can figure out how to get it down to 140 characters, but Facebook and MySpace work equally as well. (For the record, I quickly scanned my LinkedIn Page, Facebook, and my email address books and came up with four architects.)

If you are a college student or an alum, many colleges and universities have alumni career networks that try to match students or alums with graduates in specific fields. The UCR Career Center routinely brings in panels of individuals in a variety of fields for this very purpose. Many other career centers do the same thing. Alumni are almost always welcome and sometimes guests are allowed to attend on a limited basis.

Professional associations are another good source of referral. For instance, the American Institute of Architecture California Council website has a page devoted to "becoming an architect," an extensive directory of architects, and listing of county associations which have more local information. The side benefit to searching through professional association websites is that they have a ton of information that would answer many questions long before you secured an interview.

When, what, where, how?
Since my first disastrous info interview, when people contact me about an informational interview I always say, "Because my time is limited, it will help a great deal if you could send me an email with some of the questions you will be asking. That way we can make the most of our time together." A few years ago, one of my students wanted to interview a university dean and sent an email request with questions included to four or five deans in the surrounding area. Only two scheduled time for her, but one other actually took the time to answer her questions even though he could not set aside time for her.

This is one of those areas in which the World Wide Tubes comes in so handy. I could give you a list of questions to ask, but Quintessential Careers has already done a superb job of putting toget a throng of when, what, where and how questions for you. Go to Quint Careers Info Interview page and harvest questions from there. (Heck, their whole informational interviewing tutorial is pretty darned good, too!)

Two heads are better than one.
My path to my current career was not very straightforward and the stops along the way configured how I do what I do and how I see what I see in the field. My time in the insurance industry makes me more tort and risk aware than more career counselors and my time as a psychotherapist and professor has made me more clinically focused than many career counselors. If you only talked to me about career counseling, you would have a very one-sided view. Find at least two people who seem to have had different paths and ask your questions.


  1. Thanks for the shoutout for my collection of informational interview questions and tutorial. Informational interviewing is such a fantastic technique, especially in these tough times. I don't totally agree with you about the interview NOT being a way to get a foot in the door or about not bringing a resume to the interview, but these are perfectly valid viewpoints that lots of professionals share. I think it's OK to ask an informational interviewee for a quick resume critique -- IF you've established excellent rapport with the interviewee.

    Katharine Hansen, Author, A Foot in the Door

  2. I find it interesting that you are so adamant that informational interviews shouldn't be about networking when many many students/young alumni at many different institutions are told that informational interviewing is *the* way of networking and getting a job when starting out (I have been given this advice personally).

    In my own life, nearly every informational interviewee that I've had has looked at my resume and several have given me leads about jobs in their companies. While the informational interview you mention sounds very awkward, I think there is a general understanding that it is about learning about the industry while trying to subtly sell oneself, at least in marketing.

  3. Part of my adamant approach to the issue of interviewing not being about networking is my personality... I tend to be adamant about everything. The other part has to do with the instrumentality of the interview itself. If one truly wishes to get information about an industry, then that is what they should do... get information. If they are simply trying to build a network, then they should say so.

    So, instead of calling and saying,

    "Hi. My name is Ernie Erstwhile and I have been thinking about the possibility of a career in banking and finance and would like to talk to you about your career and get more information."

    They should say,

    "Hi. My name is Ernie Erstwhile and I would like a career in banking and finance, but I don't know anyone in the industry, so I would like to visit with you and add you to my network in hopes that you can jump start my career."

    Another piece of this is the fact that I would never advance the candidacy of an individual with whom my primary contact was a thirty minute informational interview. Likewise, I am not sure that I would trust anyone's recommendation of a person based on "I met this interesting candidate when he/she interviewed me. I've only met him/her once, but he/she seems like a nice person."

    Life is beautiful when interviews turn into valuable network connection, but I am not sure that they are an efficient way of expanding one's contacts.