What is an informational interview and how can it help you?

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Aside from networking, conducting an informational interview ranks high among the most frequent career advice given to newcomers. But what exactly is an informational interview?

Informational interview defined

Simply put, an informational interview is a casual chat with an industry or company insider to know more about a specific job, industry or company. “It is a pre-arranged meeting between two parties to obtain information. In the meeting, you (the job seeker) are seeking information about the company that the other is employed by, including the company’s culture, challenges, and the industry as a whole” (Olsten, Ivy Exec).

A common misconception is that it is a sneaky way to get a job offer. This is wrong. One of its biggest no-nos is to ask for a job. An informational interview should be a relaxed and informal conversation (usually over coffee) where you, the interviewer asks thoughtful questions to find out if the industry or company you wish to work in is a good fit for you.

Why should you do it?

While it will not directly give you a job, it is better than a job interview because it can:

  1. Help you evaluate your career path – Learning more about the interviewee’s on-the-job skills and responsibilities will help you evaluate your own skills and competencies.
  2. Give you an insider’s view – The information we get about a company through media is usually part of its marketing spiel. Someone who works there will be able to tell you what the actual culture is like and how it feels to work there.
  3. Help you decide if shifting into a new career is wise – Newcomers looking to change their careers will be able to ask about the viability of the industry and how competitive it is. This information can help them make good plans and decisions.
  4. Get your foot in the door – Your interviewee may remember you and recommend you for a position in the company especially if you’ve made a good impression on them. But remember, an informational interview can lead to a job but it’s a bonus, not the goal.

How do you get an informational interview?

The thought of asking someone you don’t know for a favour can be intimidating. Newcomers need to overcome this fear when starting their career in Canada. Just remember to ask respectfully and keep your intentions honest. People want to help and many like talking about their jobs, especially when they’re successful at it. Having said this, be ready for rejection. Working folks are busy and may have limited time to spare. This is why you should ask several people and keep on trying! It will be worth the effort.

Follow these steps to getting an informational interview:

  1. List down the companies and job titles you’re interested in – Make a shortlist of companies and job titles that you want to know more about. You can include alternative professions if you are still working on your accreditation or licensing (if you’re in a regulated profession) or if you’re intending to make a career change. Otherwise, just focus on reaching out to someone who does the work that is similar to what you want to do.
  2. Find the right people – People will be more willing to meet with you if you have a shared connection. This may be a little harder for newcomers but check if you have an acquaintance or friend who has a connection to someone on your list. You can also try asking a career coach, someone from an immigrant-serving organization or a Neighbourhood Immigrant Settlement Worker to help connect you to someone you can interview. You can also try searching and reaching out to professionals on LinkedIn.
  3. Go to job fairs – If your dream company is participating in a job fair, this is your chance! Know more about the company by talking to the people manning the booth. You can also ask them to connect you to a contact person if you have questions that they can’t answer.
  4. Make the invitation – Make a polished email. Make it short and to the point. Be clear about what you are asking for. Here’s a sample email:
    Hi Elaine,
    I’m a sales and marketing manager from Manila, and I’ve been working in this field for 10 years. I’m hoping to establish my career in Manitoba, specifically in brand development. I’m not looking for a job, but I’m interested in learning more about your field of work and your own experience in the insurance industry. Would you be willing to connect? It would be great if we could meet for coffee at a time and place most convenient for you. What do you think?

    Thanks in advance,

    (Adapted from Yes, you need informational interviews. Here’s how to land them, Bellis, Fast Company).

  5. Follow-up – Send a follow-up email or call them after a few days if you didn’t receive a response. Be very tactful and considerate when you do this.

Tips to have a great interview

  1. Take the lead – You have to drive the conversation. To start off, introduce yourself and give a brief description about where you are at in your career and why you’re conducting the interview. This will give your interviewee more context and give them an idea about the kind of information that you need.
  2. Prepare good questions – Do your research so you don’t waste time asking easily available things. Prepare several questions like:
    • What would you say are the most important skills a person in your position should have?
    • What are the types of people do you think would thrive in this field?
    • In my country, the practice of _____ is pervasive which I dislike. What would you say are some of the not-so-great things in your industry/corporate culture? What’s your experience with that?
    • What are the best things for me to do/read/learn to stay current in the field?
    • Do you have suggestions for me about what skills I should focus on developing to increase my chances of getting hired?
  3. Make it informal – Do your best to make it a free flowing conversation. Taking down notes can distract and prevent you from engaging in the conversation. Listen well, react and make follow-up questions.
  4. Be mindful of their time – Limit your questions to a number that is answerable in the time you requested. Sometimes three to four questions would be enough in an hour-long meeting. This will allow the interviewee to have detailed answers, give anecdotes and examples.
  5. Be grateful – Make sure to thank them for their time. Send an email after the meeting letting them know of specific insights that you most appreciated learning. In the future, inform them about career developments, especially if you get hired in your targeted field. They will surely appreciate this gesture especially since they played a part in your success.

Sources: How to ask for an informational interview (and get a “Yes”), Elliot Bell, the muse; Are informational interview questions even useful? Alison Green, the Cut; The truth about informational interviews to land a job, Greg Olsten, Ivy Exec and Yes, you need informational interviews. Here’s how to land them, Rich Bellis, Fast Company. Retrieved January 22, 2020.

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