So, you think you want to work for a certain company or in a particular profession in a specific position or department. How do you know for sure? How do you find out? Conducting informational interviews is a good place to start.
What’s an informational interview? It’s a meeting with someone in a position, department, company, or profession that intrigues you. You’re not certain whether you are suited for or interested in that career, so you ask someone who knows what working in such an environment involves. (Equally important is what an informational interview is not: It is not a stratagem for finagling an opportunity to ask for a job under the guise of merely obtaining information.)
How do you go about setting up an informational interview? Brainstorm, and check with friends and family, to find someone who works in a position or a company in the profession you’re interested in learning more about. Ask for an introduction, or contact the person directly. If you can’t identify a friend of a friend to interview, search online for contact information for a likely candidate and make a cold call (or, better yet, send a cold email, and then follow up with a call if you haven’t heard back from the person within a few days).
To get the interview, write or say something like this: “I’m exploring new career opportunities, and I’m intrigued by your job description/your company/your profession. Before I seek employment as a (blank), I’d like to make sure that it’s the right fit for me, and I’d appreciate the opportunity to ask you a few questions about your work.
“Could we meet for coffee, or at your office, for thirty minutes? This is not a stealth effort to ask for a job. It’s premature for me to seek employment in (job area) until I’m certain I have the aptitude and skills, and I am not deceitful. I’m genuinely interested in benefiting from your knowledge and insights.”
If the recipient declines (which is unlikely — most people are willing to share their professional know-how with a newcomer), thank them for their consideration and reply with a request for the name of someone else in the same company or profession who might be amenable to an interview.
Here are questions to ask (but find out what you can through your own research first):
1. How do you spend your workday, and what are the weekly, monthly, and yearly cycles, if any, of your workload?
2. What is the balance of routine and novelty in your job? Does your work largely follow a set pattern, and does that appeal to you, or is it mostly unpredictable, and do you like that?
3. What type of skills and knowledge did you bring to your job, and what have you acquired? What skills or knowledge do you apply most often?
4. (Briefly outline your educational/work history.) How would one start out in this profession, and what other coursework or job experience would you recommend or would you consider indispensable?
5. Are there any other qualifications, such as union or association membership, tests or examinations, or certification or licensing?
6. What are the advancement opportunities, and are there any external requirements for advancement, like certification or advanced degrees?
7. What are the challenges and rewards in your position?
8. How would you describe the workplace culture?
9. What do you wish you had known about this profession when you were exploring it like I am now?
10. Is there anything else I should have asked you?
11. Do you mind if I follow up with other questions or requests for clarification?
12. Who else in this company, or in the profession, do you know who might be able to help me explore further?
The most important thing to say, of course, is “Thank you — I appreciate that you took the time and effort to help me in my research” — and to do so again in writing (in a mailed note or postcard, not an email message). If you promptly set up an interview with one of the people your interviewee recommended, you can share that news, too — a tangible sign of your initiative and persistence. Be sure to follow up, as well, if you decide not to pursue work in the person’s profession — or to send your contact information when you do get a job in it (an achievement you managed in part, you’ll certainly emphasize, because of the information and advice the person gave you).
The most important thing to do is to honor your pledge not to exploit the person’s offer to meet with you as a pretense for hinting about employment. However, if you are professional and polite, and show a genuine interest in the person’s responses (and don’t just recite your questions — the interview should be more of a conversation), the person may ask you to email a copy of your resume “in case anything comes up.” If not, you’ll use the response to item number 12 to keep the chain unbroken and continue your investigation.
So, where’s the writing tip? Please forgive the deviation from the format, but this career-research technique is so useful, and so many people are (surprisingly) unfamiliar with it, that I had to write a post about it.