Now what?
December 6, 2011 1:07 PM   Subscribe

Have you ever actually done an "informational interview"?

I recently applied for a job within my current workplace, and got an interview. Although the job isn't a good fit with my skills, one of the interviewers seemed impressed with my knowledge and interest in the department where he's the second-in-command. In fact, this is the department I have wanted to break into ever since I took this job almost 6 years ago.

At the end of the interview, he suggested we speak informally at some later time...and now we have a meeting scheduled after Christmas.

I guess this is that elusive "informational interview" I remember hearing about in college...but I've never actually been on one or know anyone who has. We're currently in a hiring freeze, so it's not like he could create a job for me, but I want to make a good impression in case something ever does come up.

I'd love to hear from anyone who has done this before, what sort of questions you asked, any other suggestions...and if anything ever came of it.
posted by JoanArkham to Work & Money (22 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Just think of it as talking to the person, learning about what they're doing and getting some insight into what they know. You want to break into this department. He is likely to have some ideas how.

I have been on both sides of this. Forget the "interview" part, it's just you talking to someone who likes you enough to give you some advice. Express interest in what he's doing. Tell him you'd like to break into the department, and why. Ask if he has any tips. Ask about his role in the department and how it's changed over time. What he likes and doesn't like about it. What he would change. How he got there in the first place. Tell him a little about your interests and ask if there is anything he would recommend that you do or learn about to get where you want to go. But keep the focus on him at least for the first half of the discussion unless he actively asks about you and what you want, to avoid sounding like your main goal is to get him to help you. Your main goal should just be to learn from him.
posted by chickenmagazine at 1:14 PM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

One of the big job-hunting books, either What Color Is Your Parachute or The Pathfinder, has a good section on informational interviewing, including some suggested questions to ask.

I think it's the former book rather than the latter.
posted by gauche at 1:20 PM on December 6, 2011

When I was finishing up with graduate school I did a few of these "informational interview" type meetings...generally, the conversation flowed as follows: I'd talk about my background and interests and the direction I'd like to head in for my next career, and mention how I heard of them and why I was interested in their organization (this part was typically brief, just was a way of introducing myself) and then ask more about their current position and work, and their background. Most people also offered advice about the career path and were very friendly and seemed to enjoy talking about their work on a more general level to a younger person who wasn't their employee. One person I met with contacted me later to offer a position, which I accepted.
posted by emd3737 at 1:21 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

gauche is correct--it's What Color is Your Parachute, and it's what I referred to when I set up informational interviews. I interviewed at least 8 different librarians in different areas of the field in order to ensure that I wanted to go into it myself. They were all friendly, and it wasn't a nerve-wracking experience (the way a regular interview might be).
posted by sugarbomb at 1:23 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've been on both sides of this as well; it's a great way to make connections in a field that may come in handy later. As mentioned above, think of it as a conversation between two people with similar interests and just go from there.
posted by craven_morhead at 1:26 PM on December 6, 2011

I had an informational interview with a senior person at a large institution and she clued me into several upcoming positions that I never would have thought to interview for on my own. She even brought me around to introduce me to the people who would be reviewing those applications, and when the first actual job interview didn't work out (they only had a part time position and I needed full-time), I got the next job I applied for there, largely because I made such a good impression on the person I interviewed with and the other people I was introduced with.

Don't think of it like a regular interview, just think of it as a conversation about the field and the organization.
posted by Rock Steady at 1:29 PM on December 6, 2011

You know what else the informational interview is good for? It's a chance to talk candidly about an industry or product or department. Since you won't be so focused on trying to get in, and he won't be trying to sell you on it, you can maybe try getting a more nuanced view of his department, its goals, and the major obstacles that make the job challenging. It's a good chance to find out that the department you've been idealizing is riddled with bureaucracy, or keeps facing major turnover, or has an impossible mandate from management, etc. Stuff he'd never tell you if you were interviewing.

Try asking him about:

1) what keeps him up at night
2) what his dream goals are for the group, and what is keeping him / them from getting there
3) what he wishes were different
4) who he genuinely admires in the industry
posted by sestaaak at 1:54 PM on December 6, 2011 [5 favorites]

I'm going to buck the trend here and suggest that you do think of it as an interview, just a less formal one. Someone arranged for a friend to meet with someone from an organization where my friend wanted to work. My friend regretted not thinking of it as an interview. Had she anticipated that it would be more like an interview, she would have prepared differently.

I guess the best approach would be to hope for the best (a nice conversation with someone who could hire you down the road) but prepare for the worst (it's actually more like an interview than not). Be prepared to talk about yourself in the best way possible. Don't be self-deprecating but don't brag either. But also be prepared to ask them a lot of questions. People like talking about themselves and asking questions shows that you're interested in what they have to say - who wouldn't want someone like that working for them?
posted by kat518 at 1:56 PM on December 6, 2011

I've actually conducted several informational interviews, mainly a few years ago when I decided that I wanted to move into an entirely new career.

The main reasons that I conducted them was not to get a job directly through the person, but find out everything possible so that I could land a similar job in another place. In additional, I wanted to make sure that the next job was a better fit, so I asked to make sure that it was. Depending on the generosity of the person (how long are they willing to sit there), I asked question such as: Would they review my CV/resume (there are often specific formats, which match the job -- they can tell you this; there are also "hot" trends in your area, and they can tell you what an HR person or VP, etc., may look for);what are similar job titles (this is great for searching through databases with jobs, such as; what would they recommend that I do to make myself a more desirable candidate (e.g. it may be training, a class, whatever); how did they get their job (there are many, many ways into the job...some really simple - ask); what do they like about their job/dislike'/what is the typical salary range (basically make sure the job is a good fit for you; who else would recommend that I talk to (don't stop there, get many, many perspectives; are there other companies that do what they do. Notice the last part? You can send out your CV/resume later to these other companies, even if you don't see a job listing.

I'm compromised for time right now, but I've posted how I used to conduct info interviews here and here. Good luck.
posted by Wolfster at 1:56 PM on December 6, 2011 [5 favorites]

Ask what kinds of skills or knowledge you could be aquiring that would make you a better candidate for the next job posting.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 2:09 PM on December 6, 2011

And an informational interview is the perfect chance to... get more informational interviews! I never leave one without asking for suggestions for (and introductions to) three people who could be great to learn from - who do what the person you're talking to does in a competing company, or someone higher up or parallel in the company who are good resources, or someone who's made the switch you'd like to make, etc.

And yes, don't walk into it blind - ask knowledgeable questions that reflect you have studied up on the industry, the company, what the person does, and what their major successes have been.
posted by sestaaak at 2:51 PM on December 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm going to buck the trend here and suggest that you do think of it as an interview, just a less formal one.

I came in here to say the same thing. As I've said elsewhere on AskMe, a lot of internal candidates lose out on opportunities because they don't treat these types of discussions as seriously as external candidates take their "real" interviews, yet they can count just as much.

You've made a great impression on this guy, and he thinks you might be right for his department. Maybe he has a job opening, maybe he will soon. (You'd be really surprised how many peoeple get hired during hiring freezes, by the way.) Prep for this interview just like you'd prep for any other, with two major exceptions: (1) neither his questions of you, nor your questions of him, will be background questions about the company where you/he work; and (2), you're able to speak much more freely about the work you do, your clients, projects, etc.

Congrats on getting this offer - make it count!
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 3:00 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's a great chance to make personal connection and increase your network. It may not directly result in a job, but it is intrinsically good to meet other people and participate in community.

Anyway, in your meeting, come prepared with questions. Make sure at least one of the questions prompts some sort of narrative (eg, "Could you tell me a little bit about your career path and how you got here?") and be prepared to listen, listen, listen.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:25 PM on December 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Nthing the suggestion to come prepared. I came prepared with a list of questions as well as homemade cookies; it went well. If homemade goodies are little hardcore, you can always bring coffee or something. Just make sure they know how much you appreciate their time and effort in doing this for you.
posted by monkeys with typewriters at 6:22 PM on December 6, 2011

I've gone on about 20 informational interviews in the past 6 months. That is what happens to you when you graduate from grad school in this miserable economy into a field that depends entirely on (currently unpopular though necessary) government expenditure.

I treated each one like a real job interview. Some of the informational interviewers treated them like real job interviews too, and some were much less formal. Some were very helpful and gave me more contacts and lots of advice, and some were very unhelpful and suggested I look into becoming a bartender or a waitress with my shiny and expensive new masters degree.

It is through one of these informational interviews that I got my current job. I went in and just had a conversation with my to-be boss. We talked about projects that were being worked on in his (now my) department, and projects I'd done in school. We talked about many things. I said to him very frankly that I would really love to work there, and he said that there wasn't currently an opening but if one happened, he'd let me know. Then the next week, he called me and said that he made an opening, and now I work there.
posted by millipede at 8:47 PM on December 6, 2011

Just wanted to ads this question:
"If you wanted to discourage someone from this role/field, what would you say?"
posted by jander03 at 12:41 PM on December 7, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks, all! Lots of good info here, and I'm glad I have some time to prepare. And work was extra stupid today, so I'm even more excited at the chance to make some sort of positive step toward getting out.
posted by JoanArkham at 4:55 PM on December 7, 2011

Response by poster: Oh...and do you think I should bring a written list of questions, or would that be weird?
posted by JoanArkham at 5:39 AM on December 8, 2011

Definitely bring a list of questions. Again, it makes you look prepared to make the most of the time this person is giving you. I would see it as a good thing, not a weird thing.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 6:03 AM on December 8, 2011

Oh...and do you think I should bring a written list of questions, or would that be weird?

No, that would be OK. You may also want to take notes of people, companies and other opportunities that the person might mention, so your questions could be on a separate page of your notebook.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:19 AM on December 8, 2011

as with any interview, WRITE THAT THANK YOU NOTE!
posted by sestaaak at 11:23 PM on December 9, 2011

Response by poster: Had the interview, and I think it went well. The person I spoke to seemed more interested in networking with my side of the building than in giving me any tips on moving over there though. Still, it was a good contact to make, and I met some other folks in his department I might be able to work with on some resume-building projects.

Thanks again, everyone!
posted by JoanArkham at 5:40 AM on December 30, 2011

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