How to conduct an informational interview
September 6, 2012 11:22 AM   Subscribe

What questions does one ask in an informational interview so as not to appear to be looking for a new job?

I'm doing a mentoring program at the large institution where I've worked for 6 years. My mentor and I are both clear that a new job, outside of my current department, but within the institution is a possibility and something to consider. For now, though, he thinks I should go on a bunch of informational interviews to figure out if there are opportunities within other departments and/or whether I'd be a good match. Some of the interviews will be with people I've met before, some will be with unfamiliar people.

I'm supposed to come up with a list of questions I think would be good to ask but I'm also told that I should be careful of looking like I'm asking for a job. So what do I ask?

I've done plenty of regular job interviews but hardly any informational interviews in my career and the ones I did were probably 20 years ago.
posted by otherwordlyglow to Work & Money (7 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
What are the problems that you're currently facing?
How are you trying to address them?
What opportunities do you see for expanding your group/department's role?

You want to throw out softballs to get the interviewees talking. If something comes up that you match with, start discussing the problem/opportunity in detail, just as a matter of talking shop. Talking shop is the key thing here -- this should be a casual and cool exchange of ideas.

No overt references to wanting a job. If you have good insight on the matter, the manager will take notice.

Keep an eye out for postings from these departments in the future.
posted by bfranklin at 11:31 AM on September 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

Well... isn't the whole point of informational interviews that one is looking for a new job? I mean, what's the point otherwise?

I think the advice here is to make it clear that though you may be on the market, you don't expect anything out of any particular interview other than, well, information and potentially a few networking leads. If you aren't on the market at all, why bother? Everyone knows that. But people can be a little uncomfortable if someone asks them for an "informational interview" while strongly hinting that what they really want is a job offer. That's what you've got to avoid.
posted by valkyryn at 11:52 AM on September 6, 2012

I learned about Ask a Manager from a job-related AskMe, and I find the blog really helpful/interesting. I'd look into her posts on the subject.
posted by radioamy at 12:08 PM on September 6, 2012 [4 favorites]

Any question other than "are you hiring" is a good question. Its more important to have specific on topic questions for each person, rather than a generic informational interview script.

The less you speak, the better.
posted by JPD at 12:58 PM on September 6, 2012

I did about 50 or 60 of these when I first moved to Houston. It eventually became kind of fun, but it was hard to get into the swing of it at first. Some good conversation starters are:

Tell me about what you do.

How does your job integrate into this institution's mission?

What skills did you possess that helped you to land this position?

What does your team you look for in a new hire? (This may be too close to job-seeking language, but you can judge whether it is appropriate for each meeting.)

People love to talk about themselves and what they do. Basically, let them do most of the talking and allow the conversation to evolve. Be interested and learn what they have to teach you.

Good luck!
posted by blurker at 1:48 PM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: here's what I have so far, given a little bit of online research and some suggestions here. I guess I need to clarify for myself whether I'm asking about the specific job that the interviewee has, or whether I'm interested in the area they supervise. I think what I'm really after is information about the latter but I might need to ask more about the former to get there. Anyway, they two areas of questions are:

Can you tell me a little bit about your current responsibilities?
Why did this type of work interest you?
Briefly, can you let me know how you got to where you are today?
What were the keys to your career advancement? How did you get where you are and what are your long-range goals?
What is a typical day at your job really like?
What are the most important parts of your job?
How does your job integrate into this institution's mission?
How has your job affected your lifestyle?
What are the major frustrations and rewards of your job?

What are the various jobs available in this department?
What's the corporate culture like here?
How would you describe the working atmosphere and the people with whom you work?
What opportunities do you see for expanding your group/department's role within the university?
How does a person progress in this department? What is a typical career path?
What are the skills that are most important for a position in this department?
How does one value/measure results and effectiveness in this department?
What are the challenges that this department currently faces? How are they being addressed?
How is the economy/budget affecting this department?
What are the future trends for this field?
posted by otherwordlyglow at 2:26 PM on September 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

I do this a lot as party of my job. I'm never looking for a new role, it's just smart to have some idea what the rest of the machine is doing. And having a small rolodex to call when you need that knowledge.

The biggest trick: Ignore that inner voice trying to promote yourself and follow your curiosity. Don't ask about the job. Ask about the work.

Imagine it's your best friend's new job. You primarily want to find out all about their shiny new job. You know what your job looks like, so use that as an anchor. Bond over the similarities, be interested in the differences. Or conversely, be grateful you don't have to deal with the differences.

I wouldn't prepare too much structure. If the conversation hits a brick-wall, cut it short. You can always follow-up on another date. They will appreciate that you don't waste their time. (Conversely, if they don't want to get back to work, they will move heaven and earth to make the conversation stretch another half hour.)

My very vague list would look something like this:

How does this department fit into the big picture?
What roles are you trying to branch into, what are you trying to farm out to other folks?
If you had extra bandwidth, what projects would your team want to take on?
What departments are your biggest customers? What departments are your suppliers?
What's your day to day look like? How much is project vs regular work?

I wouldn't straight up ask about corporate culture. It's a loaded term, and people give loaded answers. I'll usually ask about availability. Are they leaving early to pick up their kids? Do they work remotely some days? Are certain parts of the month less busy than others? If they're willing to gossip about corporate culture, they'll bring it up. Otherwise I would read between the lines regarding anything they say.
posted by politikitty at 5:51 PM on September 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

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