Informational Interviews: The Secret to Career Advancement

These exploratory sessions can help with the job hunt. Here’s how to make the most of them.

Written by Lisa Bertagnoli
Published on Mar. 05, 2022
Informational Interviews: The Secret to Career Advancement
REVIEWED BY
Sara Simmons | Jul 08, 2022

Are you at a career crossroads? Looking to switch jobs or industries? Someone out there can help, even if they can’t offer you a job. Ask them for an informational interview.

What Is an Informational Interview?

An informational interview takes place with a person who can help you learn more about a field, company or job you’re interested in pursuing. Informational interviews are not job interviews, but they can help make connections that will someday result in a job offer. 

“Informational interviews are conversations with other people who are in a field or industry that interests you and may be in the position to help you through the career exploration and job search process,” said Karen Weiss, director of career readiness and employer relations at Pepperdine Graziadio Business School. These interviews are “integral to any networking and career growth strategy.”

 

What Is an Informational Interview?

An informational interview connects you with other people who, by sharing their experience and knowledge, can help you handle career challenges. You might be freshly graduated, or mulling a career change, interested in a job at a new company or eager to build out your network. You have questions, and an informational interview with the right person can help answer them. 

“Informational interviews and networking are simply ways to meet people and grow relationships important to you.”

“Informational interviews and networking are simply ways to meet people and grow relationships important to you,” said Carla Hunter, career advisor at University of Phoenix. “Informational interviews can be a lot of fun and you can meet interesting people who you may connect with at another time down the road.” 

An informational interview might lead to a job offer, but it’s not the place to ask for one. “The number one thing we tell job seekers is that an informational interview is not a job interview,” Weiss said. “The emphasis is on learning about a new industry or function through a new contact, demonstrating initiative and motivation, and tapping into new information, resources and contact.” 

More on Career DevelopmentEssential Interpersonal Skills Everyone Should Develop

 

Whom to Ask for an Informational Interview

Ask to talk to people who’ve been in your shoes, Weiss recommends. They can speak from experience and in detail, including how they ended up in a particular field or company, the steps on their career path, and the skills and education they needed to get where they are. 

Weiss and others suggest reaching out to people you know, rather than strangers — or at the very least people with whom you have a connection. For instance, you went to the same college or share a few close business acquaintances. They’re more likely to agree to give you their time. 

If you are interested in a role at a particular company, look for people who are in your dream role at that company. They’ve already navigated the process and can share their experience. Former employees can also share insight, and might be more honest about their experiences with the company.

 

How to Ask for an Informational Interview

Most professionals have been helped in the past, and they’ll often agree as a way of paying it forward. 

You’re not selling anyone a product (nor should you even think about doing so in this situation), so a cold call can be successful, said Andy Crestodina, co-founder and chief marketing officer at Orbit Media Studios in Chicago. Even so, the call shouldn’t be ice-cold. Connect with the person, follow them and get to know a bit about them before making the request. A connection immediately followed by an ask “is never ideal,” Crestodina added.

When you feel you have been connected long enough to contact the person, send what Crestodina calls “a brief, courteous, low-pressure ask.” He offered this example: 

Hi there!

I’m hoping to have a conversation with someone about [company/role/industry] just to learn a bit about what it’s like on the inside. I’m not actually looking for a new position, but I’m in learning and research mode.

Would you be open to having a quick conversation over Zoom? It would be very brief. Maybe 10 minutes tops!

If this is bad timing, no worries at all. But if you could spend a few minutes with me, I’d be super grateful. 

Thanks in advance! 

“It’s not a pitch and you don’t want anything beyond a short call, so it’s more likely to get a positive response,” Crestodina said. If they say no? Keep looking. “No one is obligated to give free advice to strangers from the internet,” he said. 

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Important Informational Interview Questions to Ask

What you ask during the interview depends on whether you’re looking for intel on a prospective employer, info on a new field, or general career direction. For any of those scenarios, the interviewer should walk away with a clear answer to this question: “‘What’s a day in the life like for someone inside this company, role or industry?’” said Crestodina.

Important Informational Interview Questions to Ask

  • How did you wind up in this type of work?
  • What are your main responsibilities?
  • What do you like most and least about your work?
  • What are your greatest challenges?
  • What do I need to learn to be a more attractive candidate for this field or company?
  • Whom can I follow/what can I read to learn more about this company or field?
  • How would hiring managers in your career view someone with my resume?
  • What kind of people do well in this job or industry?
  • Are compensation and benefits typical?
  • What kind of people do well in this industry?

 

Questions About Jobs

You love your job. Okay, you like your job. Yet you can’t help but wonder what else is out there. You aren’t alone, as 72 percent of 500-plus professionals surveyed for a TopResume poll described their relationship with their employer as “open,” meaning they have a job but keep an eye out for opportunities. 

“There’s such a small percentage of people who are really in love with their jobs [13 percent] that everyone is aware that people are looking,” said Amanda Augustine, career advisor at TopResume.

Even so, she advises discretion for these kinds of informational interviews. Use your personal email and equipment to arrange and conduct them. Don’t badmouth your employer during the interview, even if you’re seriously unhappy. “Some level of tact needs to be applied and some thought put into your answers,” Augustine said. For instance, you might term your relationship with the company as “not seeing eye to eye,” or the company experiencing “growing pains,” or other anodyne phrases.

Amy Zimmerman, chief people officer at Atlanta, Georgia-based digital payments company Relay Payments, has hired and helped many people get hired as a result of informational interviews. “Take the time, but go into the meeting with no expectations beyond networking and connecting,” she said.

Here are questions she advises people to ask during an informational interview.

What are your main responsibilities? It’s the job description, and you want to know if it meshes with your strengths and career desires. 

What is a typical day (or week) like for you? If you don’t like what you’d be doing every day or over the course of a week, this position (or company) might not be for you. The person might mention many meetings, or travel, or just sitting at the same desk eight hours a day, five days a week. Is that you? 

What do you like most about your work? Here, listen for the keywords that get you excited about work: Challenges. Collaboration. Creative thinking. Autonomy. Or the opposite of those words. 

What do you like least about your work? No job is perfect. Find out what’s imperfect about this company and/or job so you can decide whether they’re dealbreakers. 

What kinds of problems do you deal with? Will these issues spark your creativity and tap your management skills? Or send you running?

What kinds of decisions do you make? Ask this to get an idea of the responsibility people at this company have, and also the measure of autonomy or oversight management wields. An answer of “none, my boss makes all the decisions” or “all the decisions, there’s really no org chart” will clue you in to company structure and protocol. 

Orbit Media Studios’ Crestodina recommends asking these questions, depending on your comfort level with the other person:

How many hours per week do people there generally put in? You’re not asking because you’re lazy, right? The answer will reveal the workload and with any luck the company’s attitude toward productivity. 

Do the people there have long tenures? Long-term stays might indicate a great company — or a “velvet handcuffs” situation, where the benefits and pay are so good that people don’t leave, despite dissatisfaction. Short-term tenures might indicate a poorly run company — or that this company is a place to get a good grounding in a certain field and then move on. 

Are the compensation and benefits pretty typical? Sounds like a nosy question, and on one level it is, yet you need to know whether compensation and benefits are in line with what you want. Avoid asking the person how much they make. 

What does the ideal candidate’s background look like? Match your resume with the answer in order to fill in the blanks or decide to move on. 

What skills and traits are critical? You can compare the answers with your resume and find out what skills you have and what you need to acquire should you more formally explore opportunities with this company. Asking about traits can indicate how well your personality will fit in at this company.

More on Interviews15 Good Questions to Ask in an Interview

 

Questions About Different Industries

Informational interviews can be game-changers if you’re mulling a move to a different industry. This interest might develop over time, as it did for Andrea Ippolito. Early in her career, Ippolito was a biomedical engineer, but became more and more interested in career paths outside of engineering. “I loved being technical, but found myself drawn to the business side,” said Ippolito, founder and CEO of Simplifed, an Ithaca, New York-based telehealth platform focused on lactation, infant nutrition and on-demand virtual support for new parents.

Ippolito joined several networking groups and did volunteer work to build her network. That led to introductions to leaders across her field, with whom she did, on average, one informational interview a week. The information Ippolito gathered during those interviews led her to a business-side position in the medical field, which in turn led her to found Simplifed in 2020. 

When you’re exploring a new field, ask these questions during an informational interview, suggests Augustine from TopResume. 

Given that my core strengths are [   ], and I enjoy projects that use my [   ] skills, what roles would I be best suited for in your field? Asking this question can confirm your suspicion that you’d be good in a certain role, and help you discover other roles within the field.

Which specific skills or technologies should I learn to become a more attractive candidate? You’ll find the gaps in your resume, the better to decide whether it’s possible to go after these qualifications. For instance, the answer might be that an MBA is pretty much the standard for entry; you might have one, need one, or not want to earn one. 

Which groups, publications and social media accounts would help me learn more about this field? A short informational interview can only yield so much. Asking this question shows you’re curious and will also help you conduct your own research into the field. 

What else should I know when considering a career in this field? Don’t leave without asking this open-ended, catchall question. You might discover, for instance, that a coming tech advancement will seriously alter the field, in a way that’s appealing (or not appealing) to you. The answer might be “nothing, really,” or it might be an eye opener. 

 

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Questions About Career Direction

Danielle Benson, performance marketing manager, retail at New York-based men’s grooming product company Harry’s, was enrolled in a pre-med program when she realized that marketing was her true calling. Benson’s aunt had a connection to Amanda Augustine, and Benson emailed Augustine to arrange an informational interview. The two met for lunch in New York City for about an hour, Benson recalled.

“I remember starting with the question ‘Who is Amanda?’” Benson said. “I wanted to better understand who she was and how I could leverage her experience.” Benson researched how to prepare for an informational interview and came up with the following questions.

What did you study in college? How does it relate to your current job? Benson wanted to discover which major she should pursue; she ended up switching to communications. 

What is your day-to-day in marketing like? “I wanted to know if marketing is something I really could get excited about and want to pursue,” Benson said. 

What are different marketing jobs and what skills are required for each one? Marketing was a new world to Benson. “I knew it was a huge umbrella and wasn’t sure where to start when it came to figuring out the type of experience I wanted to gain,” she said. 

Will switching to a marketing versus communications degree significantly impact my career opportunities? Switching to business school would have required two extra years of school for Benson, a sophomore in college at the time of the interview. “I learned that communications would be a fine choice and it wouldn’t limit my marketing career,” she said. 

How should I think about gaining experience in marketing in the next few years? Augustine helped Benson understand the high-level structures as well as pointers on finding internships. Benson was a college sophomore: “I knew junior year is when internships usually started so wanted to gain as much information as possible,” she said. 

Augustine was pleasant and helpful throughout the interview, which put Benson at ease. “I walked away feeling like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders, knowing I could switch to communications,” she said. All she needed to do was continue building her marketing portfolio. After the interview, she sent Augustine a handwritten thank-you note

The two stayed connected, and Benson eventually landed an internship at the company at which Augustine was working. “Meeting Amanda made all the difference in my career and for that I’ll be forever thankful,” said Benson.

More on Job SearchingLooking for a New Job? Remember These 3 Things.

 

Informational Interviews: Best Questions to Ask | Video: Jeff Su

How to Conduct an Informational Interview

One reason Benson learned so much from her informational interview? She prepared for it and led the conversation, Augustine said. That’s one of the many suggestions experts offered for conducting a successful interview.

How to Conduct an Informational Interview

  • Take the lead.
  • Treat it like a job interview.
  • Focus on getting the information you want.
  • Respect the other person’s time and say “thank you.”
  • Keep your questions professional.

Take charge. This is your party. The person whose time you requested will expect you to take the lead with the conversation. Conversations can and do wander off topic. Even so, have a few initial questions to get the ball rolling. “Have a clear objective of what you’re trying to learn,” Augustine added. 

Treat it like a job interview. It’s not, but conduct yourself as if it were. Dress professionally, use professional language and pick up the check if you’re meeting at a restaurant. You’re presenting yourself at this meeting. Whether it’s with a stranger or an acquaintance, show yourself to be the professional you are.

Focus on your goals. “Rather than attempting to ask questions to impress your interviewee, focus on questions you genuinely want the answer to,” said Kyle Elliott, a Paso Robles, California-based career coach. Questions about company culture, an interviewee’s typical day, or industry best practices will yield useful answers. 

Respect the other person’s time. When asking for the interview, request a modest amount of time and let the other person expand the time frame. Elliott recommends asking for a 20-minute phone call or video conversation, or even offering to send questions via email if the person seems swamped. 

Say “thank you. In person, and with an email and handwritten card within 24 hours of the interview. “Stay top of mind by keeping in contact after the conversation,” Elliott said.  

Avoid overly personal questions. Asking how much the person makes, where they are from or if they have children isn’t appropriate in a professional setting. This is particularly true if you are meeting the interviewee for the first time.

And you might well be. Most professionals will gladly offer their time when it seems clear that the person asking has prepared and will ask the right questions. “It takes courage to approach a business leader you may not know,” said Meighan Newhouse, CEO and cofounder of Inspirant Group, a management consulting company based in Naperville, Illinois. 

Newhouse remembers how generous people were with their time when she was an early-career professional. “It makes me feel good to pay it forward,” she said. “You never know when someone with the right skills and experience you meet from an informational interview could turn into a job candidate.”  

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