the definitive guide to informational interviews

lily comba

Informational interviews have been the most valuable practice for my career development. Period.

But “informational interview” is a really, really big phrase… And it can be scary, nauseating, and awkward. Some call informational interviews “networking,” which I’m not sure makes it sound less intimidating. However, let me assure you: an informational interview is nothing more than a casual conversation. Really, it’s an informal discourse between two people who want to learn about each other – no pressure, no worry. But informational interviews can lead to big things. Actually, more like huge things. I realize that not freaking out about networking and informational interviews is easier said than done, so take it from the Queen of Networking, you can do it.

Finding someone to interview. 

Using LinkedIn and life connections, finding someone in a career or area of interest is easy. The best way to connect with people on LinkedIn? Share groups. By searching for companies, positions, anything, you’ll be presented with a list of members who have those keywords. Messaging them through group will be the best way to contact them. But do yourself a favor, only contact people you really want to talk to. If you have a kinda/sorta/maybe have interest in a specific person, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with asking for more detail – however – your interest should be translatable. In other words, you should be able to talk about why they interest you, why what they’re doing matters to you, and all in an engaging way. Don’t sound bored or distanced, because you don’t want someone (who may potentially have a big impact on your future) to feel like their time and advice is unappreciated.

Your elevator pitch. 

The spiel that sets the stage. Right as the conversation begins, thank them for taking the time to speak with you, then briefly (I’m talking 2-3 sentences) introduce yourself. The criteria? (1) Why they interest you (2) What experience you have that has made you want to learn about them (3) What you’re looking for. For example: “Thank you so much for talking with me today! After my internship at The Getty this summer, I’m interested in pursuing internships in Museum Collection Management, which is why I was so excited to find your profile on LinkedIn. I would love to learn more about your career narrative and role as Senior Vice President.” Then lead into your first question with, “That being said: How did you get your start at LACMA?” Of course, we’re not all interested in working at a museum, you get the idea.

Talking about yourself within questions. 

This is one key element that has come with practice. When I first started conducting informational interviews, I was just asking questions. It was bland. And although I learned a lot, the person I was interviewing was getting nothing in return. The people you interview want to learn about you, too! That’s the only way they can help you achieve your goals.

Preface some questions, definitely not all, with a little transition about you. For example: “The extensive research I did this summer on antibiotic molecules really opened my eyes to pharmaceutical practices, at what point did you learn being a Pharmacist was your true calling?” Your interviewee may not ask you about your experiences or goals, so willingly adding that bit of information is necessary.

Repeat important information.

Listen for key words, key phrases, key jargon. By mentioning small details that they’ve said, you’ll show you’re listening actively. This is a particularly good tactic in asking new questions. For example, “So you mentioned the history requirement for Stanford Medical School, why does that matter in admitting a student?” So I don’t know if Stanford Medical School has a history requirement for their pre-med applicants, but something that's seemingly unrelated to the area of medicine is likely not typically discussed at length. So ask about it!

Follow-up. 

Take notes during your interview. Write down questions ahead of time and write down their responses. If you feel more comfortable typing questions and responses, then do that. But don’t feel the need to write down every single word they say – write down the highlights so you can focus on the conversation. If you have a shared interest, even better! Both went sky diving in New Zealand? Mention that (because wow). This material can be used in your follow-up email to refresh their memory. Thank them, again, for taking the time to talk and mention you would love to keep in touch. Maintaining your relationship with an interviewee is equally as vital as actually contacting them in the first place.

Ready now? YES. I can’t stress enough the importance of informational interviews – they not only help you learn, they get your foot in the door. The more people you know, the more advocates you have for your professional development. We all need a little support here and there, and finding that support on your own is not only rewarding… it’s empowering. Let’s get networking!