Information Station

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Make Informational Interviews Help Your Job Search

Research and networking complement each other in your job search. One under-used strategy takes advantage of that overlap and should be part of every applicant’s arsenal: the informational interview.

Despite its value, the informational interview has become the poor relation in the family of career strategies. It gets little attention in job-hunting guides, but it should be a standard tactic for job seekers. If anything, the fact that it is so often forgotten makes it more valuable to those who take the trouble to do something a little different.

The informational interview can best be introduced by describing what it is not. First, it is emphatically not a job interview.

An informational interview takes place between a professional employed in a particular field and an individual who is either considering a similar career or is already working in that same field or a related industry.

In a job interview, you often know little, if anything, about the person across the table. It may be someone from the company’s human resources staff, an interviewer who has some definite notions of proper interview subjects but little or no direct experience of the job opening in question.

The best person to choose is someone with hands-on, day-to-day experience in your field of interest, someone who knows the job from the inside, even if she has not the slightest notion of hiring procedures or staff recruitment.

In the worst case, an informational interview might teach you that your picture of the work bears little resemblance to reality. That can be a profoundly deflating bit of knowledge, but it is almost always better to have your illusions shattered early on, when you still have the opportunity to regroup and consider a different career path.

Seeking Out Informational Interview Opportunities

The first and most obvious step is to have a clear idea of the career or careers that interest you the most. Once you have narrowed the field, excellent places to start your search for potential interview candidates are professional associations, current business contacts, friends, teachers, and online job networking groups.

If you are just starting out, your resource list may be short and not especially helpful, but don’t be discouraged. That list will likely expand once you participate in an informational interview or two.

Before you start that search, take some time to make the most of your LinkedIn profile. When you contact someone through the site, your profile is the first place they’ll look. You can, of course, attach a copy of your resume to any messages you send, but it’s preferable to let contacts ask for it in their own time. Bombarding contacts with resumes is not the way to win their hearts and minds, and you can be certain they’ll check your profile in any event. Make sure it’s ready.

How to Land an Informational Interview

First, prepare. Take plenty of time to research companies or potential interviewees on your list. Learn about their job descriptions and relevant business ventures. If the industry is completely new to you, be prepared to learn some of the terminology and job specifics before making any interview requests. Going into an informational interview with a bit of insight shows motivation, enthusiasm, and genuine interest.

Developing a List of Interview Questions

Since you have already done some of the basic research, you should now hone in on the specifics. Find out more about your interviewee and, especially, about the latest developments in the field. If you do that, you will be able to ask questions that are more meaningful and more personalized, and asking good questions is one more way to demonstrate your genuine interest and your relevant knowledge.

You will want to compile a list of questions beforehand that cover those aspects of the work that are most important to you. Keep your questions open-ended. Questions that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” are dead ends. In order for you to gain any insight from the experience, the interview must expand into a working conversation between two people with shared interests. Open-ended questions push things in that direction.

The Day of the Informational Interview

Prepare by reviewing your notes and questions the day before the interview, and plan what you will wear. Dress professionally to make a good first impression.

Make a last-minute check of industry news. If something big has happened in the past few days, you want to be able to discuss it, and it can be a source of interview questions that touch on subjects that may already be on your contact’s mind.

Bring along your list of questions, note-taking materials, and your resume or portfolio. You are not going to thrust your resume into your contact’s hand, but you want to have it available if asked for it.

During the encounter, keep an eye on the time. Unless the contact indicates a willingness to spend additional time with you, stick to the allotted period. If the limit is approaching, bring that up. That kind of awareness is a nice way to demonstrate your respect for the interviewee’s time and his willingness to spend some of it on you. Don’t hesitate to personalize the request: “If you were in my shoes, what would you do?”

Before the meeting wraps up, ask the contact for any recommendations concerning your goals. You can also ask if there are other contacts within the industry who might be willing to participate in an informational interview.

Thank your contact again, ask for a business card, and find out if it is acceptable for you to make contact in the future for industry-related purposes.

Following Through After the Meeting

Post-interview etiquette is extremely important and, properly managed, can lead to good things.

The first order of business is to send a thank-you note within 48 hours of the interview. Your thank-you note does not have to be your last communication. One strategy that may help you tap into a company’s hidden job market is to offer an occasional update.

The Long-Term Rewards

The informational interview is the best kind of rehearsal for actual job interviews. The situation is much the same, and you have the opportunity to practice your presentation in a setting that cannot be duplicated elsewhere.

You become more confident and you gain knowledge of your field from the inside. That combination is exactly the recipe that will make you stand out in future interactions with potential employers.

If you need an experienced career coach to help you advance to the next level, I can help you craft agame plan that includes informational interviews, a resume, and LinkedIn to get you to your goal.

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