A reader writes:
You’ve written before about how NOT to behave in an informational interview (i.e. use it to try to get a job), but I wonder what you recommend to get the most out of them when you’re approaching the meeting with the proper mindset.
I’m about six months away from getting a masters degree, and another student in my program recently arranged for me to have lunch with her and a family friend. She organized the lunch because the family friend works in an industry related to the particular niche of our field I’d like to work in. This was an incredibly kind thing of her to do, but it was rather short notice, and I scrambled to come up with questions.
I asked a few specific things about the direction the industry is going in, and a few questions about a new side project her company has that’s of particular interest to me, but I fear that beyond that she was left to lead the conversation more than I would have liked. She did so wonderfully, giving us a tour of the building, asking me about myself, showing me the software she uses, etc. I wonder though, how I might have made more of this networking opportunity. Obviously some questions are specific to industry and situation, but do you have any across-the-board recommendations (beyond being prepared) for making the most of informational interviews, particularly ones you didn’t seek out?
Like with asking questions in interviews, my advice on this is to spend some time really thinking about what you genuinely want to know from this person who has experience in your field. That’s probably going to lead you to questions I’d never think of, like or “how do you handle the frustration of X?” or “how have the new regulations on Y played out in your work?”
In other words, don’t just focus on being impressive (which is the pitfall a lot of people fall into), but think seriously about what you’re really wondering about. I can promise you that this person doesn’t want to spend their time answering questions that you’re asking because you saw a list that suggested asking them; they want to answer the stuff you’re really dying to know. (I’m not saying that’s where you’re coming from — I just see it so much that I need to raise it.)
Now that that disclaimer is out there, here are some questions that I think are great to ask in informational interviews:
- What do you wish you’d known about the field before starting in it? Do you think there are common misperceptions people have about this work as they’re looking to get into it?
- What types of people do you think really succeed in this field? What types have more trouble?
- One thing I’m worried about is ___. Do you think that has any merit?
- Do you have thoughts on the best things I can do to stay current in the field — things to read, organizations to join, people to talk to?
- Who do you feel are the best employers in the field? Why? Are there any you’d caution me to stay away from?
- Are you able to give me a sense of what kind of starting salaries you see for roles like X and Y?
- What are your/most people’s hours like? Are you able to leave work behind when you leave, or do you need to stay pretty connected in the evenings and on weekends?
- Anything you see job candidates around my level doing that you think really hurts them? Or that you wish people would do differently?
- Can I tell you a little about my background and experience so far, and see if you have any suggestions for things I might do to strengthen myself as a candidate?
- Do you think I’m being realistic about the roles I’m aiming for in this next step?
What other suggestions do people have?