can informational interviews actually be useful?

If you’ve ever read any job search advice, you’ve probably come across the recommendation to do “informational interviews,” especially if you’re early in your career or trying to switch fields. What are informational interviews? And can they really help you?

The answer is … maybe. It depends entirely on what your goals are in doing them and how you approach them.

At New York Magazine today, I talk about how to get them, how to make them useful, what to ask — and what not to do. You can read it here.

{ 48 comments… read them below }

  1. been there, done that

    I’m asked to do informational interviews a few times a year. I _always_ feel like the person is angling for a job, especially if I learn that they’ve already met with colleagues at other firms or with my boss. I’ve also had people ask to do an informational interview and then, when I say that we have no open positions, essentially say “never mind.”

    To date, I have not hired anyone I’ve given an informational interview to.

    I did a mentorship last year with a college senior and felt like I was more helpful to that person than to any of the people I’ve given informational interviews to, perhaps because it wasn’t a one-time contact.

    I’m less and less inclined to do these sorts of interviews because they really feel like a waste of time for me, but so far haven’t gotten to the point of actually stopping; in fact, a few days ago I agreed to do another one.

    1. Bulbasaur

      I had the reverse experience once as a recent graduate. I asked for an informational interview with a local company and they agreed. Then I showed up and found them asking a lot of questions about me that took on more and more of the character of a job interview.

      It was awkward because I was unprepared for it, and it derailed me a bit, so I didn’t get as much value out of the interview as I had hoped (not least because I ended up answering questions more than asking them). From their point of view I imagine they assumed it was a disguised job interview request, as in the cases you described, and decided for whatever reason to go with it. Now that I am older and wiser I like to think I would be alert to the possibility that it would be interpreted that way, and either be better prepared to handle it or explicitly rule it out up front if I genuinely wasn’t interested. But at that stage I was pretty new at the whole thing.

      (They ended up asking me what my salary expectations were. I didn’t have any yet, so I repeated one I’d heard from another student conducting a search in similar fields, and it turned out to be well out of their range).

      1. Darrow

        Is it possible the company misunderstood you and thought this was a job interview? Or maybe they just had no idea what an informational interview actually is. Either way it is completely understandable that you would be thrown off by this! Did they end up offering you a job?

        1. Bulbasaur

          I think it was just general interview inexperience on their part. It did start out more or less as I would expect for an informational interview – there were no formal introductions, we didn’t discuss interview process, etc. I’m not even sure I showed them a resume.

          They didn’t offer me a job – that angle abruptly vanished right after the salary range conversation, which makes me think we were a long way apart. But everything up to that point was sounding like they might have.

  2. Guacamole Bob

    When I was contemplating going back to school for a career-change masters degree in my late 20’s, I emailed a bunch of alumni from my undergrad institution in the field I was considering and did informational interviews (mainly by phone) with a few. It was hugely helpful in figuring out what characteristics I should look for in a graduate program, which part of the field I might want to focus on, etc.

    The fact that I was able to be clear up front that I wasn’t at the stage of looking for a job probably helped a lot – people were happy to take 20 minutes to chat about their own career paths and give me some food for thought.

    1. Psyche

      I feel like that is the best time to do an informational interview. I did a lot of informational interviews when thinking about a career change. I knew I would need more training to make the transition so I was asking mostly how useful the various options were to prep for the career change. Once it became clear that I was trying to find out how to become qualified for the job and not angling for a job right now, a lot of them became much friendlier.

  3. Economist

    The most productive informational interviews that I’ve agreed to do are those where a faculty member contacted me to meet with a student or graduate. In those cases the individual truly wanted to learn about the field. I would tell them about the nature of the work and about job possibilities within the field and encourage them to apply to a variety of organizations, some they did not know about or consider before.

    1. Guacamole Bob

      Come to think of it I did a couple like this, too. I was finishing up grad school and moving to a particular city, so I had a couple of calls and emails with alumni. They knew I was job hunting but I also had genuine questions about public versus private sector, which local government agencies might be a good fit, etc. Government hiring can be its own source of frustration, and having some inside perspective helped even when the person didn’t have any openings.

      Having genuine questions is one of the biggest keys to making informational interviews work.

  4. Smarty Boots

    Our first year students have a required info interview in a career field they are interested in. It is one of their favorite assignments — almost all of them feel they learned a lot. Fairly often they learn that they are not interested in that field; they all learn that work is a lot more….work…than they realized. We do a lot of prep with them — they have to research the career, they have required questions and they have to generate at least a few of their own, they practice appropriate behaviors. Very very useful.

    1. Long Time Lurker

      I love this idea! And I’m the writer of the letter she linked to in this piece, about being frustrated with some of the informational interview requests I get. However, if it came from a school assignment and was guided by professors explaining the purpose behind it? I’d do that in a heartbeat. Sign me up!

    2. Hmmm

      I wish I had this requirement when I was in undergrad – that would have been very helpful. But I wonder if knowing what I knew now about my field would make me choose a different career path. For example, nobody at school told me about “office politics” or exactly how long the office hours were in Llama Grooming. I don’t regret choosing my career path at all – I find the work interesting but would I have considered something else at 18 – 21 years old?

    3. ACDC

      My school had this as well! Only difference was we had to do 5 interviews. It taught us a lot about networking too, because we weren’t allowed to do an informational interview with someone we knew personally (i.e. no family members, friends, etc.).

      1. Smarty Boots

        Five — whew! Over the course of four years? That’s a good idea.

        Our students can’t interview family members, either, and they have to interview a full time working adult (I have to approve it). But they can use family members and friends for networking. We talk about who they can network with, I point out that they’re at a large university = employs a lot of people in all sorts of jobs, we write email templates and phone scripts, and I have them network with each other: we make a list of the careers they’re interested in, then everyone notes on the list if they know someone in that field, so they are helping each other and networking in a low risk way. I enjoy reading their reports. Oh, and we have a mini workshop where they problem solve difficult situations, practice handshakes, that sort of thing.

  5. Smarty Boots

    I’ve given info interviews too, for people who are interested in my job. I’ve got zero hiring power so maybe that is why I’ve never had the problem of the fake info interview — it’s always been people who are genuinely interested.

    1. hermit crab

      Same here. I actually feel like conducting informational interviews is also useful for me (as the “interviewer”) – they’re great opportunities to take a step back and think about my job/career in a different light.

      I’m listed in my undergrad program’s alumni directory so I get contacted by several students each year. For the most part, they’re genuinely interested in learning what the field is like, how to go about looking for jobs, what sorts of skills to play up on a resume, etc. And in one or two cases, I’ve encouraged people to apply for an open position and it’s worked out really well for everyone.

  6. Blerghhh

    I have done two information interviews. In one, the person was clearly angling for a job and wasted my time pressuring me to put her in contact with the hiring manager at our firm. In the other, the person had great questions for me, was not at all pressuring me to help him find a job, and he seemed serious about switching fields so I offered (and did) put him in contact with the hiring manager for a firm where I had started my career, knowing that they hire people with zero experience. I don’t think they were hiring people at the time so nothing came of it, but yes, in my (very) limited experience being on this side of the “informational interview”, Alison’s advice is spot on!

  7. Artemesia

    I did informational interviews nearly 50 years ago trying to decide whether to go to law school or grad school so no job involved. It was extraordinarily helpful to focus on what lawyers did and how they liked their jobs and the personal characteristics that were compatible with law practice. I didn’t meet many lawyers who enjoyed what they were doing and the kind of life I saw was clearly not what I was looking for. One of the most helpful things I ever did in career development.

  8. yup

    I think the best source of informational interviews if you don’t already have a mutual contact is a professional association related to the field. You are reaching out to someone who already has a basic level of passion for their work and they enjoy networking. I’ve tried this a few times and have always gotten a response.

  9. Jbkites

    Informational interviews can also be helpful ‘mentally’ – especially if it’s during a tough job search and you’re getting no actually bites for a real interview. Going out and talking to somebody in the field – even just once a month – can be enough to hold back those negative thoughts from creeping in about how demoralizing, self-esteem bruising and lonely a job hunt can be . . .

    1. Rumbakalao

      Seems likely that those negative thoughts could easily come across to the informational interviewer as desperation if you’re not careful. And depending on the size of the industry, reaching out to people that frequently for informational interviews while you’re also applying for jobs there could look like you’re just fishing for a way around their hiring process.

  10. coffeeee

    Yes, they can be VERY useful. While working in one very large company, I had 15 informational interviews with people in other areas of the business. I wanted to find the best “fit” for me. It helped me discover my interests and where I wanted to work. It also helped me to identify areas I don’t want to work in or areas that might have a toxic culture.

    As a bonus I met my now mentor through that process. We’ve met every month for almost a year now and he’s been invaluable to me.

  11. Kittymommy

    I will forever be grateful to the gentleman high up in an in office in the State Department who did an informational interview with me. He gave some excellent advice about what to look for, how to get involved in the fielr and how the State was particularly different than other players in this arena.

  12. Overeducated

    I did a bunch of informational interviews about a year ago when I was considering switching sectors and doing a new type of work. Hands-down, my favorite question every time was “how did you get where you are?”, which I was surprised not to see on Alison’s list. I have an academic background in one of those fields that gets made fun of as useless, and many people I was interviewing with did as well, so getting a sense of the multiple paths people with our background could follow despite my so far pretty linear career path was great. (Every single person said, “Well, funny story, I never expected to end up here…” but the stories were not all that crazy!) I would also ask about what concrete next steps they’d recommend for me, and some people said I could pursue certain forms of training or have a stronger web presence, but others said “you’re qualified, start applying,” which was encouraging. None of them were hiring and that didn’t even come up, but if they were, that would’ve been a time when they could have said “we have a job, put your hat in the ring” without me directly asking.

    On the other hand, my spouse just got a job through one of these networking meetings, but I don’t think he used the phrase “informational interview.” There was still the angle of wanting to learn about people’s work, of course, but I don’t think he was coy at all about the reason being an ongoing job search.

    1. Overeducated

      I will also mention that my current supervisor takes employee professional development pretty seriously, and one suggestion has been setting up informational interviews with other people in our large organization who might have insight into what directions we could move in our careers. I think that’s awesome, since they can be quite useful in the planning stage, not just the searching stage. I haven’t actually done any of mine yet, it’s not urgent at the moment, but I appreciate the support for it.

    2. pleaset

      ““how did you get where you are?”

      This.

      I was getting a professional degree a few years ago, and in one of our classes we were required to meet with someone working in our field to learn about that they do and their career path, then report back to the class about it.

      This was very helpful.

  13. LadyByTheLake

    They can be okay, but don’t do what someone did to me — it was someone interested in switching fields, he did everything right — asked good questions, followed up etc. But then he reached out to me one year later with the EXACT SAME REQUEST (I still had the previous email so could compare). Up until that moment, I had had good feelings and was generally keeping an eye open for opportunities for him, but when I got that second email he went on my sh*t list. If he’d been open and specifically said that he was networking I wouldn’t have been so annoyed.

  14. CanCan

    I’ve given a couple of informational interviews to friends of a friend or relative – one to an undergraduate student thinking about going to law school, and another to a law school student. One wasn’t looking for a job, and the other – even if he was looking, I can’t remember – was told clearly by our mutual contact that I’m a very junior person in the firm and would have no ability to help him find a job. I think the interviews went well, as they both asked genuine, intelligent questions about what I do, what my job is actually like, what employers are actually looking for, challenges, etc.

  15. MM

    Hmm. My experience with these things is different–it was pretty clear both for me and the people who were giving me their time that this was a job hunt as well as a search for information. Maybe this is a quirk of Washington DC or of the think-tank circuit (I was looking for research/research assistant work at the time and in DC the think tanks are one of the major options if you’re not currently in a graduate program). Basically I’d go into a meeting, they’d ask me to tell them about myself, I would, they’d ask what kind of work I was looking for, I’d explain, and they’d usually give me the name of someone else at another institution to talk to or occasionally a firm that might suit me. Both sides of the interaction were clear about what I was there for. But DC runs on networking even more than normal, so perhaps the standards are just different.

    1. Cobol

      I think most people doing informational interviews are at least in part looking for a job, but viewing it as networking is the right way to view it. It’s not going to lead to a job today, tomorrow, or even this year, but it might down the line.

      If you hard sell somebody it’s a turn off, so use it for its purpose of finding out more information. It might turn into some sort of job lead, but don’t conduct an informational interview as a I’m looking for a job tool.

  16. LQ

    I did a bunch that helped when I was sort of at a career change point. The most useful question I asked was what do you like most. Mostly because what people said they liked about the career I was pointing toward at the time was something I realized I would HATE. It was something that nearly everyone said and it helped me to realize I needed to make a very hard left and try something else. (And it’s fun to talk about the fun parts of work so people lit up when talking about it, and I worked on my horrified poker face.) I don’t think it was the best, but it was by far the most useful.

  17. Mimmy

    I’ve always had a difficult time getting informational interviews. My problem tends to be with follow-up. I’ve had a couple of instances in the last year where I’ll email someone, they write back expressing a willingness to talk but don’t clearly indicate their availability or suggest a better time to contact them if they’re tied up with something. I find that I’m struggling with knowing when the ball is in my court or when I should attempt contact again if they were busy during my first attempt. When I do think about re-attempting contact, I don’t know what to say. I have two people in mind who I’ve contacted before but never connected – I’m at a loss as to how to explain why I’m contacting them again.

    1. Overeducated

      Maybe just say you appreciated their willingness to talk last year or whenever, you’re sorry you didn’t connect with them at the time, and you’d like to meet up with them now if they still have time? Also suggest a few potential dates (or even target weeks) so you don’t get stuck at the same stage? I think they won’t bat an eye, everyone knows people get busy.

    2. Smarty Boots

      I’d say something like: reintroduce yourself, mention the connection, then say “I’m sorry we weren’t able to work out a time to meet last spring. I’m hoping I can meet with you this month to talk about ….”

      That way it’s not, you didn’t get back to me! I think if they express a willingness to talk this time but don’t give day/time, I’d write back asking if you could call to work out the details, or is there another way to make arrangements. You could also propose some days/times.

  18. Cobol

    When I was fresh out of school I did a lot of informational interviews as a job search tool (sometimes well, sometimes ham-fistidly). I was honest about my purpose though. I asked about the industry and how to get a job in the industry. People were very receptive. I made sure not to ask for an introduction at their company, or if they were hiring, nor if they knew anybody who was hiring. I asked what steps they would recommend. A handful turned into interviews.

  19. Backcountry

    After grad school, then job-hunting into a field that was adjacent to mine; I did a TON of informational interviews. They were a great experience and did eventually lead to a job (my current one; 5 years and counting!) I went into each one to:
    1. Learn about the person; I treated these like I was making a new friend/acquaintance. Find something that the person and I have in common, be that work related or not. I had some great conversations commiserating about PhD programs and even went running with a contact I made this way.
    2. To learn about a career in the field, what is the day-to-day like, hardest/best things? Fav question: what mistakes to avoid for new hires to the field.
    3. To learn about the company they work for: What is the company culture like, what can I expect if I end up someday working there? There were a lot of companies doing similar work; valuable to know the differences between them.
    I was obviously looking for a job (desperately), but I was in a very competitive field in a very competitive town for said field. I feel like it is unsaid that if you are doing an information interview, you are interested/possibly/probably looking for a job in that field, and you don’t need to bring it up. The real value of these was learning how to network, and learning how to tell your story (for me, why I left grad school/want this career). This skill serves me well currently in my job, where networking is key! One of these interviews turned into a job; 8 months after said interview a job popped up in the company, and I offered to take my contact out to coffee to discuss the position; he ended up recommending me and I got the position! This is a long-game, not a short game!

  20. Long Time Lurker

    I have to admit Alison, ever since you answered my letter about frustrating informational interviews (the one you linked to in this piece), I include some links to your blog when replying to requests for them. Like “here’s some links you might find helpful in preparing for our chat” along with links related to my industry that answer basic questions. What’s nice about that is I can tell who has looked at the links I sent— and who hasn’t — pretty much right off the bat one we start talking. (Pro tip: if the person you are asking for an informational interview sends you links to web pages you should check out before your talk with them, definitely check out those pages)

  21. Libervermis

    I’ve used Alison’s suggestions about how to handle informational interviews in the past and have learned a ton from meeting with people. I have found, though, that lots of people don’t know what the phrase “informational interview” means, in multiple fields (medicine and multiple fields and positions within higher ed, thus far). Maybe it’s a more common phrase in other sectors? I’ve learned to phrase it as “I’m interested in learning more about x, do you have a half-hour when I could ask you some questions about how you got where you are and what your day-to-day looks like?” and then have some more specific questions prepared for the convo itself.

  22. Couldn't agree more

    This was a great article that I wish every new graduate or career-changer would read. I think that people may be giving poor advice about using this type of interview as a way to circumvent the normal hiring process. I had a stranger contact me on LinkedIn asking for an informational interview about a specific job I have open, not about the field in general. In another case, I agreed to help a friend of a colleague by doing an informational interview about my field, but at the end the person asked me what I thought her “chances” were – she had viewed the entire thing as a way to get considered for a job opening I had. These are typically not strong candidates, and I am reminded of Alisons’s advice to stand out by being a strong applicant with a strong application, not by trying gimmicky or backhanded ways to get my attention.

  23. Canadian Public Servant

    I’ve leveraged by network in the past to help current employees set up informational interviews as part of their learning and development plans. In one case, there was an obvious fit between a coop student’s education and work experience and a (high profile, highly sought after) group a friend was in charge of. The friend bluntly told me when I asked if she’d meet with her that she wasn’t hiring, and I said “Good! You can’t have this employee, she’s mine and she’s awesome.” After their meeting, friend said the student was both incredibly impressive, and one of the only people she’s met with who was genuinely interested in learning about the job, and the pros and cons, rather than pitching herself. Six months later, friend offered my now permanent employee a job, and was turned down – she’d learned from that interview that she didn’t want to give up her nights and weekends, and play politics all the time. :)

  24. AcademiaNut

    I had an undergraduate connect with me because they were interested in changing to my major. I gave them a fairly thorough description of the typical career path, education, types of jobs you can do and so on. They had no idea what the career was really like – the work is pretty cool, but you need a PhD, and he’d probably need to leave his home country for a job afterwards, there’s almost no jobs outside of academia, and you can hit your late 30s before you know if you have a long-term future there. So he decided to stick with his current major, and keep it as a hobby.

  25. PNW Jenn

    During the recession, my (grant-funded) job was cut to 50% when the grant itself was reduced by half. It wound up being incredibly freeing to be able to openly discuss my job search. A co-worker recommended an opening that was closer to home than the job I was leaving. I set an informational interview with the hiring manager before applying. That HM brought along a colleague who was also hiring for a position that closed that very day. I walked out of the interview with a standing offer from the tag-along hiring manager, a job I stayed in for 7 years.

    As a professional, I’ve done many informational interviews. Sometimes it’s a rude awakening to people what nonprofit employees make. Other times they *think* they know what my profession is like but are calling community engagement by the wrong name. I have no hiring authority in my org, though I do have influence on hiring decisions to a small degree.

  26. Writelhd

    I got a request for one this week that I’m not sure is worth the effort. They were vague about what they wanted to talk about, included a resume and a writing sample that was very unrelated to my subfield, but didn’t say my subfield was their interest, just that Y Broad Discipline Within Which My Subfield Resides “has always been my passion.” They listed four people who they’d already talked to in Broad Duscipline (but not myvsubfield) in my city who had said they should talk to me, only one of whom I recognized as someone I actually know. I want to help out as our field is a hard one to break into but I fear there’s a high chance they have no idea what it is I actually do and it’s just going to waste my time. I’d probably have been more inclined to respond if more info was given on what they want to ask.

  27. always in email jail

    Alison has stressed this before, but the absolute WORST thing is when you give someone your time for an “informational interview” and they don’t have questions besides “tell me about your job and how you got it”. The University I graduated from sets some of the graduate students up for informational interviews, and though I didn’t get a graduate degree from there (just undergrad) I am advanced enough in my field that they match me with students. I finally gave the program the feedback that they should encourage the students to come prepared with questions if people are going to dedicate their time, and hopefully they’ve passed that along to the students.

  28. cosmicgorilla

    I had an informational interview with someone who used it as an opportunity to complain about why they weren’t getting hired. Very negative tone. They didn’t seem to understand that an informational interview is still a professional transaction and were put out that I pointed out the negativity. They seemed entitled to the jobs they had applied to and entitled to waste my time with whining.

  29. Viva

    I once cold-contacted someone well known in his industry, to ask for an informational interview. I had very briefly worked entry level in that industry years before and loved it but I no longer had any contacts.

    He graciously met with me, answered all my questions, gave me info I didn’t even think to ask about, and then put me in contact with a colleague of his that was more junior as he felt she would likely have even better insight and info me – and he was right! That second informational interview with his colleague gave me the info I needed to realize it would not be the right move for me.

    The clincher? He told me that he LOVED my letter of request! He said it was an excellent letter and that’s why he decided to meet with me.

    Alison is always reminding us that strong cover letters are important, and I learned from that meeting that strong letters of any kind can do wonders. Folks, listen to Alison regarding crafting strong letters!

  30. Anoncorporate

    I think info interviews can be useful if they’re actually meant to be informational. I got so annoyed by my grad school counselors who kept insisting that I had to take people out to coffee and ask them to pass on my resume to get a job. That being said, people in my alumni network are aware of this culture so they have preemptively offered to forward my resume to people even without me asking.

    I’ve also given a couple of informational interviews and am surprised by how little people ask! It’s the perfect opportunity to ask all the juicy stuff you can’t really ask in a formal interview, but people just ask me about the organizational structure.

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