A great way to find out if you would like a particular career field or job is to ask someone who is already doing that type of work. Sitting down with an industry professional and asking what they think about their job or industry can provide you with an insider's perspective, a stronger network, and can sometimes lead to tips about job opportunities.
An informational interview is simply talking with professionals who are currently in occupations or industries you are considering in order to gain information and insights. This information can be used in choosing a major, exploring career options, or preparing for a summer or professional job search. Be clear with yourself and the professional you are interviewing that the purpose of the interview is not to request a job or internship.
Informational interviews are an important part of career preparation and a good supplement to your academic knowledge because they can provide:
- Real-world information about careers
- Suggestions on how to use your college years to gain experience and prepare for the job search
- A network of contacts for your job/internship search
- Insights into what employers look for in candidates
- An avenue to explore potential job search questions like: "Why did you choose this field?" or "What are your skills for this job?"
Preparing for the Informational Interview
Informational interviews can be conducted with people you already know or with professionals referred to you through informal contacts: faculty, family, friends, alumni, professional associations, and Center staff. Consult the Alumni Relations Office website to learn about events held by Vanderbilt alumni organizations and other opportunities for networking. To identify other leads, consider browsing recent and back issues of the Vanderbilt Alumni Magazine, which contains alumni career information.
To arrange for an informational interview, contact individuals at least one week ahead of time, either by telephone or email or through an introductory letter followed by a call, to arrange an appointment. The interview can be conducted in person or by phone, but let the interviewee make that decision. Ask the interviewee for about a half hour of their time and always clarify your objective − that you are seeking information rather than a job or internship. See the sample dialogues below for help on how to structure your request.
Prepare your questions ahead of time. Reviewing these general information interview questions will give you a place to start. However, after researching the interviewee’s particular job and field, you should be able to develop specific questions. Having them in writing and taking some notes is fine.
Preparation, promptness and staying on track are important, because after all, the person you are interviewing is doing you a favor. Respect the time you requested and end the meeting on time. Because you initiated the contact and have some control over how the interview goes, keep your purpose in mind and get your questions answered. You'll find that people love to talk about themselves and their careers and may likely digress.
At the conclusion of your meeting, ask for two or three names of other people to contact for informational interviews so that you can begin building your network. Confirm permission to use the current interviewee's name when contacting the referrals. Our Contact Record Form can help you keep organized.
Below are a couple of sample conversations to review and practice prior to approaching a potential contact for an informational interview. (These sample dialogues were adapted from the University of Chicago Career Center.)
Informational Interview Dialogue 1: Requesting an Interview by Phone
Alumna: "Hello, this is Beth in the Media Department. "
You: "Hello. My name is Jessica Miles. I’m a sophomore at Vanderbilt University. I found your name in VUconnect. I hope you don’t mind that I have called you. I was wondering if I could request some time to ask you some questions about what you do?"
Alumna: "Sure, I’d be happy to talk to you. I have to run to a meeting in a few minutes. Why don’t we set up a time for next week?"
You: "Great! I think all I would need is a half an hour on the phone. What would be convenient for you?"
Alumna: "How about Thursday at 2:30?"
You: "I have a class at that time, but I'm available at either 1:30 or 4:00."
Alumna: "OK. Why don’t we try Thursday at 1:30 then? I don’t want you to miss your class."
You: "Thank you. I’d appreciate that. I will call you at 1:30 next Thursday the 21st. Thank you very much. I really appreciate you taking time to talk to me. I look forward to learning more next week."
Alumna: "It’s my pleasure. I remember what it was like to try to figure out what to do after graduation. You’re smart to start thinking about these things in your second year. I’m always happy to help out Vanderbilt students, and I recognize the value of your education. I’ll talk to you next week."
You: "Thanks again. Good-bye."
Informational Interview Dialogue 2: Following up on Your Introductory Letter
Contact: "This is John."
You: "Hi, Mr. Jones. My name is Bob Smith. I am following up on a letter I sent you two weeks ago requesting an informational interview with you. I’m a senior at Vanderbilt University, and I am just starting to explore career options. I am very interested in your organization and your specific role in it."
Contact: "Let me look in my mail folder, I’ve been out of town. OK, here it is. I see you included your resume as well."
You: "Yes. I was hoping you might critique it. It is my first attempt, and I would really value your professional opinion. I am just seeking information at this stage of my job search."
Contact: "Vanderbilt University, you said? I play softball with a woman who went to school there. That school has a very good reputation. I guess I could find some time to talk to you. I’ll be out of town again next week, why don’t we talk now. What would you like to know?"
You: "Thank you. Well, first of all... (refer to your list of questions) ...And that was my last question. Thank you so much for your time. You have been very helpful."
Contact: "Happy to do it. We all have to start somewhere. You know, I know of someone over at _________ who might be good for you to talk to. I’ll give him a call and see if I can pass his name along to you."
You: "Thank you! That would be great. Again, I can’t thank you enough."
Contact: "Why don’t you check in with me in a few months after you have done more exploratory work. We might have some things opening up by then."
You: "I will certainly give you an update on my progress. Thanks again."
Informational Interview Dialogue 3: Conducting a Scheduled Interview Over the Phone
Contact: "Hello, Bob Smith"
You: "Hello. This is Amy Jones. I made an appointment with you last week for an informational interview. Is this still a convenient time for you to speak with me?"
Contact: "Yes, hello, Amy. Hang on for one minute, I’m on the other line.... OK, I’m back. How can I help you?"
Build a relationship:
You: "As I mentioned in my letter, I’m graduating from Vanderbilt University in May, and I’m exploring different career paths and opportunities in the field of _____________. I’m simply gathering information at this point, not looking for a job. If you’re willing, I’d like to ask you some questions about what you do and get your perspective on the field."
Contact: "Sure, go ahead."
At this point, you will engage your contact in a conversation about his or her work, allowing him or her to be the expert. Be friendly, pleasant and upbeat throughout your conversation. As well as you can, let the conversation flow naturally – don’t force the interview to follow your script exactly as you’ve written it. It is always good to "warm up" the conversation by starting out with open-ended questions that ask the interviewer about him or herself.
Provide background on yourself:
You: "Thank you. This has been so helpful to me. If it’s okay with you, I’d like to give you a little background about my interests...." (Provide a brief sketch of your educational background and current interests. Practice this sketch in advance so you’ll express yourself comfortably and briefly).
Contact: "It sounds like you’ve thought a lot about what you want to do, which is great."
Ask for additional contacts:
You: "Yes, I have. Although it always helps to talk to people like you who are actually employed in the field. Earlier in our conversation, you mentioned that someone with my background and interests might be interested in pursuing ____________ as a career path. Do you know anyone in __________ at _________ who might be willing, like yourself, to talk with me about these possibilities?"
Contact: "Let me think. Two people I used to work with at __________ are now at __________. You should talk to Contact A or Contact B? I’ll give you their numbers before I hang up but don’t call them until Monday so I can let them know you’ll be contacting them."
You: "Thank you."
Contact: "There’s another guy who works at ________ who might be helpful – I met him at a conference. I’m not remembering his name at the moment, but I’ll call you back later when I think of it. He’s working in the ___________ division and might be able to give you some insight about that side of the business."
Thank your contact:
You: "Thank you so much – you’ve been very helpful, and it’s been a pleasure to talk to you today. I really appreciate your time."
Contact: "You’re welcome, Amy. It’s really no bother, I’m glad to be helpful. It’s been a pleasure to talk with you, too. I’ll call you with that name later today or tomorrow."
You: "Thank you again. Good-bye."
After the Interview
Immediately following the meeting, go to the nearest relaxation spot, take out paper or a contact record form, and debrief yourself. Analyze the interview. Think about the information you obtained and evaluate it objectively. Ask yourself the following:
- Did I get answers to questions I needed to have clarified?
- What did I leave out?
- What new questions do I have?
- Do I feel caught up in the enthusiasm of this person?
- Do I need to see more people to obtain a more objective opinion?
- What characteristics did this person have that I need or want to develop?
- What ideas for future career advancement strategies did I obtain?
The most important follow-up to the meeting should be mailing a letter to thank the individual for his/her time and assistance. Keep a record of the people you interview since you may want to contact them later for additional advice.
Thank You Letter Sample
(Letter adapted from: Information Interviewing, Martha Stoodley, 1990)Your Address
City, State, Zip
City, State, Zip
Dear Mr. Jones:
Thank you very much for taking the time to meet with me Thursday to discuss the professional possibilities in the healthcare industry. I was impressed by your knowledge of today’s complicated issues and appreciated your insight regarding the ways I can apply my Communications and Economics majors to contribute to hospital administration.
You gave me the name of Harriet Health at ABC HMO to contact, and we have an appointment early next month when she returns from a business trip.
I will be in contact from time to time to keep you posted on my career research. I will send a copy of my resume to your office as soon as it is ready, and I thank you in advance for your generous offer of a resume critique. Thank you for your help and valuable information.
Your name typed
What to Do if the Informational Interview
Turns Into a Job Interview
This may occur if the interviewer likes you and feels you would be an asset to his/her organization. How do you handle that kind of possibility? You have several alternatives:
- If you are comfortable and prepared, you can accept the job interview on the spot and play it by ear.
- If you are not prepared for a job interview at the time, you can honestly state that your purpose today is to obtain information, thank the person, and make an appointment for a later date for a job interview.
- You can thank the person and state that you will contact him or her at a later date since you are currently considering other job offers.
Whatever you choose to do, be definite in your answer and follow through with what you decide to tell the person.