Conducting informational interviews

Conducting informational interviews can help you to explore careers in greater depth. Here, we discuss why informational interviews are so beneficial. We talk about what they are and what they aren't. Finally, we take you through what you could ask, with a detailed framework for those wanting more guidance.

The value of informational interviews

Speaking with other professionals about their careers is one of the most impactful actions you can take. There are several reasons for this. Here are some of them:

  • It gives you an opportunity to ask questions that you can’t easily find answers to elsewhere.  
  • It can give you more insight into the day-to-day life in a particular organisation or role.  
  • It will help you to imagine yourself in that role or organisation so you can properly assess if it will suit you or not. 
  • The people you talk to may give you additional information about roles adjacent to their own that you may never have considered, or even known about, before.
  • They could tell you more about which direction their organisation is heading in or the skills and attributes they are looking for in new recruits.

It is through conversation that any new connections you make become meaningful. If we take LinkedIn as an example, making lots of new connections can be useful when first researching careers. But the added value is gained when you reach out to these connections and start forging relationships.

As well as career insight, people you speak to might give you practical tips. For example, what to look out for in a job advert or at interview. You could even mention them in a cover letter, which adds extra value to your application. Perhaps having conversations with people in your area of interest will even lead to job opportunities or referrals in future. 

Alternatively, after the informational interview, you might find that the career is not quite what you had imagined. This is important insight because you could secure a job that you are capable of, or qualified for, but it might not match your natural strengths, interests and values. When combined with self-reflection, reaching out to others could end up saving you a lot of time and effort in the long run. 

In the following video, several individuals tell us why they think informational interviews are valuable.

“Going into a career beyond academia, you have to network hard. You have to do that as part of being an academic anyway, but the more you can reach out to people and the more you can go out and just talk to people and understand what it is they’re doing and start to imagine yourself working in that context the better.

Dr John Miles
Founder and CEO of Inkpath Ltd

How to conduct an informational interview

During an informational interview, you’re the one who asks most of the questions and steers the discussion. Remember, you’re not there to ask for a job. You’re there to learn as much as possible about an industry, a company or a particular role, developing your professional network in the process.  

It has been shown that people tend to underestimate the willingness of others to help by as much as 50% (Flynn and Lake, 2008). Keep this in mind when you’re weighing up whether to approach someone for a chat. Ask yourself what your reaction would be if someone approached you for a conversation about your career.

By following our career exploration strategies, you may already have some candidates to reach out to that have been in your network for a while or you have recently connected with. To get some practice, you could start with your warm network.

But when looking for suitable people, don’t forget your casual acquaintances. These people are sometimes called your ‘weak ties’. But when it comes to networking they can be extremely valuable. In fact, research suggests that most individuals who get jobs through people they know, get them through ‘weak ties’ (Granovetter, 1973).

When deciding whether to conduct an informational interview, don’t put too much pressure on yourself or overthink it. All you’re doing is asking for a bit of someone’s time. An informational interview may sound formal, but you’re basically just asking to have a short chat (15 – 30 mins) - it can be very informal. It's far less stressful than a job interview. 

In the following video, Elizabeth Adams gives some tips on how to conduct effective informational interviews. In the video, two former postdocs that were on the Prosper pilot talk about their experiences of informational interviews.

“I’ve found most people are more than willing to help; reaching out to a connection on LinkedIn who works for the company to get a bit more information about a role can be really helpful.

Dr Matt Crooks
Former postdoc, Data Scientist at the BBC

Quick tips

When requesting an informational interview, consider the following Dos and Don'ts.

[…] the most important thing is to be brave. Ask people, phone them up, cold call them. It’s absolutely fine. You would be amazed at how much time people are willing to give you if you show an interest.”

Dr Georgina Key
Former postdoc, Environmental Scientist and Research Manager at the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board

For some of you, going from identifying people of interest to approaching them for an informational interview, can seem like a big leap. Putting yourself in these situations may not come naturally to you. Former Prosper pilot cohort member, Cai Wingfield, put himself in this bracket of being uncomfortable with conducting these interviews. However, he gained a lot of insight when he challenged himself to do them.  

“I strongly recommend informational interviews if people are still learning about different areas. Everyone I've emailed has either not replied (fine, probably just busy) or has been friendly, generous and very happy to talk candidly. I'm naturally a rather shy and socially anxious person but have found pushing myself to email and meet people has been entirely worth it. I started with my existing network of friends, which was easy, and have moved out to acquaintances and strangers — turns out still very doable!’’  

Dr Cai Wingfield
Prosper pilot member, postdoc in computational modelling of human cognition

To make the most of the opportunity, it helps to prepare in advance for informational interviews. But by the same token, be wary of overpreparing because you want it to be a conversation rather than a stilted question and answer session.

Remember, it's not just about gaining insight; it’s about forming relationships. But if it helps you to build confidence when you start doing these informational interviews, you can follow a more structured approach with this step-by-step guidance document.

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References

Flynn, F. J., and Lake, V. K. B. (2008), 'If you need help, just ask: underestimating compliance with direct requests for help', Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(1), pp.128-143.

Granovetter, M. (1973), 'The strength of weak ties', The American Journal of Sociology, 78(6), pp. 1360-1380.

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