The Informational Interview

A week ago, I visited my son at his California college. There, students use skateboards to zip from class to class. Let me tell you right now not to get on one of those things until you’ve had someone show you how to use it. I had no such lesson, and I found it to be much, much harder than it looks. I’ll kindly not include a photo of the resulting road rash.

Informational interviews are a lot like skateboarding: Both look easy, but when you step on, watch out! An informational interview is usually a short meeting, half an hour or less, between you and someone who works at a company you’re interested in, or someone on your desired career path. This is not a job interview. The goals, and the rules, are different. If you go in with the wrong mindset, you’re bound for disappointment.

During an informational interview, the focus isn’t on employment but on information gathering. Your real goal is to illuminate the path ahead of you,to focus on job openings.

The informational interview–especially if it’s with an employee at a company you want to work at–is the endgame of professional networking, so landing one starts with good networking. I’m not going to cover networking basics here–there are primers on networking in this column and elsewhere on Science Careers. If you haven’t read them yet, or if you need a refresher, see the links at the end of the article. In this month’s Tooling Up, I’ll focus on how to win that endgame by succeeding at the informational interview.

The real goal of networking

By definition, networking is about information exchange–providing information¬† about yourself and collecting information about other professionals, professional opportunities, and so on. In this sense, the informational interview is very much a networking tool, perhaps the ultimate networking tool.

Although it’s true that putting yourself out there will improve your chances of landing a job offer, during an informational interview the focus isn’t on employment but on information gathering. Your real goal is to illuminate the path ahead of you, not to focus on job openings. The illumination you seek will come from those who have already treaded the same path.

As I wrote this month’s column, I spoke with Brooke Allen, head of the Quantitative Trading Group for Maple Securities, to swap networking stories. Brooke, a self-described “advocate of promiscuous networking,” gave a presentation at the AAAS annual meeting in February in which he roused the audience for a networking exercise in which everyone stepped outside their comfort zones and practiced networking promiscuously.

My approach to networking has always been to cultivate a list of professional contacts, people I know and whom I can call upon (and who can call on me), whereas Brooke’s aggressive networking strategy places far more emphasis on the kindness of strangers. It seems to have paid off for him. “I may not know a person at all, but if they ask me to forward a request to a half-dozen of my LinkedIn contacts to help them arrange informational interviews, I have no problem forwarding on that request,” he told me, showing a bit of the openness that he claims makes the Internet such a fertile ground for information gathering.

And he’s got a point: We have all used the Internet to locate people who share our interests, whether it is to advance your skills in a hobby or to connect with professionals a few years ahead of you on the same career path. Cold contacts that begin via the Internet can warm up with a couple of e-mail exchanges, providing needed momentum to your research project.

On the Internet or off, that is precisely the right approach for setting up informational interviews: You are on a research project. You need help from people who are “in the know,” whether it’s to inquire about how long the workday is for a regulatory affairs manager or what the culture is like at a hot start-up company. And those people, or some of them, are likely to be people you don’t know right now.

Before you begin converting your networking contacts into a round of informational interviews, think about the reasons that person would be open to have coffee or sit down with you in his or her office for 15 to 30 minutes. Here are a few thoughts to help you understand why an already employed–and possibly senior-level–person would make him or herself available to you:

Practice, then plan your approach

Everyone you know has the potential to provide you with new knowledge of one kind or another, so any kind of informational interviewing can be a great learning experience.

Brooke and I discussed how similar this process is to an interview that a reporter would conduct–an interview with an agenda. “You can practice these anywhere,” Brooke says. “Ask your spouse (or lab mate), ‘I would like to interview you about how I might improve our relationship.’ Don’t simply have a conversation–actually interview that person.”

When you feel ready to go, make your real-world, professional approaches. Most people do this by e-mail, LinkedIn, or another business or social-networking site. More adventurous networkers will pick up the phone right away. Either way, here’s a tip: If you don’t hear back after three attempts, you are being ignored. Don’t take it personally, but take that person off your list of prospective interviewers. Harassment is a bad idea in the midst of a job search.

Informational interviewing puts you squarely in the major leagues of networking. Aim high: You can reach out and conduct an informational interview with a vice president of research if you approach the situation diligently and honestly. You’re not seeking a job right now, but if you make a good impression. …

You’re in charge

The informational interview is not like an employment interview. Instead, you need to be in charge, and that means you need to be comfortable. You requested the meeting, so lead it. If you show the slightest, open-jawed “Why am I here?” gaze, the interview will end uncomfortably for both of you.

You’re in charge, so have something to say, and have a good list of questions prepared. Good questions could include how that person’s career has progressed, what the company’s culture is like, or, broadly, what it’s like to work at that particular company. Your questions may depend upon the location of your meeting. Off-site, questions about company culture may be answered more candidly than difficult questions asked in an office cubicle.

Most likely, anyone you meet with will know you’re looking for a job, but that doesn’t mean you should bring it up. Don’t pull that card out of your sleeve until you are asked. And although the informational interview is not a job interview, it could become one quickly, especially if you’re interviewing someone who makes hires. So, even though I’ve urged you to prepare differently for the informational interview than you would for a job interview, you should be prepared for the nature of the interview to change. You need to be ready for the “interviewee” and “interviewer” roles to flip-flop, when suddenly you find the usual job-interview questions coming back at you from across the table.

Finally, don’t become frustrated when your first attempts at informational interviewing do not go smoothly. Just like my skateboarding experience, you may fall off and get bruised a time or two. But what an accomplishment it is to find a job or make a new friend simply because you had the courage to try.

Looking Up Your Career at the Library

The Itinerant Artist