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Informational interviews: A beginner’s guide

10 questions to ask at an informational interview

Jan 24, 2013

This the final post in a five part series on informational interviewing for beginners. I’ve written previously about what informational interviews are and why you should do them, how to find people for interviews, how to request an interview, and my top ten tips for informational interviewing.

What follows is a list of 10 questions that, in my experience, usually elicit particularly enlightening answers.  It’s important to spend some time preparing questions before an informational interview, but these questions should not just be used as a script to sequentially run through. Allow the conversation to flow naturally, engage further when interesting threads arise, and remember that unless you are interviewing Sarah Palin on foreign policy, even the simplest questions can lead to informative discussions.

Note: the tone of each informational interview will be different. Some people enjoy telling stories from their grad school days, while others would much rather get down to the specifics of their job responsibilities. It’s also important to consider your goals for the interview: Are you looking for specific career advice? Are you curious about the realities of a professional field? Are you actively looking for a job in that particular company? These questions are general suggestions that should be tailored to the context of each interview.

1. How have your educational and work backgrounds led you to this position? When and how did you decide to move to this field?

2. Can you help me understand the specific responsibilities of your role?

3. What skills/personal qualities/habits would you say are important for success in this field?


Top 10 tips for informational interviews

Dec 4, 2012

This is the fourth post in a series on informational interviewing for beginners. Catch up with Part 1: What is an informational interview?Part 2: Finding people for informational interviews, and Part 3: How to request an informational interview

1. Do your research. I try to know enough coming into the conversation to not waste time with questions like, “So what does your company do?” I always spend some time before the meeting reading about the career field in general, the specific company/organization, and whatever I can find about the person I’ll be speaking with.

2. Be flexible. I’m definitely aware that this person is taking time out of their busy day to meet with me, so I try to be amenable to their schedule.  I offer several time windows when I’m available and am willing to meet wherever is most convenient for them. Some people may prefer to talk by phone rather than in person.

3. Prepare your questions. I have several general questions that I try to ask at every informational interview (more on that in a later post), but I also prepare a handful of questions that are specific to the person/company/career field.

4. Arrive early. I always give myself an absurd amount of time to get to a meeting location, and bring the latest issue of The Journal of Physiology (my advisor is reading this, right?) to read when I’m inevitably early.


How to request an informational interview

Nov 14, 2012

This is the third post in a series on informational interviewing for beginners. Catch up with Part 1: What is an informational interview? and Part 2: Finding people for informational interviews

Wondering how to request an informational interview once you have a contact in mind? I looked through plenty of sample informational interview request emails online when I was starting this process, decided that many of them were stuffy and outdated, but took away a few key pieces of advice:

–       Mention any connections you have with the person and how you got their contact email in the subject line and/or first lines of the message

–       Give a little background on who you are and why you are interested in talking with this person

–       Ask if they might have some time to meet, mention general time windows when you’re available, but leave the schedule decision up to them

–       Keep it brief

I tend to be fairly formal in the first email and let the tone of the response dictate the style of my next communication. I don’t usually send a resume with the initial email, but I will sometimes attach it to follow up scheduling emails and say something like “I’ve attached my resume in case you’d like a better picture of my experience before we talk.”

I used to spend a lot of time writing and re-writing these emails (ok, confession, I still spend a lot of time on them) but I remind myself that the worst case is that I get no response, and that happens only rarely.

Here’s an example of how I might request an informational interview with the fictional Dr. Quinn (she of the Medicine Woman fame. She’s basically a rural public health worker, right?)

Finding contacts for informational interviews

Finding contacts for informational interviews

Nov 1, 2012

This is the second post in a series on informational interviewing for beginners. Catch up with Part 1: What is an informational interview?

I find most informational interviews through one of three avenues:

1. Recommendations from previous interviews. This is how I’ve found most of my informational interviews, though I concede that this strategy is not that helpful for someone looking for their first one.

2. Connections through networks. At first I didn’t relate to the concept of networking; to me it implied ownership of business cards and power suits. But it turns out I do have networks – everyone does – and they have been very helpful in finding interviews. This may be a little easier for me because I am currently living in my hometown, but the networks I use are: high school alumni association, college alumni association, neighbors, friends of parents, friends of friends, and a Seattle event-based networking service called Zealyst*. I find it easier to ask for an informational interview in person, like at an alumni event, but often these connections have happened electronically, and I’ve had to initiate the request via email (more on that in the next post)

3. Chance encounters.


What is an informational interview?

Oct 11, 2012

I’ve conducted a couple dozen informational interviews and learned a few things along the way. This post is the first in a five-part series about informational interviewing.

 I started meeting with people to ask about their careers before I knew that this type of conversation is called an informational interview. The term threw me at first. After all, no one had asked me to talk about a time I performed well in a crisis, and no one inquired about my biggest weakness. But that’s because – and this is a crucial point – an informational interview is in no way a job interview. If someone offers you a job after an informational interview then congratulations, you must be quite charming and impressive, but getting a job is not the goal and the conversation shouldn’t be used to inquire about one.

 Instead, an informational interview is an informal meeting with someone who is willing to give their time to answer questions about their career. I approach it as an opportunity to learn about the realities of working in a particular field/company/position. This can be as basic as what a typical day is like for that person. For lab scientists it can sometimes be difficult to imagine a working life that doesn’t involve physically handling  things (“Just a desk and a computer? But where is your soldering iron?”), so even seeing a workplace environment can be informative.