This article is adapted from Chapter Four of The Idealist Guide to Nonprofit Careers. The chapter, which also explores other forms of networking, is available as a free PDF. There are two versions of the book—one for first-time job seekers and one for sector switchers.
One way to learn about your graduate degree and career options is to interview people who are following a similar path. An informational interview is not a job interview, nor is it ever an appropriate time to ask for a job. Instead, informational interviews are usually a very brief (about a half hour) exploratory chat with a person who can provide you with valuable information to help you decide which degree or career you should pursue. Informational interviews can give you insight into a field you are interested in and introduce you to other careers you may not have previously considered. With this real-world information and advice, you will be better equipped to hone in on your strongest interests and the most suitable next steps to take.
As you embark on these interviews, you will inevitably expand your network as you develop relationships with professionals in your target field. You will be able to connect with local decision makers and gain referrals to others you can go to for advice. Informational interviews provide you with detailed information about a field, a particular organization, and necessary education, but they also provide an opportunity to practice and hone your communication skills. In developing your sense of what interests you and what skills you possess that qualify you for this kind of work, you will be able to effectively convey your candidacy in your graduate application and admissions interviews.
Tap into your network of contacts to help you identify people with whom you should chat. Family and friends are often a major but overlooked part of your network; people you already know can be great sources on information and contacts. Even those who may not share the same professional or educational interests as you may be able to refer you to someone who does. Speak with past professors and teachers, send an email out to everyone in your office to see whom they know, and use your university's career center resources (they often compile lists of alumni willing to act as mentors and/or introduce students to their field).
Remember, you want to find people who work in the roles, organizations, systems, or issues that interest you (for more on this, see the discussion of the "Four Lens Framework" in Chapter Three of The Idealist Guide to Nonprofit Careers). If you can't find anyone through your own network, look into professional associations. They often have connections in the field, or a strong member base of professionals happy to act as mentors. The Idealist network is also here to help you!
Before you make the first contact with your potential interviewee, be prepared and practice what you are going to say. This is your first chance to sound competent, polished, and professional. Whether you are emailing or calling to ask for an interview, here are some things you can mention:
Here's an example of what this might sound like:
Hello. I'm Edgar Hernandez. Kathy Liu suggested I get in touch with you to request an informational interview. I've been considering a career in nonprofit finance and am interested in attending graduate school to further my education and qualifications in this area. I received my Bachelor's Degree in finance at SUNY Binghamton, where I served as president of the campus accounting club and helped a local charity improve their bookkeeping practices. Kathy said that you have 15 years of experience in fundraising and development and that you are highly respected among your peers. I am sure you are busy, but I was wondering if you would have time for a short conversation over coffee, or at your office; my schedule is flexible. I'd love to ask you some questions about how you got started, what your educational background is, and the trajectory of your career so far.
It is possible, though usually unlikely, that the person will turn you down for an interview. They may not have the time right now or may not feel that they can actually help you. If they have said that they are too busy right now, don't take it personally. Instead, follow up by asking if you can contact them again in the future and, if so, when would be a good time. You may also want to ask if they know of someone else who might be a good contact for an informational interview. If they say they cannot help you, thank them for their time and ask if they can refer you to another person in a similar role, field, or organization.
More than likely, people will be happy to give you a bit of their time. Once you've scheduled the informational interview, prepare yourself well. You will be the one conducting the interview, so you have to research your interviewee, their field and/or organization, and if you have access to their educational history, familiarize yourself with their courses of study!
By knowing as much as possible before heading into the interview, you'll avoid taking time to ask questions that you could have found out the answer to on your own; you'll demonstrate motivation and respect to your interviewee; and you'll know exactly what kind of information you want to gather from the interview.
Your preparatory to do list should include:
Below are some questions to consider asking. Choose the most relevant ones for your situation in advance, and remember that your interviewee may be pressed for time. It's unlikely you'll be able to ask all of these questions.
In preparing your list of questions, keep in mind that when you do conduct the interview, you want the conversation to flow naturally. Refer to your questions without rifling through them.
After you leave, it is essential to send a thank you note. Carry the paper for a thank you note and a stamped, addressed envelope with you to the interview; after you leave, take a few minutes to write the note and pop it in the nearest mailbox. Make the note meaningful, and mention something specific that you learned.
When you get home, be sure to record the information you obtained from the interview in a log (Chapter Four of The Idealist Guide to Nonprofit Careers has a handy Networking Management System template you can use). Jot down some impressions and notes.
And evaluate the experience:
Be sure to keep in touch with your interviewee, especially on your decision to apply for grad school, where, and if you get accepted. Everyone appreciates follow-up, and it makes people much more likely to help you again in the future. By following up, you demonstrate your attention to detail and remind your interviewee that you are a strong candidate for grad school and future employment.
Finally, if the person you interviewed gave you the name of a new person to contact, then it's time to begin the process again!
Over time, this process will generate an expanded network of people well-positioned to help you in your next steps toward further education and a career. Understand that, while the information you get from each person gives you valuable insight to the field that interests you and the education required, informational interviews are subjective. Don't limit yourself to the opinions of one or two people; the more people you talk to, the better the chance that you can be confident in your decisions regarding grad school and your profession, in addition to becoming a stronger candidate for both.