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Conducting informational interviews

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.

How to find people to interview

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!

Requesting an interview

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:

  • Who referred you to the potential interviewee (be sure to get permission from your referral to use their name; you may even be able to request that they send an introductory email before you contact the person yourself, so that they may be able to "e-introduce" you).
  • Why you are asking them for an interview (be sure to include any specific, positive aspects about them or their work).
  • What kind of information you are seeking (information about the organization, issue area, job function, etc.).
  • A request for a roughly 30 minute chat, at a time and place of their choosing or by phone if they are not in your area.

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.

What if they say no?

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.

If they say yes…

Be prepared: you are the interviewer!

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:

  • Researching their accomplishments (try Googling them) and their organization online. Working their accomplishments into your conversation ("I saw that you spoke at the Gates Foundation. What was that like?") is a great way to learn information while letting them know you have taken the time to prepare.
  • Finding something that the person has written, a speech they've given, or research they've published, and then developing a few questions about it. The more you show you are aware of their work, the more impressed they will be.
  • Preparing thoughtful questions ahead of time (see below).
  • Polishing your "elevator speech" (the 30-45 second pitch that explains who you are, what you're looking for and why, and what you are hoping to get out of a particular interaction).
  • Practicing answers to general interview questions that your interviewee is most likely to ask you.
  • Printing out copies of your most current resume and business cards if you have them.
  • Dressing professionally (or at least appropriately for the situation).
  • Being on time, or even 5-10 minutes early. Be sure to call if you think you are running late.
  • Bringing a pad of paper and a pen to take notes, and a watch to keep track of the time.
  • Planning to pay for their order if you are meeting for a beverage or a meal.

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.

Interviewee experience

  • How did you get started on this career path?
  • Why did you choose this type of work—what drew you to it?
  • What do you do in a typical day?
  • What particular skills or talents are most essential to be effective in your job? How did you learn these skills? Did you enter this position through a formal training program? How can I evaluate whether or not I have the necessary skills for a position such as yours?
  • What do you wish you had known about this field when you were starting your career? What would you do differently?
  • What haven't I asked you that I should have?

Educational preparation

  • What are the educational requirements for this job? What other types of credentials or licenses are required? What types of training do organizations offer persons entering this field? Is graduate school recommended? Does the organization encourage and pay for employees to pursue graduate degrees?
  • Did your own education relate to this field? What programs and/or schools are you aware of that would be good to enter this career?
  • What graduate degree(s) would you recommend someone in this field getting?
  • What are the most respected grad schools in this field?
  • How well did your experiences in college/grad school prepare you for this job?
  • What courses have proved to be the most valuable to you in your work? What would you recommend for me?
  • Do you use any of your graduate training in your job, and if so, how?
  • Is any other prior experience required?
  • What preparation would you suggest for someone interested in entering this field? Is there a particular type of field work or practical training that you would recommend?

Professional field

  • What is the best way to enter this field?
  • What are the major qualifications for success in this field? Which skills and abilities are most valued in your field? Which ones are currently in demand?
  • How does a person progress in your field? What is a typical career path in this field or organization? What are the advancement opportunities?
  • What can you tell me about the employment outlook in your field? How much demand is there for people in this occupation? How rapidly is the field growing? Can you estimate future job openings?
  • Are there any books or publications I can read to learn more about this work?

Making contacts

  • What other local (regional, national, international) employers have positions in this field?
  • Who else do you know who is doing similar kinds of work or uses similar skills? What other kinds of organizations hire people to perform the functions you do here?
  • Do you know of other people whom I might talk to who have similar jobs? Do you know any alumni from a graduate degree program in this field?
  • May I use your name when I contact them?

Ask for advice

  • What kinds of experience, paid or unpaid, would you encourage for anybody pursuing a career in this field?
  • Do you have any special advice for someone entering this field?
  • What is the salary range for this position in this area based on my level of experience? How would it change with a graduate degree in the field?
  • How would you recommend someone with my background demonstrate these skills in a grad school application?
  • With the information you have about my education, skills, and experience, what other fields or jobs would you suggest I research further before I make a final decision?
  • May I contact you if necessary, in the future?

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 the interview: Following up

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.

Ask yourself:

  • What did I learn?
  • How interested am I in exploring this field further? Do I now have more information about appropriate graduate programs and schools?
  • What values, skills, and interests of mine fit—or don't fit—with this person's line of work?

And evaluate the experience:

  • How did the interview itself go, in terms of time spent, conversation flow, etc.?
  • How did I do as the interviewer? Is there anything I could have done differently or better?
  • What information do I still need?

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!

Conclusion and further resources

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.