One way to learn about your graduate degree and career options is to interview people who are following a similar path. Simple questions about how they found their careers and what were the most helpful things to them along the way can yield lots of information as you determine your own next steps. We dig into a few considerations as you set up informational interviews as well as some example questions to ask.
How to find people to interview
Tap into your network of contacts to help you identify people with whom you should chat. Even if they aren’t the person you ultimately want to interview, you’re never sure who might have a connection. As you think about your network, make sure to include:
- Undergraduate Career Center (they often compile lists of alumni willing to act as mentors and/or introduce students to their field)
- Colleagues and supervisors
- Peers or mentors in professional associations
- Alumni of your undergraduate institution (they often compile lists of alumni willing to act as mentors and/or introduce students to their field)
- Family and friends
Requesting an interview
When you first contact the person you interview it’s important to share a little more about yourself and be clear about what you’d like to speak with them about. As you get ready to reach out to them, here are a few things to make sure you include in your email:
- 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).
- Why you are asking them for an interview (be sure to include any specific, positive aspects about them or their work that is most of interest to you).
- What kind of information you are seeking (information about the organization, issue area, job function, where they went to grad school, etc.).
- A request for a 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.
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.
Conducting the interview
That said, 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. Be sure to so some research on your interviewee, their field and organization.
Additionally, you’ll want to think ahead about questions to ask them. Here are a few examples to help get started:
- How did you get started on this career path?
- Why did you choose this type of work—what drew you to it?
- What particular skills or talents are most essential to be effective in your job and how did you learn these skills?
- What do you wish you had known about this field when you were starting your career?
- 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 for someone in this field?
- What preparation would you suggest for someone interested in entering this field? Is there a particular type of fieldwork or practical training that you would recommend?
- Are there any books or publications I can read to learn more about this work?
- Do you have any special advice for someone entering this field?
Use questions you think of in advance as a guide but don’t be afraid to ask follow up questions as they come up naturally. As long as it’s not disruptive to the flow of conversation, it may be helpful to bring along a notebook to help you capture the information they share.
After your interview
Make sure to send a thank you note or email. Be thoughtful and specific with your appreciation and try to name some specific things you learned from your conversation with them. Your thank you note is also a chance to follow up on anything - like an additional contact to follow up with or sending along your resume to them if requested.
Be sure to keep in touch with your interviewee especially for any updates on your decisions about going to graduate school. They will appreciate staying in the loop and are more likely to help you again in the future if you’ve kept up the effort of staying in touch.
Informational interviews can be very helpful as you approach decisions about grad school and your career. Conduct as many of these conversations as you can as it’s important to hear a range of opinions and perspectives. Listening and using the insights you gain from these interviews will help you be even more confident in your decisions and continue to build your network as you grow professionally in the field.
Interested in learning more about what graduate school can do for you? The Idealist Grad School Fairs are free and open to all students who are interested in a social-impact career. Learn more about Idealist Grad School Fairs taking place this fall and start planning your future today.