The Informational Interview: What, How and Why?

The all important informational interview.

You’ve probably been instructed by someone–maybe me!–to do informational interviews. Do them to help you determine what grad program is right for you, as a way to connect with people at organizations where you want to get hired, and to help you figure out what career track is right for you.

There are many other great reasons to set up informational interviews, but the point is: do them! And the sooner the better.

You have heard it before–networking is the way 90% of people get their jobs and it’s even more true in the public policy/international affairs world. So you want to get actual information from the interviews, but the main reason to do it is to make a good impression. When you see a job opening or want to pass along your resume, you have a connection.

Ok, so you know you should set up these interviews, but what do you say when you get there?

#1 rule is DON’T BE ANNOYING. Make it worth their time and don’t take more than 30 minutes unless the person you’re speaking with makes it clear they want to continue the conversation. Buy them coffee/lunch/a drink (whatever is appropriate to the setting) and make sure you have clear questions for them. They shouldn’t feel like they need to do the heavy lifting.

Have some clear questions for your interview subject. What do they love about their job? What do they spend their time doing? How did they get their job? What advice do they have for you? What educational path did they take? What courses do they recommend? What course material do they actually use in their day to day work?

Listen. Most people like to talk, especially about something they love, and hopefully they love their career. (If they don’t, you probably want to find out why not and take that into consideration!) Ask good questions and then listen.

Use the snowball effect. Ask them who else they think you should meet. It means more networking for you and gives them an easy reason to follow up with you (or for you to bug them “I remember you offered to put me in touch with so-and-so.”)

Be ready to tell them who you are. They are likely to ask you “Who are you and what are you interested in career-wise?” Be ready to give a clear and concise answer. Don’t say “Oh, I don’t know. I’m interested in everything and need a job.” You want to appear driven, passionate and clear on what you want. You don’t have to be so specific that you pigeon-hole yourself, but you need to give them something to work with. If you’re asking them to pass along jobs that might be of interest to you, they need to know how to narrow it down to what you’re interested in, and qualified for.

Thank them for their time. Do it at the end of the conversation, and by email afterwards.  Remind them of any asks (to introduce you to someone else, to pass along opportunities they hear about, etc.) and thank them again. You want something from them, so don’t give them a reason to write you off.

So to summarize: don’t be annoying, have questions, listen, use the snowball effect, be ready to tell them who you are, then take the interviewee for their time.

Simple enough, right?

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