Informational Interviews 101

7 May 2021 2:22 PM | Manager GPDN (Administrator)

Not sure what kind of jobs are relevant to your degree? Want to start networking but not sure where to begin? Or just want to learn more about a career before getting started? 

Well, informational interviews are a perfect way to do all of that. 

What is an informational interview?

Informational interviews are all about building relationships and collecting information that can help you make decisions about your career - whether it be clarifying next steps in your exploration or education, learning about the day-to-day responsibilities of different jobs, or the types of places you’d want to work. 

While the world “interview” may make the concept sound intimidating, informational interviews are just conversations with someone who works in a position or area that interests you. 

Through these conversations you can:

  • Meet new people and expand your professional and personal network

  • Learn about different jobs and positions in a particular industry or field

  • Get insight into what the typical work day is like in a specific role (e.g. Is the work very collaborative or independent? Is there a lot of traveling involved?)

  • What the work culture is like in a particular organization

  • What sort of skills, education, or training might be required

These insights are typically much deeper, personal, and more time-relevant than what you can find on the internet. This can help you better decide on the types of careers, jobs, and even companies that you might want to explore further. 

Beyond just learning about jobs and careers, informational interviews can also be used by students and postdoctoral fellows to:

  • Explore educational programs from the perspective of a current student

  • Learn about the work conditions and the types of research taking place in a lab or research team 

  • Explore internship or residency opportunities 

Regardless of what you’re hoping to get out of an informational interview, it’s important to remember that they are NOT job interviews. When someone agrees to meet with you for an informational interview, the assumption is that you’re not applying for a job and you’re not asking for a job. Instead, it’s an opportunity for you to establish a relationship and learn more about a career, industry, program, research team, etc. Overtime, building these relationships can help get you connected to job opportunities that you wouldn’t have access to otherwise. 

How informational interviews might be useful

Apart from learning about different careers, informational interviews are also a great way to start meeting people in the industries you’re excited about. Because networking in career fairs, conferences, and other large events can often feel stressful and challenging, many students find informational interviews a better way to build longer lasting relationships that feel more genuine and authentic. The people you talk to can become friends, mentors, or even future colleagues. 

Over time, this can help you tap into what’s commonly referred to as the “hidden job market.” Sometimes employment opportunities aren’t advertised and are instead filled by word-of-mouth and referrals. By meeting new people in companies you’re interested in, you can increase your chances of learning about unadvertised or poorly advertised job openings. 

Setting up these conversations can also help you polish your interview skills and learn the “lingo” inside your industry of interest. By building confidence talking to strangers and pitching your value proposition, many students start to feel more comfortable talking to people in an actual job interview or larger networking events. 

Apart from being great for career-mapping and networking, informational interviews can also be an invaluable life skill. Labour markets and industry trends change rapidly and often in unpredictable ways - for instance, think of the impact COVID-19 has had on job markets globally. Informational interviews can help you learn how to cope with changes in job markets and how to pivot your career to adjust to those changes and explore new careers that might emerge as a result. 

Finding someone to talk to

Once you have an idea of the types of careers or industries you’d like to target, there are many ways you can approach finding someone there to talk to. 

  • Friends, Family, Peers, Colleagues: Talk to the people around you and let them know what you’re looking for. Word-of-mouth is a great way to get introduced to new people for informational interviews. You never know who someone might know! 

  • LinkedIn: For those who prefer social-media, LinkedIn can be a great way to connect with others virtually. You can use filters to search for people based on keywords, job titles, companies, or schools. Many students find that reaching out to alumni is a great way to get started. Because you’ve both attended the same school you immediately have something in common. When you’ve found someone you’re interested in meeting, send them a short message introducing yourself and ask if they’d be interested in meeting you for an informational interview.

    LinkedIn also indicates whether you have any mutual connections. If it’s more comfortable, you can always reach out to your existing connections to ask if they can introduce you.

  • University Career Days and Events: Schools and institutions often host career related events. These are great opportunities to meet new people because everyone there is essentially hoping to do the same thing. To make it easier, you can always attend with a friend and make new connections together.

  • Student and Professional Associations: Joining a relevant association can be a great way to meet like-minded people. Similar to universities, associations also often organize similar career or networking events.

  • From the Person You Just Met: A great way to get connected with more and more people as you conduct information interviews is to ask the person you’re meeting if there’s anyone else they would recommend you talk to. Building new connections this way is exactly what networking is all about.

Preparing for an informational interview

Having a script or a list of questions isn’t needed for an informational interview. But for those who are nervous or attending an informational interview for the first time, preparing a list of questions or topics you’d like to talk about can act as a good safety net. 

Questions can center around a variety of different topics::

  • Personal: How might you fit in a particular role or company? Does that position or company align with your goals, values, and passion?

  • Qualifications: These can be regarding education, training, or other certification requirements. But you can also ask about skills and personality traits relevant to the role, this can help you get a sense of whether certain careers are a good fit for you.

  • Career Landscape: Is the industry growing and how might it change in a couple years? What sort of entry-level opportunities are available and how might you find them?

  • Building Leads: Once you’ve built a strong relationship with your interviewee they’ll likely become invested and want to see you succeed. After a couple meetings, they may be able to provide you with opportunities or new connections in areas that you’re interested in. 

Additional food for thought

  • Some students find it most helpful to talk to someone who’s about 5 years ahead of them in their career path. Talking to people further along in their careers - such as CEOs, directors, or senior manages - can be a great way to learn about the ins and outs of an industry. But sometimes, someone closer to your current position might be able to provide more time-relevant insights you might find useful (e.g. what the current labour market trend might look like in your field or tips on searching for an entry level role in that industry).

  • While informational interviews are great for learning about someone’s career journey and to gather insight and advice, they’re also an opportunity to share some of your own interests, skills, and experiences (nothing that you don’t feel comfortable sharing, of course). Remember that relationships are two-way streets, by sharing a little bit about yourself, you start to build a stronger relationship and will help them consider insights opportunities that they feel might be more tailored for you.

  • While informational interviews can sometimes feel like a great fact-finding mission, it’s important to remember that you’re talking to another human being. Always be considerate of their time and don’t ask any questions that you would be uncomfortable answering or be offended by if someone asked you.

  • Be polite and respectful when reaching out to a prospective new contact and try to offer up a couple different ways to meet if possible (e.g. Skype, Zoom, in-person, phone calls, etc.).



About the Author:

Calvin Chan is a career advisor at the University of Waterloo’s Centre for Career Action. He’s also an EDI advocate and a scientific writer and communicator.

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