The information interview is a pretty powerful weapon in your job search arsenal. Executed properly and professionally, an informational interview can provide a rich seam of insider information. And future contacts.
Surprisingly, UK students still seem somewhat reticent when it comes to the information interview. Maybe the term jars a little, or perhaps there’s a natural suspicion of anything too closely associated with networking? Whatever the reason, it’s time to embrace the information interview and get talking.
What is an information interview?
Well one thing it isn’t….is a job interview. Don’t make the mistake of thinking this will lead to a job offer, or work experience placement. Information interviews can help you gain valuable insights into career sectors and crystallise your ideas and goals, but the emphasis is very much on information. In some ways, an information interview is similar to the conversations you might have with recruiters at careers and job fairs, but with one added bonus: you’re not competing with fellow students for time and attention.
Most people are generally happy to accommodate requests for information interviews – after all, even the most successful and senior executive has a career back story. They’ll certainly remember what it was like to be a student/graduate job seeker, trying to find a career path.
This is often the stumbling block for many students, although the obstacle is more perception than reality. You may feel that professional contacts are beyond your grasp, but this is where the power of networking – both on and offline – comes into its own. If you’re feeling particularly awkward or anxious, start in a more modest way by adopting the ‘friends of friends’ approach. Map out your own personal network and see if your parents, tutors, colleagues, peers or friends know anyone in your field of interest.
Once you’ve exhausted close contacts, it’s time to get serious and step outside your comfort zone. It’s at this stage some people lose their nerve, and worry starts to creep in: “I don’t know anyone”. Well, that’s exactly the point!
- Attend alumni and sector events in your department and on campus. These are not recruitment events – the speakers are there to share experiences and insights with you. Why not carry on the conversation afterwards? They half-expect students to follow up so take note of their contact details and get in touch.
- Used LinkedIn to source potential contacts. You should observe basic etiquette, so don’t just send random requests – use your primary connections to introduce you or smooth the way.
- Check the websites of professional/trade associations to generate potential leads. If you’re a student or associate member of a professional body, you might be eligible to attend industry events.
- Harness your social networks – update your status on Facebook (“interested in PR, looking for helpful leads”), and make Twitter lists to organise (possible) contacts by sector.
There’s no received wisdom on how to make contact: some commentators advise caution and suggest third party referrals only (your name was suggested to me by X, I wonder if it would be possible….) whereas others encourage a more direct approach. I’m more inclined to take the latter view, primarily because you won’t always have known contacts to broker on your behalf. And I can’t help but think potential contacts will respond favourably to a professional, considered request. After all it takes initiative (and courage, especially for the terminally shy) to approach more established and experienced people. Just make sure you follow some basic rules to avoid embarrassment:
- Phone or email to explain your request. Email might be a better medium – it’s easier to get tongue tied on the phone and lose your thread. Introduce yourself and provide some background and context e.g. “I’m Sarah Jones, a second year law student at the University of Warwick. I attended the recent “Careers in HR event” organised by Student Careers & Skills and found your talk really inspiring and informative. It prompted me to continue with my research into this career path, which has highlighted one or two areas of particular interest. Given your experience in the sector, I wonder if you would mind sparing 10 minutes of your time to answer a few further questions. I can be available by phone or Skype at your convenience….”
- Be clear about your purpose, and don’t make implied or subtle requests beyond the scope of information gathering e.g. explicit references to your job hunt, or search for work experience.
There’s one thing guaranteed to alienate ‘interviewees’ and that’s a lack of preparation. If someone is giving their time freely, don’t waste it! In much the same way as you’d prepare for a careers fair, application or interview, you need to thoroughly research the organisation and the individual concerned. Check LinkedIn (for both the company and individual profiles), read current news items or press releases and make sure you have a good understanding of the sector overall by scanning online career portals like TARGETjobs, Inside Buzz or TheJobCrowd.
Eliminate the obvious, basic questions that you can google in 5 minutes. Why not create a ‘shopping list’ of interesting questions and then decide what to ask once you’ve established a conversational flow. Some people are more engaging and responsive than others, so be prepared. If you’re completely stuck and need a few pointers to get you started, try the following:
- How much of your time is spent on x or y?
- What advice would you give to someone at the start of their career?
- What do you think is a measure of success in this field?
- I subscribe to/read x publication/journal/news feed – is there anything else you would recommend?
- What do you think are the most challenging aspects of your job?
- How do you see this profession/industry changing over the next 5 years?
- Would you be able to recommend anyone else in x than I could approach for a similar discussion?
And finally, be professional, courteous and respectful. Look smart, arrive promptly and don’t overstay your welcome. Follow up with a thank you email, and start planning your next move….