Informational interviewing. They should really call it “awkward meetings with acquaintances or total strangers.” Not sure what we’re talking about? Informational interviewing is the “official” name for a precursory meeting with someone working in a specific industry or company/ organization that interests you. This can occur with alums, people within your personal network, a referral from a previous job, and others. Side effects may include sweating, nausea, loss of vocabulary, and general anxiety.
We call this informational interviewing; adults know it as networking. Everybody does it, including people with jobs. And they do it all the time. You may be afraid to reach out, but know that this is completely normal and almost expected in the professional world. From our experiences last year, here are some examples of people you may encounter on a scale from least to most helpful.
The over eager over- achiever alum:
After emailing literally 15 alums in one night (excel spreadsheet and all), the first to respond was Michael*. As a younger grad who was working in communications, he invited a group of us to a hip restaurant for drinks. We were excited and apprehensive, with little idea of what to expect. We had prepared questions, but unfortunately they went unanswered. Michael was talking a mile a minute – mostly about his personal views on politics and media. Needless to say, this was an unproductive session that left us questioning the purpose of informational interviews.
In this situation, the only thing you can really do is listen patiently and try to work your questions into the conversation. Smile through, follow up with a thank you, and part ways. Don’t burn bridges, you never know if that person will be helpful down the road.
The international super- star who’s too busy for you:
This contact came as a referral from a past job. Karen* was working in Lon- don at a consulting firm so scheduling a time to chat was a bit difficult. With speaker phone on, our questions laid out in front of us, we felt ready to go. Unfortunately once Karen picked up the phone, it became obvious that she did not take our questions, or us, seriously. She brushed off our genuine attempts to learn about working abroad and the consulting world. Karen’s brisk tone implied that she expect- ed us to already have an insider’s view of her business. Again, this proved to be less than satisfactory as we spent our morning on the phone learning nothing new from an impatient contact.
The lesson here? There are always going to be people who are not as receptive as you’d like. If this happens, stay calm, keep asking your questions (you might just break through) and politely end the conversation 15-20 minutes later. Don’t be rude, but no need to waste people’s time.
The best alum you will ever meet:
Jennifer* invited us to her PR firm for this informational interview. Despite being an executive at the company, she had carved out her time to answer any and all questions we had – uninterrupted by blackberries and assistants. Jennifer was instantly welcoming and accessible. One of the best things we have discovered about meeting with alums is that there is already a common experience between the two of you: Carleton. Alums love taking a trip down memory lane (we should know). It’s a great conversation starter and a nice fallback to fill any awkward silences. Our meeting with Jennifer was ideal be- cause it never felt like one. It was fun and lighthearted, and we still learned about working in the industry and how to potentially break in. Jennifer offered us other personal contacts in the field if this was something we want- ed to pursue. This was our most successful and memorable experience because it was a conversation with a knowledgeable professional who took an interest in us.
The takeaway from this experience? Don’t be scared to reach out because you never know when you’ll find that one person who can get you where you want to go. Cast a wide net and get out there!
Of course, this is merely a range of contacts that you could stumble upon. The majority of people that we met were more like Jenni- fer than Michael or Karen. Don’t let a few duds discourage you from pursuing this vital step. Another piece of advice: we did most of these interviews together so don’t think it has to be a one on one experience. Having a friend can ease the tension and while one of you is talking, the other can think of more topics to cover.
Still feeling stuck? Here are some questions that we hope current students would ask of us during an informational interview:
1. What does a typical work day look like?
2. What skills are most desired for an entry level position in this field?
3. How would you describe the work environment at the company/in the field?
4. Is the work more collaborative or independent?
5. Can you suggest any additional people or organizations to contact? (Net- working leads to more net- working!)
* All names have been changed to protect identity.