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Conduct information interviews

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If you’re not familiar with the idea of an information interview, you’re not alone! I have taught hundreds of college students during my career, and very few of them have ever arrived to my course knowing what an information interview is. However, it can be one of the most useful tools for learning about various careers, positions, and organizations.

An information interview is a 20-30 minute discussion (either in person, on the phone, or via a video chat application) about a particular job or career path with an individual who already has a job that you think you would like. The point of the information interview is twofold: to learn more about what the job is all about and to make contacts within the field.

In this section, I’ll share suggestions for what you need to do before, during, and after the interview, including help with who to contact, how to arrange for the interview, and what questions you might want to ask.

Before the interview

Create a list of questions to ask. Below you’ll find some ideas for creating a list of questions for the interview, but you may want to add others…and you may want to delete some of the suggestions as irrelevant to your own interests. Be sure to put the questions in order of importance so that you ensure getting answers to the most important ones before your time runs out.

  • What are the day-to-day tasks for someone in this position?
  • What are the required skills?
  • What specific degrees or courses will I need to have on my resume?
  • Can you tell me some important keywords that may be included in job ads for this type of position?
  • What would be the likely specific job titles?
  • What do you [the interviewee] like best/least about your job?
  • Can you describe the chain of command in this position?
  • What is the potential for promotion (e.g., what would be the next step in your career after this job)?
  • In this geographic area, what would be a reasonable beginning salary?
  • What is the market outlook? (That is, is this a growing field? How easy will it be to find a job in this field?)
  • What is the geographical demand? (That is, are there more jobs in this field in certain parts of the country?)
  • What professional organizations would be relevant for someone in this career?
  • What advice would you give to someone who wants a career in this field?
  • Who else should I talk to about a career in this field?

Review your resume closely, revise it if necessary, and take a copy to the interview so you can ask for feedback. Be specific and ask the interviewee to give you advice about both the format and content. For example, you might ask the following questions.

  • What is your overall reaction to the format of my resume? Do you have suggestions for a different format that would be more appropriate?
  • Which aspects of my experience (academic or work) should I highlight?
  • What skills or experiences do you think are missing?
  • How can I gain the missing experience (e.g., take a course, do an internship)?

Create a list of relevant job titles. Different organizations may have different titles for the same type of job, so be sure you have investigated as many as possible. Use your college or university career center as well as any online tools to do a search for keywords relevant to your career interest that will help you find the various job titles used to describe the type of job that you want.

Produce a list of people you might contact to request an information interview. There are many resources you can use to help you create the list, including the following:

  • Professors, especially those who teach in the major field related to your desired career, may have contacts within the industry you want to enter.
  • Family and friends may surprise you by knowing someone in your field. You can’t know until you ask!
  • Your alumni association may be able to help you find former students who now work in your desired field.
  • LinkedIn can be a great resource for finding people with jobs similar to the one you want. If you take care in how you contact them — by first finding something that connects you, such as membership in a professional organization, attendance at the same college of university, or being from the same home town — you will increase the chances that they will agree to an information interview.

Arrange for an information interview by contacting the people on your list — literally pick up the telephone and call that person (or send email if you can access the address) and ask if he or she would be willing to make an appointment to speak with you about the job for 20-30 minutes. Many people will respond positively to a request for such a short amount of time.

During the interview

The actual interview may go on for longer than 20-30 minutes, but if it does it should be because the interviewee is generous with his or her time, not because you keep talking beyond the initial 30 minutes. When you’re in the interview, keep track of the time. When you get to the 30-minute mark, say something like, “I see that we’ve been talking for 30 minutes. I still have a few more questions, but I don’t want to take up any more of your time. Would it be okay for me to email some additional questions to you?” They may tell you to go ahead and ask your questions, or they may tell you they do need to stop, but are willing to respond to email. There’s the chance that they may not want to have anything more to do with you, but unless you’ve been rude or somehow inappropriate, that’s unlikely.

As your last question during each information interview, ask the individual if he or she can recommend someone else you can talk with. Depending on what you’ve learned in the interview, you may want to speak to someone with a similar job in another organization or someone in another department within the same organization. Or you might want to speak to someone with a slightly different job that has come up in the discussion and that sounds interesting to you.

After the interview

Be sure to send a thank you note within one week to anyone who grants you an information interview. As with a thank you note after an actual job interview, you need to think carefully about how you’re going to send that note. If you’re fairly certain that the person you met with is regularly in the office, then a handwritten note is going to make a more lasting impression. However, if the individual travels a lot or does not have a job that requires much office time, it would be better to send email because a handwritten letter might sit in an inbox for a long time before the interviewer sees it. Some people suggest that you send both email and handwritten notes, but you would want to say something different in each one. The email could be a simple “thank you for taking the time to meet with me” message. The handwritten note could go into more detail about what you learned, such as specific reference to suggestions for courses to take or other people to interview.