Tips for a successful informational interview

two women sitting at a table shaking hands, as seen from above

So you’re interested in a new career or different job, but you’re not sure if you have what it takes, or if you’ll even like the field. There’s no way of knowing with 100 percent certainty what a new profession might be like, but there is one proven, personal way to learn more: the informational interview.

Talking with people in the field helps you learn about the work, find out education and certification requirements, clarify your career goals, gain insider advice and expand your professional network.

As opposed to a job interview, an informational interview is initiated and conducted by you. Here’s how to use this important tool to your advantage.

headshot of Moira Kelley
Career and educational counselor Moira Kelley says informational interviews are important job search tools.

Identify people to interview. Tell your family and friends that you want to know more about a specific field and ask if they have any contacts. You can also go to career services centers and libraries or tap LinkedIn and company websites.

Prepare. Research the organization and your interviewee online. Determine your primary purpose for conducting the interview and plan accordingly. Are you curious about the type of work? Do you want to learn the steps of how to get into the field? Prepare five to 10 open-ended questions, depending on the length of the interview. Go to acsss.wisc.edu and search “informational interviews” for a suggested set of questions.

Reach out. Career exploration is not the time to be shy. People who are happily employed enjoy talking about their work and will probably feel honored that you asked. Call or email your candidate, but either way be clear and concise about your purpose. Be sure to mention the person who referred you, if applicable. Request a specific amount of time, 20 minutes to an hour at most. A shorter time may encourage the person to see you sooner. In-person interviews are best, but if a phone call is all the person has time for, take it with gratitude.

Conduct the interview. Arrive on time and dress professionally. Ask questions and leave plenty of time for the person to answer. Remember, this is more about them and less about you—it’s not a job interview. Honor the timeframe you set, and before concluding your interview, ask if follow-up questions are okay and if the person has suggestions for other contacts in the field.

Follow-up. Send a thank you email, perhaps noting one or two points you found particularly helpful.

If possible, conduct three to four interviews with people working in different settings in your field of interest to gather multiple perspectives. And don’t get too attached to the result of the process. Sometimes, you find out that you really don’t want to work in a certain industry. But that’s yet another good reason to conduct some solid informational interviews.

Moira Kelley is a career and educational counselor at UW–Madison’s Division of Continuing Studies. She can be reached at moira.kelley@wisc.edu or 608-263-7136.