by Kathleen Nay
For someone new to networking, the process can seem intimidating and unclear as to where to begin. Informational interviews are a low-risk but valuable way to start building a professional network.
If you had asked me a year ago what an informational interview was, my likely response would have been, “Informational interview? What’s that?” It was a term I’d never heard before, but it piqued my interest. I knew “networking” was a thing “professionals” did, but to someone like me—new to grad school, new to my understanding of how public policy works, and new to Boston where I didn’t know anyone—networking sounded like a vague and intimidating process. I knew it was an important skill to develop, but wasn’t sure where or how to start. Informational interviewing, I’ve learned since then, is an easy, concrete way to begin building your professional network and hone your career path goals.
First, what is an informational interview? An informational interview is exactly what it sounds like: while similar to a job interview, it is less about trying to sell yourself and more about exploring the landscape of organizations or careers you might like to pursue. It is not about asking for a job—though it could lead to one down the line—but rather a chance for you to ask questions of experienced professionals in your field to help you evaluate your own skills and interests. Typically 20-30 minutes long (but often longer), they are meant to be conversational, low-risk meetings where you get to set the agenda.
They’re not just for networking. People participate in informational interviews for a host of reasons. As a new grad student, you might be curious about what classes other alumni from your program found most valuable, or what skills they wish they’d learned before entering the job market. You might want to find out how they like their job to see if it’s something you want to do. If you’re about to enter the job market, informational interviews are a useful way to learn about work sites, career tracks within a sector or company, or about specific roles. Even for working professionals who have established careers, informational interviews are valuable for expanding the breadth of one’s knowledge about a field, as well as for exploring the edges where one field meets another.
What kinds of questions should I ask? Before engaging in an informational interview, know your objectives. What do you want to learn about this person or company? Remember—you’re the one setting the agenda, so be prepared with a list of questions to guide the conversation.
If you’re most interested in the person’s career path or their field generally:
- What’s your story? How did you get here?
- Where do you see your industry heading in the next 5-10 years?
- Are there any skills you recommend I master while I’m still in school? Classes I should take?
- What are you hoping a next generation player like myself will bring to the table to further this work?
If you want to find out about a particular job, organization, or work culture:
- What do you like most about your job? What don’t you like?
- What does a typical day look like for you?
- What is work-life balance like at your company? Does your organization offer continuing education opportunities? What is the expected starting pay for someone with my degree? What is the work environment like?
- What specific skills are necessary to succeed at your company?
Remember to let the conversation guide you. If something they say sparks a question you hadn’t thought of before, ask it! For example, if they mention that they moved from the public to private sector, ask about that transition and what prompted their decision. If they mention collaboration with a partner organization, ask about that partnership. Be genuine and express interest in whatever they say. Even if it’s something you find less than compelling or don’t agree with, it can still inform your career decisions.
Okay, so how do I identify someone to interview? Alumni networks are a great place to start. Friedman’s alumni network is 1,700 people strong, and it’s easy to get connected with the Alumni Association on LinkedIn or Facebook. The Tufts Online Community is another excellent resource for searching among more than 100,000 Tufts alumni by region or interest areas. Friedman’s Student Affairs office keeps binders of internships completed by past students, including their contact information. It’s as easy as asking that alum for an introduction to someone at the organization you’re curious about. Additionally, our professors are well connected—if there’s a specific organization they’ve mentioned or a guest lecturer they’ve had in class, ask your professor if he or she can connect you.
There are less obvious ways to go about finding people to interview, too—like literature searches. Who’s an expert in the field? Who has written articles that resonate with you? Often their contact information is included in the article—send an email expressing your interest and a couple of questions you have. Planning to attend any upcoming conferences or events? People love to hand out their business cards, and having already met someone gives you a great excuse to follow up with a request to learn more about each other over coffee. You might even find someone’s contact information on a website and decide to reach out.
At each interview you do, conclude by asking whom else you should know. Your interviewee will likely be able to identify other professionals with similar interests, and may even offer to introduce you. Take them up on their offer—this is a key component to network building!
What else should I know? Basic interviewing etiquette applies. Keep your correspondence professional. Research your interviewee beforehand. Dress presentably. Take notes. Remember to follow up with a thank you email or, even better, a hand-written card.
But here’s the most important piece of advice: stop talking. Even though you asked for the meeting—even though you’ve set the agenda—an informational interview is not about you. Most people love to talk about themselves. Let them! Your role is to learn from their experiences and be receptive to their advice.
Finally, relax. Informational interviewing sounds scary and formal, but when it comes right down to it, it’s just a conversation. You’ll learn as you go, and it will get easier every time. Remember that people who say “yes” to you will be thrilled to share, because they were once in your shoes. Just be your authentic self! You’ll come away not only knowing more about your field, but with new directives for your career. And if you’re lucky, you’ll collect a network of professional mentors who want to help you succeed.
Kathleen Nay is a second-year AFE/UEP dual degree student who found her internship quite by accident through an informational interview, and has met some inspiring people by doing more since!