For library school students, new graduates, and experienced information professionals seeking to switch to a different kind of work within the field, an informational interview can be a good way of getting valuable insider knowledge and expanding a network. These can help with your job search and career development; you never know where a piece of information or a connection might lead.
Not everyone is familiar with informational interviews though, and if you are not clear on what the purpose and parameters of such a meeting are, you run the risk of not making the most of the opportunity, or worse, making a bad impression.
What is an informational interview? (and what is it not?)
An informational interview is a meeting with another professional for the purpose of learning more about a stated topic, for example, or a certain workplace or kind of library or type of work. It is not a job interview (more on that coming up). In this interview, you are the one asking most of the questions, and ideally it is more like a conversation than a Q&A session. While it may be informal, you should still take it seriously and prepare beforehand.
Another benefit: while they may be somewhat intimidating, informational interviews are usually not as nerve-wracking as job interviews. Like mock interviews, informational interviews can give you interview experience that will help to make you more comfortable when you are interviewing for a job.
The informational interview should not be seen as the beginning of a mentoring relationship. It is possible that the other person will offer to meet or be in contact with you regularly as a formal or informal mentor, but you should wait for the other person to suggest that. Unless s/he says otherwise, assume that this is a one-time meeting.
How to make the request
It is best to have had some kind of contact or at least an introduction before making a request for an informational interview. Contacting a stranger out of the blue may be seen as pushy or aggressive and is not likely to get a positive response.
First, do your homework. Do some online research about the person you’d like to interview, and the aspect of their work you are interested in learning more about. If you demonstrate that you have given this thought and preparation, and clearly state exactly what kind of information you are seeking, the other person may be more willing to say “yes” to your request. Stay focused on just one or two things you want to learn about, rather than having a long list. This shows respect for the interviewee’s time.
Be as respectful as possible throughout the request, the interview itself, and afterward. E-mail or a LinkedIn message are better options than a phone call, as they are less intrusive and give the recipient time to decide on a response to your request. If the person you are asking is not someone you know well, mention how you met or who made the introduction, especially if you are not requesting the interview immediately after an initial contact. Say that you are very interested in learning more about [X] and [Y], and if s/he is willing and available, you would welcome the opportunity to meet and ask a few questions. Always present your request in a way that emphasizes that the interview will not take up a lot of the other person’s time, and that you understand if it is not possible.
Don’t ask for a job!
Even if there is a job opening at that time at that workplace that you are interested in, don't ask about it in the interview. Don’t ask if there are any openings either. This puts the other person in an awkward position and can make you look desperate. S/he has agreed to discuss certain topics with you and it will be seen as manipulative and dishonest if you bring up something else entirely; it will call into question what your real motives are.
While you should not deviate from the topics you mentioned in your initial request for the interview, you should be flexible if the other person offers something more: some additional advice or information, an opportunity to meet again, an introduction to another professional, a tour of the workplace, or something else that was not on the agenda. (The interviewee will also appreciate your flexibility if something happens to interrupt the conversation or cut it short.) While it does happen that people are offered internships or other opportunities at or following an informational interview, you should never expect anything like that.
Before and during the interview
A few days before the interview, confirm with the interviewee the time and location. Bring a brief list of specific questions on the agreed-upon subjects, appropriate for the amount of time you have been allotted. Show in your questions what you know about that workplace or type of work; show the preparation you have done. This also demonstrates respect to the other professional.
Aside from putting together questions on the topics you will be asking about, preparation for the day of the informational interview is similar in some ways to a job interview.
First impressions count (and even if you have met the person before, these things communicate respect):
- Dress appropriately – no jeans, t-shirts, etc. Business casual will be fine in most cases; if you are meeting at the other person’s workplace and you know it is very formal then a suit may be better.
- Make sure you know how to get to the location, and leave plenty of time to get there. Arrive no more than 10 minutes before the meeting time; do not be late!
- If the meeting is at a workplace, be sure to be polite to everyone you encounter there.
- Listen attentively and respond to what the interviewee says. Take notes, but don’t try to transcribe each word.
- Your cell phone and other devices should be off during the interview.
- Keep the conversation as positive as possible. Even if the interviewee expresses a negative opinion about someone or about another library, workplace, etc. it is best not to join in with similar comments.
If the interviewee has specified a certain time period for the interview, be aware of how much time has passed and don’t try to push for more time. It is a good idea, though, to allot extra time in your own schedule in case the other person wishes to extend the interview – and it is a very good sign if that does happen!
Send a thank you note within a few days. Handwritten is best; it takes a bit more effort and is more memorable than e-mail, although you may want to send a brief e-mail of thanks right away, followed by the handwritten note. So many people don’t bother with any kind of a thank you that this alone can help you to stand out from other new contacts.
If it goes well, (if you haven’t already) you may want to connect via LinkedIn, or otherwise stay in touch. Contact every few months, via a brief “catching up” e-mail, is a good non-intrusive way to keep in touch. You can also, once in a while, send a link to an article or blog posting the other person might find interesting, or mention something that was in the news related to his/her work or workplace. It is better not to make any kind of additional request after the informational interview, until some time with regular contact has passed. You don’t want to seen as someone who requests favors or advice frequently, and you don’t want every e-mail you send to be a request. If the person does not respond or does not seem interested in continuing contact, don't try to force it.
While an informational interview is a situation in which you are requesting and receiving something from another professional, in general it is a good idea when networking to focus less on yourself and more on the other person. It might be counterintuitive, but the less you think about what you might get, the more you are likely to receive. If you can think of some way you could be of service to the person who granted you the interview, it is a very good idea to offer such assistance.
As with any meeting of two information professionals, both may benefit from an informational interview. However, it is more likely that for this particular meeting, you, as the person receiving the information, will get more out of it. If you keep that in mind and express genuine gratitude, you’ll have a better chance of making a good impression and possibly having that other professional as a strong ally in your network.
Ellen Mehling received her MSLIS from Long Island University and works as a librarian, instructor and writer in and around NYC. Her professional experience includes work in special, public, and academic libraries, as well as archives. She is Director of the Westchester Graduate Library School Program and Director of Internships for L.I.U.’s Palmer School and since 2009 has been METRO’s Job Bank Manager / Career Development Consultant. She teaches classes and workshops on job hunting, information literacy, researching, and other subjects at METRO’s Training Center and other venues within and outside NYC.