How to Master the Informational Interview

first-5-icon-07They say that in government networking is the name of the game. One particular tool that can really help you make meaningful connections, as a young professional, is highly underutilized because few actually know its purpose or protocol: it’s called the informational interview.

It’s okay if you’ve never heard of it. Prior to arriving in DC, I never knew what it was either and I’m just starting to learn the ropes.

An informational interview is not as formal as a job interview but it’s not as informal as a coffee meeting either. US News defines it as a one-on-one conversation with someone who has a job you might like, who works within an industry you might want to enter, or who is employed by a specific organization that you’re interested in learning about.

The key is to remember that the purpose is not to ask for a job but to help you establish meaningful relationships with people who work in the field you are interested in. Your goal is to get more information about what it’s like to actually work in that field.

Set Up an Informational Interview
Now that you know what it actually is, how do you go about setting up an informational interview? The first step is to find contacts. Sit down and talk with some mentors, supervisors, teachers, or people in your network for contacts in an agency or job that interests you.

I have one particular graduate professor who has been extremely generous in helping me make connections with people in the fields of my interests. I had to take that initial step, however, and sit down with him to talk about my professional interests, tell him what sort of career track I was thinking about, and ask for his advice on how to proceed. Usually, these initial contacts will refer you to others in the field who could help address some of your questions.

The next step is to reach out and make contact with the references. Sometimes that mentor or supervisor will introduce the two of you in an email, but you’ll still want to follow up with the reference to make a formal introduction. Be sure to give some background information about yourself and why you’re interested in speaking with the person. An example for an introduction can be something like:

“Dear Mrs. Smith, Brad Johnson suggested I speak with you. My name is ________ and I am currently (insert background about yourself) and am interested in the _______ field. Brad had a lot of great things to say about you and I could use some advice from someone who is in this field. I’d love to hear your insights on (their work in particular). Do you have time in the next two weeks to meet for about 20 minutes?

Be mindful of the person’s time. As a successful individual in the field of your interest, he or she is probably very busy. Plan for 30 minutes max for the interview and don’t be averse to a phone call if she doesn’t have time to step out of the office for lunch or coffee.

Conduct an Informational Interview
Now that you’ve set up a time with the individual, make sure to read up on her background and prepare some questions in advance. Do as much research as you can beforehand about the individual, her profession, and the organization where she works.

If the person has published any work, it’s very important that you read up on her articles or research. That way, you can even start off the interview with something like, “I read your paper on _________, what are your thoughts on ____________?” It not only shows you’ve done your homework, but it also shows you have an interest in actually getting to know about her and what she does, and you’re not just there to get ahead in your career.

For the actual interview, Careeronestop suggests having the following questions prepared in advance:

  • I understand you worked at Organization A before moving on to Organization B. Could you tell me more about your career path and how you ended up working at your current organization?
  • What is a typical day like in your job?
  • What do you like most/least about this career and this organization?
  • What are some of the most challenging aspects of your job?
  • What experiences best prepared you for this job?

Follow Up
Finally, as you wrap up the interview, keep these tips in mind:

  • Ask for names and contacts in the field at the conclusion of interview. The most important question you should ask at the end of an interview is “Do you have any recommendations as to who to follow up with in this field?”
  • Send thank yous and follow up. Send an email or a note no later than one day after your meeting. Thank the person for her time and refer back to some of her suggestions like, “I look forward to following up on this list serv you suggested” or “I look forward to meeting this person you referred me to.”
  • Keep in touch with every reference. Don’t just drop your references and move on. If they suggested an article or a new contact, reach out to them and let them know you’re actually taking their advice. And remember your original contact, like my graduate professor? Make sure to keep someone like him in the loop after you met with the people he sent you to.

A lot of the contacts I have been referred to have one thing in common: they got their job because someone helped them get connected to someone. It’s a small world in the government and overall job sector. You never know who knows whom. So be sure to use informational interviews as a tool to establish meaningful, sustained professional relationships. It may not be immediate, but you never know when someone could be the next person to help you land that important job.


For more reading about millennials in public service, check out this weekly GovLoop series, First 5: Advice from millennial to millennial

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