If you’re in your 40s, 50s, or beyond, and thinking about changing your career, you want to be sure you’re making the right decision.
One of the best ways to explore whether a career option would be a good fit is by conducting informational interviews with people who are already working in that field.
But I find people are often unsure about how to approach informational interviews. There are a few areas that seem to trip them up. These are the things you don’t want to do in an informational interview:
1. Approach it as a way to get a job interview. The primary purpose of an informational interview is to find out if a particular career would be a good fit for you, and what sort of preparation or training you would need. It’s not about looking for a job!
2. Wing it. Know your purpose and have a plan for how you’ll approach the interview. Decide what information you want to come away with, and prepare a list of questions in advance that will be most likely to give you the information you seek.
3. Interview only people you know. To be able to make an informed decision, you’ll want to get multiple perspectives on a career. When you talk to people you already know, ask them for introductions to people they know who are working in the field. Make use of your LinkedIn contacts, alumni groups, and professional associations. And again, let people know you’re only interested in information.
4. Don’t do your homework first. Before your informational interviews, do some research to get a better handle on the career that interests you. Some good resources for researching occupations and companies include the Occupational Outlook Handbook, O*NET, and company websites.
5. Overstay your welcome. Request the interview by written letter, email, or phone call. Let the person know you’re thinking about a career change and are gathering information to help in the decision-making process. Ask for 10 to 15 minutes by phone, perhaps 15 to 30 minutes in person. Then be sure to honor the time you’ve requested.
6. Make the informational interview about you. You’re there to get advice and input from someone actually working in the career that interests you, so ask about their experience. If asked about yourself, answer briefly, but do share why you’re interested in this career.
7. Ask closed questions. Ask open-ended questions that allow you to assess whether a career would be a good fit for you, then listen. Your questions might include:
- How did you get started?
- What background is best for people entering this field?
- What does a typical day look like?
- What do you like best (and least) about your career?
- What are the top 5 or 6 skills that people who are successful in this field possess?
8. Leave without requesting additional contacts. Do your best to leave each interview with the name of at least one more person who would be willing to provide information. You could ask something like: “Who else should I speak with?” Since you’re not looking for a job, networking isn’t your primary purpose. Of course, every person you speak with could become a job lead in the future.
9. Neglect courtesies. Express appreciation for the meeting and their time, and be sure to follow up by mailing a thank-you note in which you mention something you gained during the interview. Consider sharing articles of interest or volunteering your assistance with one of their projects.
10. Keep trying to make it fit. Be prepared to narrow your list of possible careers. When you find a career option isn’t as good a fit as you had hoped, let it go.
Informational interviews can actually be fun. To get the most out them, though, take your time and avoid the temptation to make a hasty decision. Who knows… as you ask questions and meet new people to interview, you may even discover a career you had never thought about before.
What are your experiences with informational interviews?