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What's An Informational Interview?

Submitted by peryan79 December 5, 2011

As we continue to post success stories from NIH alumni in our “NIH Alumni: Where are they now?” series, readers of this blog have seen and will continue to see the term, “informational interview.”  While aptly named, many readers may be asking:  What is an informational interview?  How do I set one up?  What type of questions should I ask?  What, besides information, should I expect to get out of an informational interview?

First you should understand the purpose of an informational interview.  It is to gain information, not a job.  You are asking a person who works in a field, a position or a company of interest to you about their job and career path.  The interview is not about you and your aspirations.  It is about the person you are interviewing.  However, a successful informational interview will build your knowledge base and your network by at least one person. 

So, how do you set up an informational interview?  The first step is to identify someone you want to interview.  Once you have done that, you will need to make contact with them.  The current convention for first contact is an e-mail.  In general, make it concise and to the point.  You want to respect their time.  State clearly that you are writing to ask them for an informational interview to learn more about them, their work and their career path.  Ask to meet in person or to speak on the phone for fifteen to thirty minutes.  Assure them you will not take up any more of their time and then be sure to honor that. 

Once you have set up the interview, take some time to write out your goals for the conversation and some key questions to ask.  A good list of objectives and questions can be found on the OITE website by clicking here.  However, do not go into the interview set on asking the questions in a precise order.  Let the conversation flow naturally.  If they give an answer that really intrigues you, ask them to elaborate on that particular subject.  Let the flow of the interview dictate the direction it takes.  The more comfortable the person you are interviewing is the more forthcoming and honest they will be. 

Ending an informational interview often can feel a little awkward.  A good transition to ending the interview is to ask them if they know anyone else whom you would benefit from talking to.  If they do, ask them if you can use their name when introducing yourself.  As obvious as it sounds, be sincerely appreciative of their willingness to share with you and express that gratitude at the end of the interview.  Also, send an e-mail after the interview to say thank you. 

Note:  It is often helpful to have a mutual acquaintance that can connect you with the person you wish to interview.  That is not always possible and certainly isn’t necessary.  However, if you do not know the person, you will have to write a “cold e-mail.”  We will go over tips for writing a cold e-mail in a special Friday post this week.

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