Career Decisions: Informal Interviews

Talking with others about their careers

Talking with people about their careers, or “informational interviewing,” has a number of benefits for anyone making career decisions as well as for finding and changing jobs.

If you’re exploring and gathering information on several careers, interviewing people in the field can give you a more specific, updated, and personalized perspective on the careers you are considering. Aside from actually working in a career, interviewing and observing people in the work setting is the only way that you can “get a feel” for whether you would like a particular work environment or not. Research has shown that informational interviewing is rated by college students as the most beneficial activity to help them with their career decision making.

If you’re job hunting, you’re probably aware of how tight the job market is. Did you know, however, that only 20% of all the job openings are advertised? This means that you need to use contacts to tap the “hidden” job market. Personal contact with employers and people working in the field can also give you an enormous amount of information which will help you when you start job hunting as well.

Whether you are exploring careers or making connections for job hunting, you’re probably feeling nervous about contacting strangers to give you career information. It may help you to know that people are flattered when you ask them for advice. They enjoy talking about themselves and their work, just like you enjoy giving another student advice on which classes to take and which to avoid. You can also allay some of your fears by practicing your interview with a friend. The more you prepare for your interview by following the tips from this handout, the more relaxed you will feel.

Information Interviewing: The Steps

Step 1: Focus on you
The first step involves putting the information interview in the context of your career planning: What do you hope to gain from talking to someone in the field? Since one of your purposes will probably be to pinpoint career and jobs that will be satisfying to you, a good place to start is to define what you mean by “satisfying.” One person’s “job satisfiers” may be a chance to provide leadership, manage others, obtain power, and earn a high salary. Someone else’s “satisfiers” might be a work setting which enables him or her to be creative, work alone, and solve problems through intuition. You may also want to think about your strongest skills and the skills you would enjoy using in your career. There are a number of checklists and inventories available at your college or university’s Career Center to identify your interests, values, and skills.

  • What are your “Job Satisfiers?”
  • Which skills are your strongest and which skills would you most enjoy using in your career?
  • What type of work setting(s) would you like to work in?

Step 2: Focus on careers and jobs
The next step involves brainstorming different careers, jobs, and work settings that meet your needs based on your self assessment in Step 1. Friends, relatives, and counselors can also help you brainstorm fields you may have never considered before.

When you have identified a variety of careers that spark your interests, gather written information through reading materials on careers in your college or university’s career center. Professional and trade associations are also good sources of information. Add to your brainstorming list by researching a particular career in all of the types of organizations that hire for that position. For example, research careers in both physical education and recreation programs in corporate and industrial settings.

  • Make a list of careers, jobs and work settings to research (keep adding to your list throughout your career search).

Step 3: Locate organizations and resource people
Start to build your network of contacts by asking friends, relatives, professors, and past employers if they know anybody working in your field of interest. You may also secure names of professionals by contacting your college or university’s alumni association.

Once you have exhausted these resources, you can begin to secure names by using the telephone book or other directories. Contact — in phone or in person — the general switchboard, personnel office or receptionist of organizations employing people in your field of interest. Ask who is in charge of the department that handles the type of work you are researching. Take down that person’s name, job title, phone number, and office location.

Then write a letter or call back to arrange an appointment with the person you have identified. You will also wish to speak to someone who actually works in the position of interest to you. With any of these approaches it is important to stress you are seeking information, not a job. Honesty here is very important.


  • Contacts: Name / Field Work / Location / Phone (Home/Work)
  • Organization’s/Company’s Name / Address / Phone

Step 4: Prepare your questions
With a little preparation, you will be able to ensure that your interview will go smoothly and that the conversation will flow easily. Plus you’ll be able to direct the conversation to make sure all of your questions are answered. Based on your self assessment in Step 1, prepare a list of questions that will be useful in determining whether the particular career, job, or work wetting will be personally satisfying. You may also list questions which were based on or left unanswered from your reading about the career. In preparing your questions, make an effort to keep them open-ended — questions which require a whole sentence to answer. It’s more difficult to interview someone who only has to say “yes” or “no” to every question.

The following questions may give you some ideas:

  1. What are the different entry level jobs in this career field?
  2. What do you do on a typical day?
  3. What background or experience is required or helpful?
  4. What aspects of this career field do the professionals often dislike?
  5. What are the most positive aspects about the work in the field?
  6. What courses might be helpful for me to take to enhance my chances for employment in the field?
  7. How competitive is the job market?
  8. What are the salary ranges at the entry level and higher levels?
  9. What is the typical career progression in the field?
  10. What related fields are available for people with backgrounds such as yours?
  11. What is the future of the field in terms of new and expanding opportunities?
  12. What could you suggest for someone in my situation?
  13. With what other organizations of people in this field do you suggest I talk?
  14. Resource books, articles, professional associations that you would suggest?

If you are preparing to enter the job market, you may also wish to ask questions such as:

  1. Would you please read my resume and offer suggestions and criticism?
  2. If you were going to hire a new entry level person, what would the highly qualified candidate be like?
  3. What are the major challenges/problems that your organization is facing and would like solutions for?
  4. I understand from reading your company brochure, that after 12-15 months of training, a ______ can be promoted to _______. What would you say is the major quality or accomplishment which distinguishes those who are promoted from those who are not?

Write down other questions to ask which would enable you to learn whether you would be satisfied with the career/job/work setting you are considering.

Step 5: The Interview
Dress as if you were going to a job interview in your field. Arrive early for the interview . . . . you may be able to learn from the receptionist and from literature in the waiting area. Take advantage of a tour, the opportunity to observe others at work, and/or talk to additional resource people. You may also wish to bring your resume to obtain feedback on whether your background is compatible with the career you are considering. During the interview, keep an open mind and listen closely to what is said, but also objectively evaluate your sources in considering the information you obtained. Take a pad with you to take notes, write down specific information for follow up as well as names of other referrals. In ending the interview, express appreciation for their time spent with you.

STEP 6: Follow up
Write the person you have interviewed a thank you note, mentioning how the talk helped you and what suggestions you plan to implement. Also, from time to time, let them know of your progress and keep their name(s) on file. If at some point you desire employment with the organization, send your resume with a cover letter detailing why you were impressed with the firm and how your skills can meet their needs.

Be sure to visit the Notre Dame Career Center for more tips on self assessment and informational interviewing!