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The most common question we get about networking is, “How do I approach people? Do I just call or email randomly and somehow try to form a relationship out of nothing?” The simple answer is, no; you request an informational interview.

What is it?

An informational interview is a meeting between you and a professional where you can ask questions about that person’s field, career journey, company or employer, and so on. There are two main purposes or benefits of the informational interview:

1.)    You can glean valuable information about what it’s really like to work in a certain industry or how to make it into that industry in the first place.

2.)    You can form a networking relationship – and hopefully a friend/mentorship – with the person you’re interviewing.

How Do I Get One?

There are a myriad of ways to obtain an informational interview. Here are a couple of them:

1.)    Use LinkedIn
Sign up with LinkedIn if you don’t already have an account. Identify some potential career fields and jobs that sound interesting to you. Go through your 1st, 2nd, and 3rd level connections, use the filtered search tool, or use the find alumni tool to look for professionals in the fields and jobs you’re interested in.

Send the professionals a message to start a conversation. When it feels appropriate, say something like, “In looking through your profile, I noticed you’ve had a successful career in bioengineering. I’m really interested in that field, myself. I’d love to talk to you about it sometime and how you got where you are today. Would that be okay with you?”

If the answer is yes, ask if he or she would like to discuss it over e-mail, phone, video chat, or in person; whatever it is, move the conversation off LinkedIn so you two can form a relationship outside the website.

2.)   Work with Your Existing Network
Write a list of your current network (family, friends, co-workers, professors, supervisors, neighbors, etc.). From that list, start asking around about professionals you may be able to interview.

For example, “Hey Jerry, what’s it like working for Disney? Can you introduce me to someone working in corporate sales?” Another example, “Hey mom, do you know anyone in the field of videography? Or anyone who knows someone in that field?”

Ask around until you strike gold, and have the person in your current network help you set up an informational interview with the professional you both identified.

What Do I Ask?

This one is really up to you. What do you need to know? Are you trying to transition into a sales role after spending years in an HR position? Are you trying to decide if dentistry is the right career for you? Do you know exactly what you want to be but aren’t sure how to get there? Pinpoint your needs, and form questions based on them.

Here are some samples you can feel free to use:

1.)    I really want to teach college, like you do, but I’m not sure yet if I’m going to get a PhD. Is it common for colleges to hire people with a master’s but no PhD, or would it be hard for me to find a job without one? What about community colleges?

2.)    It’s amazing that you’ve been promoted three times with your current company, how do you get noticed by the right people? How can I do something similar in my company?

3.)    I’m thinking seriously about becoming an accountant, but I’d like to know what it’s actually like day-in and day-out before making a decision. Can you tell me what a typical day for you looks like?

4.)    If you could go back and start a career all over again, would you still choose this one? Why or why not?

4.)    This question is very important. Always ask for other referrals to interview next. This is how you keep building your network!

How should I behave?

1.)    Always keep in mind that people are busy; be considerate of their time. When requesting an informational interview, suggest a time limit of 20 minutes. During the interview, keep track of the time and do not go over. Often, they’ll choose to extend the time because they’re enjoying the conversation. If that’s the case, feel free to keep going.

2.)    Be prepared. Do research on the person and their company before the interview. Have a list of questions ready (more than enough to fill the time, just in case). Have a recorder or pen and paper ready to go.

3.)    Be professional throughout the whole process; that includes initial contact through follow-up. Check grammar and spelling before sending an e-mail. If in person, come early to the interview and dress professionally.

4.)    Follow up. This is often the easiest step to miss. Don’t drop off the face of the earth after the interview. This person took time out of a busy schedule to help you, strictly for your benefit. A great way to keep up the relationship is to, at the end of the interview, ask if you can call/email back if you have any more questions. Then do it! Continue to ask questions as they come, and notify your interviewee when you find success.