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Informational Interviewing: Who to speak with, how to introduce yourself and what to ask

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At various stages of your career development, have you come to a point where you feel stuck, paralyzed by agonizing analysis that gets you nowhere? Perhaps you are student or career changer plagued by an overwhelming array of career choices, or a job seeker, who, with a vague sense of unease, continues to apply for jobs that may or may not be a good fit?

Moving forward, even if in tiny increments, is actually a simple process - all you need to do so is information.

Learning more about your strengths, values, interests and personality is necessary in order to narrow down your occupational options. There are various self-assessment tools available online and in books. However, if you want the support of a trained facilitator, call Job Skills to register for a Career Exploration Program, or another employment counselling office in your local area.

Once you have narrowed down your occupational choices, it is essential to talk to industry experts to help you gain insight into the reality of working in a particular job. These information gathering conversations are appropriately dubbed informational Interviews, and involve scheduling in advance a 20-30 minute interview where you can ask very focussed and deliberate questions that will give you valuable insight into the job and industry you are considering. Much has been written about this process, and an excellent resource is this online tutorial. Despite the benefits of informational interviewing, many people find the process daunting. To alleviate these concerns, here are the answers to some of the most common questions around informational interviewing:

“How do I find someone to talk to?”

Ask your network of contacts for introductions to someone working in the occupation or in the organization you are researching. If you cannot find someone via this method, then speak with someone at a professional or industry association. Find a list of professional associations here or visit the information desk at a public library and ask for the Associations Canada Directory. Search industries by keyword. If you want to learn more about the role of a Registered Nurse, for example, you can call the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario. It is not recommended, however, that you call a licensing body for a given field (for example the College of Nurses of Ontario).

“Why would someone want to set aside 20 minutes to talk to me? Aren’t people busy?”

Having conducted many informational interviews myself, and having witnessed hundreds of people conduct them over the phone, time and time again I have been amazed by the generosity of people. People are indeed busy, but I find that by respecting their time by sticking to the 20-30 minutes I asked for and scheduling the meeting at a time that is convenient for them, I have never been turned down, nor have I seen anyone get turned down.

“Are people at industry associations going to be interested in answering my questions?”

Absolutely! Industry experts are interested in sharing information to support people who are considering entering their field, or who are transitioning to a different role within the field.

“How do I open up the conversation?”

Opening script when calling an industry association for career exploration:

“Hello. My name is John and I am in engaged in career exploration at the moment. One of the occupations that I am considering pursuing is Financial Analyst. Would I be able to set up an informational interview to talk with someone over the phone for 20-30 minutes to ask some questions and get some advice?”

Opening script when calling an industry association for career planning:

“Hello. My name is John and I am in engaged in career planning at the moment. I have been working in the financial industry for some time, and I want to do some long term planning which may result in a lateral or promotional move and I would like to speak with someone for learn more about industry trends. Would I be able to set up a phone interview with someone for 20-30 minutes to ask some questions and get some advice?”

“What questions should I ask?”

The tutorial that I provided above has an long list of questions for various scenarios. I would also like to provide you with a sample of some very effective questions to ask.

Sample questions to ask if you are calling for support with career exploration:

    What do you like about your work?
  • What is a typical day like?
  • What do you dislike about your work?
  • What entices people to stay and leave this occupation?
  • Would you recommend this path to others? If so, why?
  • What type of training is required for this occupation? Where is the best place to do the training?
  • Do you have any other advice for me?
  • Could you please recommend someone else that I can speak with for more advice? May I mention that I was speaking with you? (Try to get 3-5 opinions).

Sample questions to ask if you are calling for support with career planning:

  • Given my background, what are some roles that I should consider?
  • What are the employment prospects for those roles?
  • What are the growing trends in this industry?
  • What is the best way to get into that occupation?
  • Is there any additional training that you would recommend? Where is the best place to get the training?
  • Is there any other advice that you would have for me?
  • Is there someone else that you recommend I speak with for more advice? May I mention that I was talking with you? (Or, if you are trying to find someone to speak with a particular company, you could ask at this point: Would you know someone at ABC Company that I could speak with for more advice? May I mention I was speaking with you?”

It is important to always follow up an informational interview with a thank you note. You may also want to invite the interviewee to connect with you on LinkedIn, in order to update him/her on the progress of your research as means of developing relationships within your industry. Given the constant flux of the labour market, career transitions are inevitable. Informational interviewing is an efficient way to get the credible information you need to help you feel like you are progressing towards your goals.

Luciana Longo, Employment Settlement Specialist at Job Skills, has been working in the career development industry for over 12 years, currently supporting newcomers to Canada and assisting them with their integration into the Canadian labour market. Job Skills is a community-based employment training agency, providing employment, business, newcomer and employer services in the GTA since 1988.

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