How to Nail Any Informational Interview

Do you know what’s scary? Networking. It is just this monolith of an idea and often it evokes images of large events with sticker name tags, tiny plastic plates of equally tiny food, and an overwhelming number of people. Due to my own personality type, I have never found large networking opportunities to be the best way of meeting people. There are too many things happening, too much pressure to remember to hand out business cards, too many other people competing for both my attention and the attention of the person I am speaking to. Together with my anxiety, I end up in a sort of hostage situation where I can’t figure out what to do next.  

Photo of a lego man holding a lego gun to a panda

Make five meaningful career introductions at this conference or the panda gets it. Photo by Alan and licensed by Creative Commons.

Informational interviews, however, are different. It is possible to both cold contact someone (such as blindly emailing them when they have no idea who you are), or lead off of an initial meeting at one of those large, populated events.  They allow me a chance to gain some control over the situation by following a sort of checklist of best practices I have compiled over the years. I know the script, I know what to do, and therefore I can come off as more confident and able. Here are my best practices in the hopes that they may help you as they have helped me:

  • When asking for an informational interview, lay the facts out immediately. “I am a student/recent grad at X school. Would you be interested in a [20/25/30] minute informational interview with me? I am interested in learning more about Y facet of your career. Thank you for your consideration.” Here is the important part: when it comes time for the interview stick to that time constraint. Even if you have a thousand more questions, do not run over time. You can always see if they will speak more with you later.
  • Find out which form of communication they prefer. Email, phone, in-person, whichever the constraints allow. If it is an in-person informational interview, find out if they have a preferred location for it. Some people prefer meeting in their offices, other people prefer getting out to a coffee shop; go with the flow as much as you can.
  • If it is a distance interview, find a quiet place to hold it. If it is over Skype, use a direct connection to the internet (like ethernet). No one wants their interviewer to freeze and lose a connection halfway through thanks to spotty wifi.
  • If it is on the phone, I have found it helps to be dressed above pajama level just to give my confidence a boost. Sitting across from a mirror also helps me pretend I am talking to more than a voice (or maybe I am just horribly conceited).
  • When the interview begins, for the love of all pandas in a hostage situation, thank them for taking the time to speak to you. After that, introduce yourself briefly: “My name is x, I study at y, my library interests are a,b, and c. I am interested in learning more about you and your career because z.” This will give them an idea of how to tailor their responses to your questions to areas that will interest you.
  • Compile a list of questions to ask during the interview. Do this BEFORE you meet with the person in order to have a list of go to questions to avoid that lovely awkward pause that can arise. I prefer creating my list of questions a day or so before the interview, so they are still fresh in my mind when it comes time for the interview. I also prefer to print out my questions, so I will be able to take notes directly on them without noisily typing during the interview. You can always go back and retype up the answers if you prefer to keep a digital record of things.Do not be afraid to change up the question order during the interview, or even ask some questions that aren’t on your list. They are just there to give you a guideline in case you find yourself scrambling.
  • Here are a few questions I like to fallback on that you may find useful:
    • What was your general career path, how did you find yourself drawn to a career in [insert specialization here if applicable] libraries?
    • What do you see as the most useful skill I could be learning right now in a program setup like library school? outside of the program?
    • If you were in my position now, what is something you would have liked to have known?
    • What should I be reading right now/ what books have you found useful in your career?
    • Are there any questions I should have asked you that I missed?
  • Do not ask people if they have a job for you. The purpose of an informational interview is to learn about different career paths and what people actually in the field think. It is not the time for mercenary job hunting. Asking people for a job during an informational interview can seem like “I don’t really care about anything you have to say if it doesn’t get me a job.” Down the line, once you have established a relationship with the person to the point that elevates you above the status of  “oh yeah, that one student” you can start asking your contact if they have heard of any job openings that sound like a good fit for you.
  • Ask them if they know anyone else who would be in interested in speaking with you, especially if your interview is with someone in your specialized library area. It is a question you can ask down the line if you don’t feel comfortable asking during your initial informational interview.  
  • When you are done with the interview, thank them again. Tell them you will be in touch in the future, and then do it, follow up.
  • Following up is the hard part, but it can also be incredibly important. Essentially you need to keep yourself on their radar. Following up can take multiple forms. It can be a congratulations if they have done something cool, a response to one of their tweets (I love Twitter for this), or even letting them know that you took their advice and as a result have done something cool.

I hope I have inspired some of you to go out there and interview your favorite librarians. I also suggest checking out Christina’s recent interview for a great example of an informational interview. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me on Twitter (which is itself a form of networking!).

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