From Informational Interview to Reference Interview

I recently started taking people out to coffee like it’s my job. About a month ago, in the middle of my first quarter of library school, I moved to a brand-new place. And, in the spirit of “leap and the net will appear,” I moved without a job. So, in addition to filling out applications and taking public transportation to job interviews, I’ve used networking and meeting people as my primary strategy to get an idea of the Libraryland landscape in my new home.

These coffee chats, or “informational interviews,” have taught me more than any other aspect of the job search about how I can wield my librarian skills in non-library aspects of my life. The hackers here at HLS have sung information interviews’ praises in the past. The general idea is to get some wisdom about a field or sector from someone who has current working knowledge of it. The purpose of an informational interview is not necessarily to find employment; rather, it’s to “pick the brain” of someone doing work I admire and might want to do myself someday, including asking them who else I should connect with. I have found informational interviewees via my personal network (through old friends or family members), my professional network (through classmates, former colleagues, and mentors), and even social media (Twitter, LinkedIn) and good old cold-calling.

Cappuccino Chiang Mai

Photo by Takeaway, available under a Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0 license.

At first, I went into these interviews with a fixed mindset. I was ready to pitch myself and my skills from the first moment, and I had the elevator speech to prove it. I saw informational interviews as a one-way street—I was asking (or, begging!) someone more experienced, successful, and busy than I to give me time, information, and maybe even introductions to their colleagues. This was my chance to impress them.

But the more informational interviews I do, the more I feel like a librarian conducting a reference interview with a patron. Informational interviews are more about empathetically listening to the person from whom I have requested help and identifying their needs, than about advertising myself. Like any good reference interview, an informational interview can be a process of asking people questions and working with them to find a very specific outcome. In an informational interview, this outcome could take the shape of an internship or project opportunity, an introduction to a colleague, or simply the discovery of shared interests or understanding.

Now, instead of starting off a meeting by rattling off my qualifications and experiences, the first words out of my mouth tend to be some variation on, “What are you working on? What challenges are you/your organization facing right now?”

These questions guide the conversation in two main ways. First, talking through challenges and processes with a working professional is an immense learning opportunity for me. And second, this conversation also gives me opportunities to see where I might be able to contribute. Is there an opportunity for me to get involved, formally or informally? Do I have something of value to add?

At the same time, I practice the tenets of good basic communication we know from working the reference desk: I show approachability and friendliness with consistent eye contact and even a smile. I give the other person my full attention, and I refrain from interrupting or jumping to conclusions. I ask clarifying questions, paraphrase the other person’s statements in my own words, and ask open-ended questions to tease out details and meaning.

Where a reference interview aligns someone’s information needs with information resources, my goal in an informational interview is to align the other person’s professional needs with the contacts, information, or skills that I bring to the table.

Of course, this cannot always be the case. Sometimes, as a grad student and self-professed “baby professional,” I am thrilled to simply sit back, listen, and accept help. The ultimate effect of treating an informational interview like a reference interview is to shift my own perspective. Instead of approaching informational interviews as someone begging for resources, I come into the conversation as someone with valuable skills who is looking for ways to connect, align, and contribute.

I often walk away from an informational interview with no tangible outcome to show for it. But no matter the outcome, these informational interviews bare the power of asking in an at once humbling and empowering way. I leave each meeting knowing that these connections and relationships I am building, even if they do not yield jobs or advantageous connections or valuable tips immediately, will serve me as a professional—and as a well-rounded, empathetic person—in the long run.

Editor’s note: this post was originally published December 2, 2014.

8 replies

  1. Fantastic first post, Gennie! I agree 100% that informational interviewing is more about what you can gather from the other person than it is about selling yourself. And hopefully you can infer whether the institution is a healthy work environment or not.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Valuable non-advice/advice from an experienced, thoughtful observer. I write “non-advice” because as an avid consumer of Gennie’s previous blogs, I recognize her remarkable skill in presenting information generally (and advice specifically) to be received by the reader as welcome insight, delivered without a hint of preaching.

    Liked by 1 person

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