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The informational interview is one of the most useful and yet under-utilized career management tools. I’ve become a big proponent of informational interviews ever since conducting my first one several months ago. When I’m among job seekers, I often ask if they are including informational interviews as part of their strategy. Many have never heard of them, and many of those who have tend to shy away from them. If you are not using informational interviews, you are missing a great opportunity.

What is an informational interview?

Sometime called an informational meeting, a referral meeting, or a research interview. It is a brief meeting (usually anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes) between you and somebody currently in a career or industry that you want to learn more about. You can use the interview to gain new knowledge, or to validate your understanding, or to sharpen your focus.

An informational interview is not about asking for a job. Never, never ask for a job. That is the cardinal rule of informational interviews.

And therein is the rub for many job seekers who disdain informational interviews. They seem to view them as an underhanded and sneaky way to get a foot in the door when the interviewee knows they are really looking for a job. Or, they may feel that the informational interview puts them in an awkward position by making them appear desperate.

What these job seekers don’t realize is that informational interviews are not strictly the domain of job seekers. Such interviews are an essential part of networking for both the unemployed and the employed. (Note that I earlier referred to the informational interview as a career management tool, not a job search tool.) Most professionals recognize this as an ordinary part of business and are not offended by being approached for an interview. In a 2004 Career Journal article, Pamela Peterson, director of business development for IPSA International, said “Eighty percent of the time people are delighted and willing to meet and to help, primarily because they recognize the value of networking as well the satisfaction that comes from being able to help someone.”

What are the benefits of an informational interview?

Compare the informational interview with a job interview.

  • Informational interviews are generally easier to get.
  • With an informational interview, you ask the questions and are in control.
  • An informational interview is typically more relaxed for both parties.
  • Informational interviewees may become part of your network, and may provide referrals.
  • Informational interviewees may be less guarded in sharing information.

In addition, you build your professional network. You gain knowledge of a career or industry. You gain confidence in presenting yourself and your ideas to others. And you develop name recognition and a positive reputation in your professional circle.

Okay, I’m sold… Now what?

Watch for additional posts in the coming days about

  • How to obtain an informational interview
  • How to conduct an informational interview

Update 11/20/2007: Be sure to see Part 2 of this discussion.