Networking and Informational Interviewing

What is networking?

Networking is the process of meeting people, having conversations, exchanging information, and nurturing relationships. A good network of professional contacts can help you stand out in an applicant pool, be considered for opportunities to grow, and potentially lead to promotion.

You already have a network.

You’d be surprised by how many people you know. Think of SBU faculty and staff you know. Consider your friends and students you work with through clubs, fraternities/sororities, and other activities. Family and extended family members can also be part of your network.

You can expand your network easily.

  • People in your network who know you well may be able to introduce you to people they know.
  • Meet new people through organizations and activities.
  • Consider getting involved in a campus organization related to your professional goals and join the professional chapter as well, if applicable.
  • Join the SBU Alumni Association and get involved with their events.
  • Take advantage of the Career Advisors Network (CAN) Program – the Career Center’s database of professionals willing to help!
  • Use LinkedIn [www.linkedin.com] – the professional networking site.

Networking techniques.

  • With people you know, networking is easiest; you can initiate conversations, exchange information, and further develop your professional relationship. You do not have to become someone’s best friend to have a professional relationship.
  • With people you used to know (as in former colleagues or classmates), you could reconnect via email or through LinkedIn.
  • With people you don’t know, networking can be more challenging, but it is absolutely doable! Some ways you can initiate conversation include:
    • While standing on line at the bookstore, you could initiate a conversation about courses.
    • While attending an industry meeting, you could inquire about a person’s involvement in the organization or their work.
    • You could respond to someone’s blog post, op-ed, or article in a publication.
    • You could write to someone you don’t know, asking for a networking meeting – see below for guidelines.

Use your network to get career advice – conduct an informational interview.

This is a career research technique that enables you to expand your knowledge of an occupation beyond what you have already learned through investigation. In this type of interview, you are the person asking the questions – you are interviewing a person for information about his/her career. Through the informational interview, you may learn about the work environment, the rewards and frustrations of the job, as well as the personal qualities needed for success in the field.

It is important to remember that an informational interview is not a job interview. That means it is not appropriate to use the session to ask about job openings with the organization. Doing this may actually hurt your chances for employment with the company. It may also ruin opportunities for other students seeking informational interviews in the future.

Now that you know what an informational interview is, let’s talk about how to secure one!

The five steps to conducting an informational interview include:

  • Step 1: Identify professionals to contact
  • Step 2: Prepare for the informational interview
  • Step 3: Request the informational interview
  • Step 4: Conduct the informational interview
  • Step 5: Follow up

Step 1: Identify professionals to contact

The best place to start is with your current network of contacts. Ask your contacts if they know anyone working in your field of interest who may be willing to speak with you and give you some advice.

Next, make a list of people you don’t know but you think might be willing to help. Approaching strangers is uncomfortable even for the most seasoned networkers, but you would be surprised at how willingly people help others who are interested in their careers. Here are some ideas for finding appropriate professional contacts:

  • Stony Brook alumni and other professionals can be found through the Career Advisors Network (CAN) program. Members all volunteer to be a part of this database and welcome student contacts: http://career.stonybrook.edu/students/educate/network-with-alumni
  • Student professional societies (e.g. Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers - SHPE, the American Marketing Association, the Pre-PA club) host networking sessions with professionals. The SBU Department of Student Activities website will have the latest list of student organizations.
  • Professional associations often allow students to attend off-campus industry gatherings at no or reduced cost. This will enable you to meet with professionals working in your field of interest, and may result in connections willing to conduct informational interviews. See below for examples of professional associations.
  • Professors and Career Center counselors may be able to provide additional resources.

Step 2: Prepare for the informational interview

Before you speak with someone, you must have investigated the profession and know something about it – you must show a professional that you are serious and well prepared. From your research, get a sense of the type of work performed by your contact, current issues in the field, and industry-specific key words and acronyms. Remember, these are people who are setting aside time in their busy schedules to provide you with information. Do not waste their time by asking questions easily answered by doing a little homework.

Research…research…research…

INDUSTRY: You could start with the big picture: the industry. What is it all about? What type of work is done in this industry? What are the latest trends? Who are the top companies in this industry? Who are the up-and-coming competitors?

For example, you might love cars and want to explore the automotive industry. Maybe you feel passionate about helping college students, and want to explore the industry of higher education. Perhaps you are interested in fashion or finance, or the environment. All of these industries are complex and have many different jobs associated with them. With more information, you can determine whether you like the industry well enough to explore it further, or whether you want to explore something else.

CAREER FIELDS: You could also start with a specific career field. What is it all about? What skills and qualities are needed in the field or required for career entry? What organizations employ people who do this type of work? What are some of the career tracks and sample job titles in this field, and what are the pros and cons associated with these positions? What training and education are required for career entry? What is the employment outlook?

For example, you might imagine yourself working in the legal field. What are all the possible types of organization that could employ a lawyer? Does one have to work in a law firm or open a practice? Are there other positions besides attorney that could be satisfying? If you are interested in a branch of the law, such as environmental law or international law, would there be different expectations?

RESOURCES for INDUSTRY & CAREER RESEARCH:

  • Professional association websites often provide the latest information about industry trends and often have job listings so you can see exactly what employers are looking for in hiring.

Examples of professional association websites:

Trade publications and business newspapers/websites will likely be good sources of the latest information.

Blogs may also provide some insider advice; just be careful about the sources of information you review.

Questions....questions....questions.....

From your research, develop a list of questions about the industry, the field, or the individual you will be interviewing. Remember that it is inappropriate to ask about specific job openings. Although an informational interview can also help you establish new contacts, it is fundamentally an extension of your research, and thus only a small part of the career development cycle. Develop your questions with the purpose of gathering information about your intended industry or field.

Sample questions about the industry:

1- In preparing for this interview, I found that this industry is expected to grow and expand job opportunities nationally. Would you say that holds true for the metro NY area?

2- I read in last week’s Long Island Business News that Suffolk County has created a program to attract biotech firms to relocate here. How do you feel this might this impact your business in the future?

Sample questions about the field:

1- In preparing for this interview, I learned that more companies are requiring project managers to have the PMP certification. What is your perspective on this development?

2- I saw the report on television last night that Wall Street firms are announcing new layoffs, yet I have also noticed several job postings in these firms. How will these layoffs impact internships and the entry-level job market in finance?

Sample questions about the individual*:

1- I noticed on your CAN Mentor profile that you do freelance consulting. How do you market yourself to potential clients without seeming too pushy?

2- I’ve read a few blogs where people in your field say that one of the best things about this kind of work is the freedom / lack of structure. Do you share this sentiment? Would people who like structure automatically be a poor fit for this type of work?

*Be careful not to interpret an individual’s response as though it is the final word on the subject. It is important for you to analyze answers for their relevance to your situation.

Plan enough questions for a 20-minute, 30-minute, or 60-minute interview. Meaning – put your priority questions first and be prepared for a contact to give you just 20 minutes. Occasionally, things go so well that the interviewee will extend the conversation, so you should have extra questions ready just in case.

Initiate the Conversation

Before you contact a CAN Mentor, take some time to prepare. Consider the following:

To-Do List Strategies for Conversation
Take time getting to know someone. Where possible, read about him/her in advance. Before meeting with your CAN Mentor, do your research by viewing his/her company profile and LinkedIn profile. Take some time to learn about the person’s background. What, if anything, do you have in common?
What most piques your interest about this person?
Consider your interests. What do you hope to get out of this conversation? What do you want to learn?
Determine your goals. What would success look like for you? Can you articulate your goals and what you need to achieve them?
Share your assumptions, needs, expectations, and limitations candidly. Ask for feedback. Be open to honesty and critique.
Discuss options and opportunities for learning. Share your progress (past and current). Consider what additional assistance, guidance, or support might be most useful. Be specific.

Adapted from The Mentor’s Guide: Facilitating Effective Learning Relationships. (Zachary, 2000)

Informational Interviews

An informational interview is a brief meeting, with someone currently working in your field of interest, that offers you an insider’s perspective. The purpose of an informational interview is not to get a job. It’s to better understand a particular position or industry and make potential connections in the field.

If you request an informational interview with a CAN Mentor, he/she will expect something more structured and focused than an informal chat. Treat the informational interview as a business meeting. Prior to the interview, research the company or career and develop a short list of questions that you would like to have answered. For a sample list of questions, visit About Careers.

Networking Tips

To learn more about how to conduct a proper informational interview, and networking techniques, please go here.

Step 3: Request the informational interview

We recommend sending your request via email (see samples below); however, the nature and tone of your e-request will be different depending on whether the person to whom you are writing is a “warm contact” or a “cold contact.”

Cold contacts are people with whom you have absolutely no relationship, nor contacts. Be professional in your e-request, and use the subject line of your email to explain briefly who you are and what you want.

Warm contacts are people you know and people who know you through a close connection, such as the parent of your best friend. Warm contacts will be more likely to give you time if they have it. When writing a request to a warm contact, refer to your relationship in the subject line and use professional language in your email.

Hot contacts are people closest to you; those who know you well and will absolutely make time to help you. When writing to a hot contact, you may use casual language; however, the purpose of your e- request is still professional, so don’t assume you can simply put in your subject line something too casual, such as “Hey,” or “Yo, I need your help.”

Sample subject lines:

  • COLD: Stony Brook University student requesting information—not a job
  • WARM: Referred by _______________ (name of person who recommended you) for career advice
  • WARM: _________________ suggested I contact you about career advice—not asking for a job
  • HOT: Need some career advice – not asking for a job

Sample content for email to a HOT contact (Nicoletta is your best friend Roberto’s older sister):

Dear Nicoletta,

Roberto just told me that you work for an international development organization. I had no idea that your career is so closely aligned with my interests! Roberto may have told you that I’m majoring in anthropology with a minor in international relations. I’ve studied abroad in Tanzania and have also done research with a professor whose regional specialty is South America.

That’s why I’m writing to you today. I’m hoping you could find some time to share advice with me about my career path and my plans for next summer. I’m thinking about another study abroad experience, or perhaps an internship, and hope you’ll be able to help steer me in the right direction.

Nicoletta, I would so appreciate your time. Let me know if we can work something out.

Sincerely,

Angel DeZubita

Sample content for email to a WARM contact:

(this is a warm contact since the individual is a member of the Career Advisors Network (CAN) – therefore s/he is already interested in sharing advice with SBU students):

Dear Mr. (or Ms.) [Last Name]:

I am a sophomore at Stony Brook University. I found your name in the Stony Brook Career Advisors Network (CAN) database, and I would like to learn more about your profession.

I love my psychology classes, and am now taking PSY 222: Adolescent Psychology. I would like the opportunity to speak with you about how you got into the field, and get your perspective and advice as I consider my own career path in psychology.

Would you be willing to set aside 20 minutes for an informational interview? I am open to further correspondence by email or phone, or in person if you prefer.

Feel free to reply to this email (youremailaddress@stonybrook.edu) or call my cell phone: 555-555-5555.

Thank you in advance for your consideration.

Sincerely,

[Your first name & last name here]
Stony Brook University

Sample networking letter to a COLD contact:

May 15, 2011

Mark Steppe, Esq.
River, Song, and Obsidian Partners
1313 Avenue of the Harbors Suite 4444
Silver City, CA 12345

Dear Mr. Steppe:

I am a student at California Western School of Law, and am beginning my third trimester. Labor law has been of interest to me since I took a class in that subject as an undergraduate student. Your firm has an outstanding reputation in that field of practice.

My area of concentration in law school will be labor law. I would appreciate the opportunity to meet with you briefly to discuss your specialty. I am especially interested in your views regarding public vs. private employment experience. Any further insights you have would be greatly appreciated.

I will contact your office the week of June 2 to set up a mutually convenient time for this informational meeting.

Sincerely,

Adal Xavier

Once a day, date, and time is confirmed, email the contact a confirmation.

Sample e-confirmation:

Subject line: Confirming our meeting Tuesday, January 22nd @ 3:00pm

Dear Irene:

Thank you so much for your willingness to talk with me via telephone on Tuesday, January 22, 2012. As we agreed, I will call you at 3:00pm at this number: 555-555-1212.

I will reconfirm our meeting two days before, and at that time will send you a short list of my questions for discussion. If something comes up and you must reschedule, please contact me at yourname@stonybrook.edu or my cell phone: 555-555-5555.

Thank you again for your willingness to talk with me. I look forward to speaking with you.

Sincerely,

[Your first name & last name here]
Stony Brook University

Don’t forget to reconfirm two days before the meeting and INCLUDE your list of questions so the interviewee has time to prepare.

Step 4: Conduct the informational interview

Exactly on time, call your contact (or show up if you’ve arranged an in-person interview).

If you are meeting someone in person, make sure to:

  • Dress appropriately. Smart business casual – no need for an interview suit.
  • Arrive early – about 10 minutes before the appointed time.
  • Encourage the interviewee to talk. This means listen for understanding and ask probing questions.
  • Appear interested – sit up straight, lean forward slightly and maintain eye contact.
  • Relax. This is not a job interview. You and the person you are speaking with will enjoy the conversation more if the atmosphere is relaxed and informal.
  • Take notes. It is considerate, however, to ask permission of the interviewee before you begin.

Now for the conversation...

First – thank your contact for setting aside time to speak with you. Acknowledge how much time you will take. Example: “I am aware that your time is valuable and that we have about 20 minutes, so I’ll go ahead and begin with my questions.”

Introduce yourself briefly, stating your goals for the conversation (30-60 seconds). Ask your questions. Take notes. Listen for understanding and ask questions based on the responses you receive. Ask for clarification if you don’t understand something. Have a conversation.

Mind your time – make sure you are aware of the time and that you don’t go over.

When it gets close to the end of the time, even if you have to interrupt nicely, say something like this, “Nicoletta, I’m sorry to interrupt you but we are coming close to the end of our time. I’m happy to stay later if YOU have time, but I don’t want to take advantage or assume that you have extra time today.”

Before you end, if the conversation went very well, ask for additional people the interviewee might suggest you speak with who could provide additional information or another perspective on the field. Example: “Nicoletta, you mentioned that you used to work at a community college. Would there be someone currently working in the community college setting you could refer me to?”

Be sure to thank your interviewee with a smile and professional handshake. Example: “Nicoletta, thank you so much for spending time with me today. As you can see I have several pages of notes, and I feel that I learned so much from you that I could have never read on a website. Would you mind if I stay in touch with you as I continue my networking?”

Step 5: Follow Up

Always send a thank-you email after the interview, even though you said thank you in person. The thank-you note is the extra step you can make to solidify your professionalism in the eyes of the person you interviewed. Keep in touch with the professionals you meet. Based on your interviews, if you decide to pursue a career in their field, your informational interviewees have just become your first network of contacts! These professionals may be willing to help you down the road, so it is important for you to maintain contact with them to let them know how things are going and where you are in the career exploration process.

It’s also just as important to follow through on any commitments you make to someone networking with you.

Follow Up and Say Thank You

Showing your appreciation is a key component of business etiquette and is crucial to developing and maintaining your professional network. After meeting or exchanging emails, send a quick email thanking your CAN Mentor for his/her time. A handwritten card adds another special touch. Sending thank-you notes is more than a professional courtesy; it’s a wise business practice. Failure to do so can damage your professional image and, subsequently, your relationship with your mentor(s). For more information about thank-you notes, visit CareerOneStop or About Careers.

More Ideas for Informational Interview Questions

  • How did you come to this step in your career? Was it planned or luck or both?
  • What does your job involve on a daily basis?
  • How would you describe the atmosphere at your place of work?
  • How does the culture of the company impact your daily work?
  • What do you like/dislike about your job?
  • What are some of the most difficult problems you encounter in your job?
  • What would you consider to be the greatest rewards associated with your position?
  • What kinds of professionals do you interact with in your job?
  • Do people in this field change jobs often?
  • If you decided to change careers, what other types of work would you be qualified to do?
  • How easy (or difficult) is it to find a job in this field?
  • What types of skills are needed for entry into this field? What about at higher levels?
  • What type of compensation can an entry-level worker in this field expect? An experienced worker?
  • What personal qualities do you believe one needs for this career?
  • What are the opportunities for advancement in this field?
  • How can I best prepare myself for a career in this field?
  • How would I go about pursuing a related internship or volunteer experience?
  • What job search strategy works best?

Additional Networking Resources

http://www.linkedin.com
http://www.fiveoclockclub.com/index2.html
http://www.careersuccessassociates.com/wind.html
http://www.pickthebrain.com/blog/the-shy-persons-guide-to-talking-to-strangers/
http://www.succeedsocially.com/meetpeople
http://researchanalyst.hubpages.com/hub/50-Ways-to-Meet-people-and-Make-New-Friends