You can gather information about potential career paths in a variety of ways, but talking to people who actually work in your field of interest can be especially rewarding. This can be a completely happenstance, in-the-moment conversation—in line at the coffee shop, or while waiting for your airplane. But it can also be more structured, with a professional you've identified as someone you'd like to speak with...
An informational interview is a meeting, initiated by you, with an individual who has experience or knowledge in your area of interest. It should be undertaken with utmost care and professionalism.
You may wonder if people will take time away from their busy schedules to talk with you. They will for several reasons: you have been referred to them by someone they know; meeting with you and others helps keep them informed, up-to-date and well-connected; experts love to share their expertise; and people like to help others because they find it rewarding.
Before the Interview
For the formal informational interview you should do your homework ahead of time. Information on the industry, the organization, even the person you are interviewing should be obtained before you ask for an interview. Prepare your questions in advance, but do not make them so "canned" that you fail to connect genuinely with the person. Dress professionally and bring copies of your resume, but distribute them only upon request.
During the Interview
Arrive 10-15 minutes before your appointment.
During the interview, you are in charge. Restate your purpose and why you are talking to this particular person. Adhere to the original time request of 20-30 minutes. Ask open-ended yet pertinent questions (see below for suggestions), and ask for referrals to other appropriate individuals in the field or in related organizations. Take notes and get a business card from the person you are speaking with.
This is not the time to hand over your resume and ask for a job or internship, although you may have your resume at hand if the person asks to see it. You will be following up with a thank you note or letter, and at that time you can send a resume if appropriate. It is important to understand the difference between an informational interview (from which you are seeking information) and a job interview.
What to Say and Ask
First things first: "Thank you for taking time out of your day to meet with me."
Second, restate your purpose: "As I indicated on the phone (in my letter), I am in the process of gathering information and advice about the field of (targeted field). (Name) suggested that I should contact you."
It is also important to state plainly and simply, "I am not here to ask you for a job; I am here to ask you for information."
Finally, ask for permission to stay in touch to let him or her know how your search for information is going, and to learn of potential developments. If you are granted this permission, follow through!
After the Interview
Send a thank you note or letter immediately and keep the person informed of your progress. This is both courteous and prudent. By keeping in touch you are cultivating new leads while nurturing the relationship for future follow up contacts.
Evaluate your style of interviewing as well as the information you received. Summarize the information in writing and date it. If you make several contacts during a week, your notes and summaries will be extremely important as you review what you have learned.
Arrange appointments with new referrals.
Remember, the network can work for you or against you. The impression you leave can make or break your chances of being remembered and referred to emerging opportunities.