Question: “I’m thinking about making a career change and have been told I should go out and set up some informational interviews with people who already work in the field I’ m targeting.  I’m not sure why, exactly, these folks would want to meet with me.  Any advice you can offer?”

As if “normal” interviewing weren’t challenging enough, many job hunters bump into the topic of informational interviewing at some point in their search efforts, adding an entire new degree of complexity and confusion to the mix.  Traditionally speaking, “informational” interviews are meetings with hiring managers that aren’t focused on applying for an actual job, per se, but simply involve gathering information (who would have guessed?) about a particular career field — and/or what it might be like to work for a given organization.

If you hadn’t noticed, this type of interview is pretty much dead right now.  Or at least seriously dormant.  Out of the large number of priorities most working professionals are scrambling to address at the moment, helping starry-eyed newbies break into their occupational field usually isn’t high on the list.  Additionally, many hiring managers have been conditioned to turn down informational interviews because they’ve been burned in the past by individuals who claim to only be seeking information, but who end up hitting the manager up for a job at the end of the meeting.  This is not cool.  Those job hunters who engage in this behavior are pretty much, in my opinion, on par with those people out there who don’t finish their course of doctor-prescribed antibiotics.  They end up hurting things for everybody, not just themselves, because they condition employers to distrust these kinds of requests and to develop a resistance even to well-intentioned people who are conducting legitimate career research.

All of this being said, however, there are still cases when informational interviewing makes a ton of sense — and serious career-change efforts are without question the #1 scenario.  If you are thinking about shifting gears and reinventing yourself into an entirely new field, there is little substitute for this kind of research.  Sure, you can read all about a certain career path on the Internet.  Or pick apart job advertisements to better understand what qualifications employers are looking for in a given field.  But all of this second-hand research doesn’t nearly equal the value of actually conversing with working professionals in the target field you might be considering.  They’re the ones (and only ones) who can tell you about the real trends impacting their occupational niche.  Or the challenges involved.  Or the best shortcuts to breaking into the biz.  And they can also help you validate whether you might be attracted to a ROMANTICIZED idea of the career in question or whether you’d enjoy the ACTUAL work of the job — and the working environment in which it takes place.  No job is perfect, after all.  All career fields have their tradeoffs and challenges.  Just ask the professionals working in them!

So again, if you’re embarking on a serious quest to change careers, at some point you’ll have to wean yourself off the Internet and actually get out and talk to some people who are in the roles you’re thinking about pursuing.  LinkedIn is a godsend in this regard.  There’s also a great book called Working Identity by Herminia Ibarra that I highly recommend for people going through this type of exploration process.

As for the second part of the question du jour, I understand how intimidating it might be somebody in this position to make these kinds of contacts.  Didn’t I just get through saying that informational interviewing was pretty much a dying art, after all, and that many employers won’t grant such interviews to people?  It doesn’t matter.  You’ve got to fight through the people who WON’T meet with you to find those people who WILL.  As stated above, it’s an essential element to career-change success.  And as for the question of “why would these folks want to meet with me?” well, guess what, that’s the question one should be asking in EVERY networking situation.  There’s nothing terribly unique in that regard going on here.  You just need to take stock of the tangible/intangible “gifts” you have to offer, show empathy for the person you’re approaching, and do your best to find a way to reciprocate for the time they spend with you.  Here’s a hint: genuine appreciation is a huge gift, in and of itself!

Aside from that, here are a few other pointers I’d recommend when it comes to informational interviewing:

•  Do your homework on the field so you can ask smart, informed questions; don’t waste their time on the obvious
•  Don’t you dare be even a minute late to the meeting — and make sure you spring for the coffee!
•  Ask them to confirm or deny certain “facts” you’ve turned up about their occupation or industry; they’ll love this
•  Clearly state WHY you’re so interested in their profession and what factors are driving you toward it
•  Target mid-to-senior-level professionals who are up the food chain a bit and won’t feel they’re competing with you
•  Consider reaching out to suitable professionals outside the state; again, you’ll be less of a perceived threat or competitor
•  Ask the person “Are there any shortcuts to breaking into this field and being successful at it?”
•  Ask the person What is your typical day like?” and “What do you love/hate most about the work you do?”
•  Ask the person What is the least-understood part or biggest misconception about this profession?”
•  Ask the personWhat groups should I be joining?  Books should I be reading?  Blogs should I be following?”
•  Ask the person “What other steps would you recommend I take, if you were in my shoes and looking to break into this field?”
•  Follow-up immediately after the meeting with a thoughtful gesture or thank-you card

Hopefully, for those of you facing the need to start gathering this type of research, these tips will help you be highly successful, right out of the gate.  Having had numerous people come to me over the years seeking to pick my brain about the career counseling profession, I can assure you that only a small handful of them practiced the majority of these techniques I’ve suggested.  A good chunk of them seemed pretty unprepared for the whole discussion, actually, which greatly dampened my willingness to lend a helping hand and really stick my neck out for them, in terms of referrals and otherwise.  As for those who DID get it right, well, there aren’t many of you out there, but it’s sure been fun to collaborate with you — and share some “insider” stuff about the field with folks who truly seem to appreciate it!