Informational Interviews Part 3 – The 10 most important questions you need to ask

Over the past 2 weeks, we have explored both the benefits of informational interviews and some useful strategies you can use to help you set one up. The next crucial consideration to think about is the questions you will ask once you have done the leg work to make a new connection within an unknown industry or organization. It would be a shame to put in so much effort to set up an informational interview only to arrive unprepared without a clear idea of what you actually want to learn from this practicing industry expert.

While the specific questions to ask are likely to vary slightly depending on the nature of the specific industry or company you are exploring, below is a list of my top 10 general informational interview questions that most people will want to take note of if they want to maximize the value of these critical networking opportunities:

10) What are the opportunities for advancement? This is an important question to ask whether you are evaluating the growth potential within a particular company or assessing the typical career path of a specific occupation. If you have ambitions to climb the ladder to a position with significant responsibility, it is beneficial to have an understanding of what it will take to get you there before you make a final decision about which career to get into or which company to work for.

9) What surprised you most when you first started in this career/company? There will always be things that come as a surprise when you enter a new field or start with a new organization, regardless of how thorough your career plan is. Be prepared for these potential unknowns by asking experts who have already embarked on the journey you are about to start about their experiences in the initial days of their career. This will help you adjust and navigate early-stage surprises that would have been otherwise unforeseen.

8)If you could start from scratch, what would you do differently? Planning a career is more art than science. Things rarely unfold exactly as planned and most people make mistakes along the way. That old saying “hindsight is usually 20/20” is certainly true in career development, and the informational interview provides a good opportunity to look back on the experiences of industry professionals so you can avoid making the same mistakes they did when they first entered the field.

7) What educational institutions offer the best training for this career? Some schools are better at training their students for the workforce than others, and people within your desired industry will know which institution(s) are the most effective at preparing graduates for the day-to-day work of your career. Don’t waste money, time and effort by making a blind educational decision; explore your options ahead of time and get advice from experts in the field who have an intimate knowledge of the quality of the various training programs.

6) Along with the required credentials, what are the desired qualifications to find entry level employment? Our knowledge-based economy is getting increasingly complex and competitive. It is no longer realistic to expect to land a full-time job after obtaining the basic required credentials for your occupation. The candidates who diversify their skill-sets will have an edge on the competition. Careers today are highly dynamic, so it is a good idea to ask about additional qualifications or training you can pursue to make you even more marketable to employers looking for entry-level candidates.

5) What are the most important attributes to have to be successful in this job? Along with all the skills and qualifications you need to get started, it is beneficial to explore the personal attributes one needs to achieve success in the career or within the organization. You can be the most educated and knowledgeable person in the field, but if you do not have the “X factor” traits employers are looking for, it will be an uphill battle for you. Be sure to compare your strongest attributes to those desired by the companies that actually hire people in the field.

4) What is your favourite aspect of working in this career/for this organization? If your informational interviewee has worked in the sector or for the company for an extended period of time, it is likely they have done so because they continue to bring a high level of engagement to their work. Inquire about the aspects of their job that help them get out of bed in the morning with enthusiasm, even after being in the field for X number of years. This will assist you in determining whether the benefits of the career will be sufficient to motivate you to do it successfully over the long term.

3) What are some of the challenges in your job? How do you deal with them? Equally important to understanding the positive aspects of the career is to be aware of the challenges. Every job has its drawbacks. You need to conduct an honest self-assessment to determine if you will be able to handle these occupational hurdles on a consistent basis. The informational interview can give you a first-hand perspective on the challenging elements of the job, and the strategies practicing professionals use to cope with them.

2) What is the employment outlook for the industry? How has the sector historically been impacted by recessions? Are there any major changes forthcoming? I know, I know, this is more of a series of questions than a single one, but they are all related and all extremely important. Various industries have their own unique economic strengths and vulnerabilities, factors you will want to be mindful of prior to making a firm decision. Most people will want to get into a field or organization that is poised to grow, so be sure to ask about predicted job creation and retirement rates. The last thing you need is to put in all the work that comes along with mapping out a career plan only to discover that future employment opportunities will be limited. People working in that industry will have crucial knowledge of these issues so be sure to get their perspective and ask about any looming changes coming to the field that could impact your ability to find work.

1) Walk me through a typical day… As I alluded to in Part 1 of this series, most days in the career you are considering will be average. Sure, there will be ups and downs, but the majority of the days in your working life will pass without major victories or disasters. Is there enough in the day-to-day routine of the job to keep you motivated over the long-term? For me, this is the most important piece of information to walk away with from the informational interview process. We spend a third or more of our lives at work so the least we can do is ensure we will enjoy the time!

To conclude, I’ll say that there are few tools more powerful for helping you make an informed career decision than the informational interview. I’ve mentioned repeatedly that our economy is getting more complex and competitive, but with that also comes more opportunity and choice to find your niche. Job seekers today have such a wide range of career options and organizations to work for that there is no reason anyone should have to do a job they despise or work for a company whose values and goals don’t align with their own. Informational interviews present a great chance to evaluate your suitability for a given career and/or organization. And while the process of connecting with strangers and setting them up may seem difficult for some, conducting informational interviews beforehand is much better than leaping blindly into a career that you end up not loving.

This article was written by Ryan Paulson, a Career & Employment Information Specialist @ Pacific Community Resources Society who specializes in youth career development and Labour Market Information.

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