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Informational Interview Etiquette:
7 Steps for Making the Most of the Meeting
by Elisha Mantegna
Perhaps you’re considering a career change, or you’re completing a degree or educational program and want to get a feel for the museum/non-profit field. In a variety of situations an informational interview is an essential tool that can provide you not only with career-shaping insights but with an increased network of resources on which to draw as you move forward. There are a number of key steps to getting and navigating an informational interview. This is not designed to be a complete guide as situations will vary, but hopefully it can provide a foundation to help you plan your next moves.
1. Initial Research
Setting up an informational interview will take a bit of research. A broad-to-narrow approach is most practical: Start by identifying the company that most interests you, then the department, then look at who in that department does the work most closely related to your background or future goals. There may be a public directory with contact information, but if there isn’t there may be a direct line you can call and specifically mention you are seeking an informational interview.
- Don’t be vague: “I’m looking for someone in [Department]” may sound as though you are uncertain and unprepared. Instead, be as specific as possible: “I am interested in the work being done within [Institution]’s [Department], and I am hoping to set up an informational interview with someone there to speak more about this work. If you can’t provide that information over the phone I would be happy to leave my contact information.”
- Make sure you have a professional (or at least not unprofessional) e-mail and voicemail message. Many sites will allow you to create secondary accounts linked to your primary account. Sticking with initials or first and last names makes it easiest. The same goes for your phone’s answering message. Short, sweet, to the point, and a catch all message is best.
2. Identification and Affiliation
State your intentions early and clearly. If communicating in e-mail form, make the title “Informational Interview Request” or something similarly clear. Make sure you include in the message body your scholastic or professional affiliations or career interests. People in public institutions and non-profits get cold calls from the public frequently. My former professors used to joke about strangers making appointments only to ask about selling antiquities or getting appraisals of “rare” and “mysterious” objects (which were usually neither rare nor mysterious).
3. Dress Accordingly
You are not going to a job interview, but you are meeting with a professional. Avoid jeans and break out the iron. A nice shirt and blazer/jacket, a blouse or sweater, ironed slacks or skirts, etc. If you are a light traveler and aren’t carrying any kind of case or bag you should have a notebook in which to take down interesting points and a business card and resume copy. Do not enter in to the meeting with the intention of giving the resume to the individual, but if they ask about your background or say they know someone who may be interested in your work, be ready with the necessary materials at hand.
4. Secondary Research
Prep like an interview: check social media, read reviews, and think about the organization in larger contexts. Understand that this is an opportunity for you to learn but that you will need to direct the conversation. What is different about this person’s work? This department? This organization? What choices are they making and why? What does this person think is the most valuable skill for this work, the most important goal, or the industry trend? Ask personal questions as well – what has been most challenging for them, or rewarding, or surprising? You should have a list of multiple questions laid out and you can follow up as need be – but on the same hand don’t throw one hundred questions at your interviewee. A list of 4-8 key questions that vary in complexity and topic should be enough to give you a solid platform from which to approach the meeting.
5. BE PROMPT!
The adage “Early is on time, on time is late, and late is unacceptable” should be your mantra. You are meeting with someone who has taken time out of their work day to speak with you and to assist you in your own professional development. There is a camaraderie in the field and a willingness to cooperate and exchange, but you have no idea what this person’s day looks like. You may be fit between other meetings, met with over lunch, or given a large stretch of an open afternoon. Be early. If you arrive 5-10 minutes early, check in with building security and wait for your interviewee to meet you, or follow any given directions and aim to arrive at their office just prior to the meeting time. If you’re like me and your preparations leave you at the building with half an hour to spare, check in with security and let them know you are there for a meeting but would like to take a look around first as you are a bit early. This gives you the opportunity to familiarize yourself with the gallery or building and when you meet with your interviewee and they ask “have you been here before?” you can say “no, but I arrived early and had a look around at ____”. (If it’s an office building and you can’t go anywhere without an escort but have arrived early, I suggest re-reading notes, fine tuning your questions, or walking around the block so that you aren’t inconveniently early).
6. Follow Up
Thank-you cards or follow-up emails are a MUST! Buy a simple pack of blank thank-you cards. Take the blank cards with you with pre-stamped envelopes. Immediately after the interview or within 24 hours fill out the card. Make it personal. “Thank you so much for your time. I am so happy to hear your opinions on ___” or “Your experiences and perspective were greatly valued”. Acknowledge their impact. “I hope we can continue to correspond” or “I look forward to becoming a colleague of yours in the industry/field”. I am personally very British in my approach to messages and typically conclude with “Warmest Regards” or “Sincerest Thanks”. Mail that card as soon as possible so it arrives within 3-4 days. If you interact with someone remotely, ensure that you send a follow-up e-mail with thanks.
7. Moving Forward
These interviews should be set up to build relationships and to seek guidance, and ideally, they will be the start of larger networking efforts and not one-offs. Regular periodic check-ins are good ways to keep lines of communication open. Follow up on topics they mentioned, keep them updated on your progress (briefly!) and always be polite. If you come across an article or piece of news that you think would interest them based on your interactions then forward it along, and in response they will be much more likely to do the same in return. I have had internal contract openings forwarded to me, which have led to jobs or consulting work from individuals I met through informational interviews.
Understand that this is not an opportunity for you to get a job, nor is it a way of sneaking in around the job application process. This is about actively seeking guidance and making yourself known, but also learning about the industry directly in real-world settings. You should view yourself as an industry professional meeting with a potential colleague, and understand that you have valuable resources to contribute to these kinds of meetings. You are speaking with someone whom you likely admire or respect for their work – which you should express – but they are also human and were once starting out in the same fashion as you, so don’t let yourself feel diminished or vastly outranked. In the end it is a conversation, and they will likely be just as interested in your fresh perspective, particularly if your background or base of work is different from their own, as you are regarding their seasoned impressions.
Elisha Mantegna is a museum education and conservation professional who has previously worked within institutions such as the Smithsonian and V&A. Her past research has examined the impacts of 3D scanning and digitization within museums, and she is currently a contractor within the Museum of the Bible Education Department in Washington, D.C. Contact Elisha at email@example.com.