Interviewing for Information
There's no doubt about it - refining your career plans or landing a full-time job can pose some real challenges. It's not always easy to gather the necessary information. True - written materials are a good place to start and provide valuable information, but "what's it really like? How do I get that specific, inside information that helps me decide if that's really the type of work I want to do?" Or, "How do I find out how organizations in my field fill positions so that I can plan my job search strategies?"
Information interviewing (talking to people in a particular career field or organization) is a great way to expand your knowledge. In addition to learning what the job is really like, you can learn about what is currently happening in the field; evaluate how you would fit into that type of situation and whether you would like it; learn what skills, knowledge and experiences would be helpful for you to acquire while you're still in college; and find out about related fields or organizations you may not have previously considered. In addition, the professionals you interview while seeking the information may be able to provide concrete suggestions for your job search.
For many, the word "interview" may have unfavorable connotations; an image flashes to mind of a harried candidate with sweaty palms shifting about in a chair, trying to respond to a staccato of nasty questions. The idea of becoming the interviewer yourself--of asking the questions instead of answering them--may seem unsettling at first thought. However, we're talking about informational interviewing. In an informational interview, you're asking for advice and information, not a job. Generally, most people who enjoy their work like to share information about themselves and their jobs, and give advice. Some simply are committed to encouraging newcomers to their profession, and a few may even be thinking about their needs for an intern, summer or full-time employee. It is common practice among professionals to exchange information and favors, so don't hesitate to contact people. In the future, you may be able to extend the same courtesy.
There are two ways to identify sources of information or prospective people to contact. The first is personal referral, which can save you some detective work and increase your chance of getting a warm reception. The other way is to identify prospects yourself and make direct contact without a referral. There is no reason to choose either method over the other. Use personal referrals when you can get them and direct contacts when you can't. To identify proper contacts in the work world, start with people you know: relatives, friends, neighbors, faculty, staff, former employers, internship supervisors. Say something like "I'm interested in becoming a ________________. Do you know anyone in that field who might be willing to talk to me?" If that person doesn't know anyone, ask "Can you think of anyone else who might know someone who might be willing to talk to me?"
If you plan to make direct contacts (i.e., without referrals), start with printed material and pick likely organizations in a chosen geographic area. The books on the Directories of Potential Employers shelves in the CDO, some of the books on the Career Information shelves, and reference books and journals in Reed Library or other libraries can be particularly valuable. If you want to locate professionals in a particular field, refer to the National Trade and Professional Association Directory on the General Career Information shelf in the CDO. Finally, remember to look through the yellow pages in the phone book.
The next step is to obtain an interview with the right person. If you're not certain who that is, call the organization to find out. Administrative aides and receptionists can be very helpful if you're courteous and clear in your questioning. Assure them that you're looking for information, not a job. Ask for a 15 or 20 (never more than 30) minute appointment. If you reach the person you wish to interview on the phone, explain who you are, why you're calling, and what sort of information you're looking for. (It's helpful to practice this ahead of time.) If you've been given a referral, be sure to state that. Sometimes the person who gave you the referral will arrange an appointment for you or will contact the individual and let him/her know to expect your call or letter. Some people write before they call, explaining in the letter what they want and stating when they will call to arrange for an interview. You can experiment with different approaches.
When you arrive for the interview, be prepared. Learn as much as you can ahead of time from written sources. Make a list of questions that will help you to learn what you want to know. Such questions should seek information not readily available from other sources; asking a stockbroker what stockbrokers do is a waste of the person's time. Refer to Career Guide C6, Information Interview Questions, to get ideas for questions to ask. Finally, questions should be open-ended, not closed. "Yes/No" questions are out.
CLOSED QUESTION: "Do you like your work?" "Yes" Dead silence....
Active listening is just as important as active questioning. Be attuned to the person's feelings about the job and organization. When you discover how others feel about their work, you can relate your responses to your own interests and values. Feel free to ask someone to elaborate on a particularly interesting point. It is usually best to let the interview take a natural course of conversation. You'll get the answers you're after, and you're likely to gain more information along the way. As you gather the information, take notes, or ask permission to tape the conversation. (Some people may not be comfortable or as candid with a taped conversation.) This is a much safer practice than relying on your memory days or weeks later.
In addition to the verbal communication in the interview, be aware of body language, both your own and that of the person you're interviewing. You're talking to a human being, not a computer. Act natural. Don't be afraid to smile and convey interest in what the person is saying. It's also good to watch for nonverbal clues which may indicate the interview is over. While many people may be pleased to spend more time with you than requested, others will be unable to. Stay only as long as you're welcome. Before you leave, always ask for a referral.
EXAMPLE: "Do you know of any other people who may be willing to speak with me? May I say that you referred me?"
A brief thank-you note to the person you interviewed and anyone who helped you get the interview is both smart and very appropriate. This gesture of courtesy can help you be remembered, and you never know when those people may be in a position to act as "casual references."
You'll never bat 1,000 in arranging for informational interviews, and some of those you conduct will be less than great. You should find, however, that in most cases you'll enjoy yourself and learn a lot. Learning how others feel about their work may help you clarify your own feelings about different options. Making contacts and practicing your assertiveness and communication skills should provide a real boost to your future job search efforts. Once you've mastered your interview skills in informational interviewing, you'll have them on hand for employment interviews. Most important, perhaps, it can prove to you that the work world is not a cold, alien place, but instead contains many warm and helpful people.
TIP: Practice by interviewing someone you know. Ask about their job, their organization, or even their favorite hobby.
Practice interviewing whenever you want with InterviewStream! All you need is a computer with a webcam and Internet access. You can also sign out a webcam at the CDO or schedule a mock interview with a counselor.
Adapted and reprinted with permission from the Career Development Office,