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Mastering the Informational Interview

For many, the first interview they take part in is the nerve-wracking job interview. This need not be the case. Before you have even decided on a career, you can conduct informational interviews.

Informational interviews are meetings between you and a professional in a field that interests you.

In any interview, the one who asks the questions ultimately has control over the direction the interview will take. Here lies the difference between a job interview and an informational interview. In a job interview, the person in control is the professional doing the hiring.

Informational interviews, however, leave the control in your hands. Chances are, you will one day take part in a job interview, but first, take the opportunity to be the one asking the questions.

What's in It for You?

There are numerous benefits to be gained from conducting an informational interview. Alison Doyle is the job search guide at About.com. She says the biggest benefit is "the opportunity to gain an inside look at a specific career field from someone actually working in that position. The person conducting the information interview can find out much more about what is actually involved in the position's duties than they would from written and online sources."

While this may seem reason enough for informational interviews, there are still more.

Experience: Those who take part in informational interviews have the experience of being in an interview setting without the pressure of being the center of attention prior to going in for a job interview.

Contacts: While an informational interview is not the time to seek employment, you will be making contacts that may help you get a job when the time comes.

Direction: Not knowing what path to take in life can be frightening. At the very least, an informational interview can help you narrow down your choices and create possibilities where you thought there were none.

Self-discovery: Through informational interviews, you may uncover interests and skills you never knew you had. "It will also help you determine if you have the right personality to be successful in a career," says Ruth Berzins. She is a student employment advisor.

Choosing Your Interviewee

Let your interests be your guide. Is there a career you have always wanted to learn more about or a skill you have been fine-tuning? This can be your starting point.

Now what you need to do is find people who have interests similar to your own. "You want your dream job to come true faster? Info-interview with someone who's got your dream job," states Patrick Combs in his book Major in Success: Make College Easier, Beat the System and Get A Very Cool Job. To get a variety of views, try interviewing professionals, professors, and students involved in your area of interest.

Start with the people you already know. Perhaps you have a family member, friend or neighbor in the area you wish to look into. If not, the Internet provides an excellent opportunity to find interview candidates. Begin by looking up university and college Web sites to find professors and students, or organizations and businesses to find professionals.

Once you know whom you want to interview, you need to make contact with that person. If you found your subject over the Internet, it is simply a matter of sending e-mail. Otherwise, you can send a letter and follow up with a phone call.

The last thing you want to do is to show up at someone's workplace and expect them to answer questions on the spot. By making contact first through e-mail or a letter, you can introduce yourself, let them know how you found them and clearly explain your purpose. If you do this, most people are willing to grant an interview.

Once you have made the initial contact, call to set up an appointment. Bend to the needs of your interviewee -- remember they are taking time out of their schedule for you. The ideal setting for the interview is where your subject works. This will give you the opportunity to see the atmosphere you would be in should you choose to enter that field.

Doyle says there is more than one way to conduct an interview. "One option would be to set up a specific time for the interview. An alternative would be to allow the interviewer to actually 'job shadow' and spend some time actually working with the interviewee to get an even better perspective of what the job entails."

In cases where the interviewee is an e-mail contact and lives too far away to interview in person, conduct the interview by e-mail. Also, if the person is extremely busy, but someone you really want to speak with, suggest a phone interview.

Preparing for the Interview

You need to do your homework. In other words, read books and check out the Internet for information on the career and specific position of the person that you are to interview. This will help you to formulate the interview questions and make a good impression on the interviewee.

Remember that this isn't the time to be hitting someone up for a job. You are making contacts that may help you get a job later, so impressions are important. Dress appropriately (simple business clothes are suitable for most interviews), show up on time, and show your enthusiasm and interest so that you will be taken seriously.

The Questions

Your questions, obtained from your research as well as your own curiosity, should be presented in a clear and organized manner. Keep in mind that questions will vary depending on the occupation and position of the person you are interviewing. Ask if the interviewee would mind if you took some notes. You want to remember the important details, but don't pay so much attention to your notes that you are neglecting your subject.

According to Doyle, the most important question you can ask is for a description of the basic duties the person must fulfil. "You want to get a good sense of what the job is all about from the perspective of someone in it," she says.

The following is a list of general questions that might be asked during an informational interview:

  • What is your position title?
  • Do you like your job?
  • What are the positive and negative aspects of this field?
  • What kind of qualities or characteristics should a person have to help them succeed in this field?
  • What are the hours or schedule like?
  • Is there a basic routine or a variety of activities?
  • What do your day-to-day duties or responsibilities entail?
  • What is the salary range for persons working in this field?
  • Are there any other benefits such as vacation time or health benefits?
  • What kinds of opportunities for advancement are there?
  • How much stress is there in this position?
  • What kind of educational background do employers look for?
  • How would you recommend I go about getting the experience needed for this position?
  • What occupations involve similar skills?
  • What is the most valuable piece of advice you can give someone entering this field?

As the interview wraps up, ask if there is anything else that the interviewee would like to share about their work. Also ask if there is anyone else in the field your interviewee could refer you to who could be helpful.

Don't forget to thank the interviewee for their time! Take it a step further by sending a thank-you note a few days after the interview. These extra measures will make you stand out in a person's mind. They may remember you when it comes time to hire.

What will you do with this new-found information?

  • Organize it
  • Keep a list of contacts
  • See if it gives you any leads to related jobs and other interview possibilities.

"The information obtained from an information interview should help someone become informed about their career choices and therefore determine if they have the necessary courses or degree or if there are skills they need to develop in order to become marketable," explains Berzins.

Most importantly, look over the information and ask yourself if this is truly something you can see as being a part of your future.

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