Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Informational Interviews

Have I made my annual mentioning of the importance of networking? Well, here it is again. Networking is absolutely the most important piece of job searching today, and informational interviewing is a tool for expanding your network.

Informational interviews are conversations that you arrange with persons who have knowledge and experience in professions you wish to investigate. This strategy is useful throughout one's career. It is used by experienced professionals to research advancement opportunities in their careers as well as workers seeking first careers or career changes.

There are many reasons to do informational interviewing:

•Gain insights and information from personal accounts of the work setting, knowledge and skill requirements, and current trends in the field;
•Develop your networking skills and "introduce" yourself to people in the profession;
•Help you identify how to prepare yourself and work toward a particular career goal;
•Increase motivation in working toward goals;
•Build confidence and experience in interacting with professionals.
To achieve the potential learning outcomes and networking benefits that can come from informational interviewing, it is important for you to plan ahead in using this strategy. We have prepared the following guidelines to assist you in arranging and conducting informational interviews. We hope you will practice this strategy and apply it to understanding more about yourself and your career opportunities.
•Remember that informational interviews are different from job interviews and employers will appreciate your awareness of this. Do not try to "misrepresent" a request for an informational interview and turn it into a back-door approach for job search.
•"First impressions count!" still applies here as with a job interview. Follow guidelines for appropriate dress, behavior, and language. You do not need to be as formal as with a job interview, but you still want to be seen in a positive light and as a possible future applicant for a position.
•While we are discussing planned arrangements for interviewing, we know that sometimes a surprise opportunity arises to talk with a person knowledgeable about career information. Even in this case, the more you have prepared the better it will go.

Where To Find People
Think about which occupations you are considering in your career planning. Who does this type of work? Where are they located geographically? What types of organizations/firms hire these people? While direct in-person interviewing is best of all, this may not always be possible in the field you are investigating. You may want to go beyond your local community to make contacts by telephone or Internet. Ask friends, family, neighbors, teachers, (literally sometimes someone in your own backyard!) etc about individuals to interview. Don't forget organizational contacts such as with Chambers of Commerce or professional organizations. If at all possible ask if for a personal referral to the person you wish to interview.

Be Prepared
Being prepared means doing homework ahead of time -- knowing what kind of information you are seeking, learning as much as you can ahead of time about the career field as well as the organization and the work role of the person you are interviewing.

You should think through what you want to say about yourself, be ready to answer questions about your areas of interests, previous experiences and future plans. If you are unsure about your future career goals, it is all right to say you are exploring your options, but you should be able to identify some general, tentative goals.

Be sure to keep contact names accurate both in spelling and pronunciation. This includes secretarial and support staff who assist you with arrangements. Keep records not only of the content of your interview, but also names, dates, comments, and referrals.

You may have a resume ready in case it is requested, but it is suggested you may want to send it to person after the interview, perhaps along with the thank-you note. Often you learn something during the course of the interview where you want to change aspects of your resume. After all, this is not a job interview (yet!).

Plan ahead for convenient time scheduling; many businesses easily need a week or longer advance notice for requests such as these. Be considerate of work cycles.

Scheduling An Interview
State the purpose of your call such as introducing yourself as a college student who is investigating career fields in this person's professional area. Explain how you got the person's name. Be respectful of the person's work setting and request a convenient time, perhaps about twenty minutes is a good start. Express appreciation for their helpfulness and if now is not a good time to discuss an appointment, would there be a better time for you to call back? (And then make sure you do!)

Plan Questions Ahead
Think about the information you are seeking. Consider the range of possible topics as well as which information is most important to you. While we present you below with some sample questions, it is wise to customize the questions for your approach and what you need.

Prepare a notebook with your most important questions highlighted to yourself. It is considered professional to have a notebook with you with some prepared questions and for notes during the interview.

Know yourself and what is it that you want to communicate about yourself as a potential worker in this field. Are there points about your current or future preparation that you want to leave with the person you are interviewing? You may want to make note of this in your notebook.

Be On Time
If something unforeseen does cause you to be late, be sure to call and ask if it is better to reschedule. If you are going to new location, check it out ahead of time or ask directions.

Methods Of Interviewing
Follow general principles of good interviewing. After introductions, be sure to ask about the time available for the interview. Do not go past half an hour unless the interviewee says it is all right. Try to emphasize open-ended questions that involve more than a "yes or no" response. Learn to take notes from your conversation without it interfering with the discussion. You may want to review your highlighted questions at the end of the interview to make sure you've addressed them. Avoid inappropriate or too personal questions (some sensitive areas are obvious - personal salary level, marital status, religious background, etc.)

Questions Focused On The Person You Are Interviewing
•How did you get started? What is your educational background?
•Is your job what you expected?
•What are your major responsibilities?
•What do you have to know to be good at your job? What skills are most important?
•What are your greatest challenges?
•What is your daily routine?
•How would you describe your co-workers?
•What is most rewarding, most stressful?
•What are your future goals, aspirations?
Questions Focused On The Occupation/Organization
•What is important for people entering this field to know? What are educational requirements?
•What is a typical salary range for persons in this area?
•What is most important to know about your profession?
•What kind of work experience would employers in your field want? Do internships play a role?
•What are some suggestions for gaining experience?
•Is the work in this field changing? What are the future trends?
•How do people advance through the profession?
•What advice would you have for someone entering this profession?
•What are some related occupations?

"Adios & Gracias"
"Last impressions" are just as important as first impressions. Be sure to express appreciation. You may want to inquire if the interviewee would suggest other employers/professionals to interview. If yes, could you use the person's name as a referral?

Future Contacts
It is appropriate to ask if you have questions in the future could you call back; also you may suggest as you make progress through your studies, you would like to keep in touch.

Thank You Notes
Be sure to send a note soon after your interview. It should reiterate some of the major points you learned from your interview. Of course it should be well-written, free of misspellings. It is not typical to submit your resume with this unless it was requested.

Write A Summary
Although during the interview you are sure you will remember everything, don't count on it! Writing a summary not only will help you in the learning process, but will provide a valuable record for future activities. Put your notes into the sequence of the interview and complete the thoughts you didn't get to write down.

Reflect, Reflect, Reflect!
What surprised you about what you learned? If you had to do it over what might you ask? What were your feelings during the interview process? What were your strongest impressions from the experience?

Remember, an interview is a sample of one - no matter whether the person loved or hated his/her job, be cautious about generalizing to the whole occupation or profession. You may have caught the person on a particularly unusual day. It is recommended to interview more than one person, especially in different settings, if it is a profession of strong interest to you.

Application to Career Planning: Questions to Ask Yourself
One of the main reasons to do informational interviewing is to increase your knowledge about yourself and work opportunities. A major aspect of career planning is self-assessment - recognition of your interests, skills/abilities, and values. What did you learn about your personal priorities from this experience? Did you discover qualities about yourself? Clarify your interests? Identify what is meaningful to you? Even though you were exploring information about opportunities, these experiences also teach us about ourselves as well.

For example:

•Overall were you pleased/disappointed with what you discovered?
•Is there something you could have done to improve the interview?
•What aspects of the job would you like? Dislike?
•What is your reaction to the work setting? Location, routine, type of environment?
•How would you handle the responsibilities, stresses, deadlines, workload, challenges?
•What is your reaction to the amount of (or lack of) freedom the worker has on the job?
•Do you think you would like working with the kind of people that work in this field?
Why or why not?
•Which of the skills, knowledge, personal characteristics necessary for this job do you possess now? Do you want to acquire them?
•Is the work meaningful to you? In what way?
•Can you meet the educational and experiential requirements for entry into this field? How could you acquire them?
•Are there alternatives to this work setting you would prefer?
Which ones and why?

Note: these guidelines were developed from a number of sources.

Richard Bolles. 1996. What Color Is Your Parachute? Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press.

Hecklinger, Fred J. & Black, Bernadette M. 1994. Training for Life, 5th. Edition, Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt.

Washington State University, Career Services. Packet for Career Planning course, University 100.

Washington State University Alumni Relations & Washington State University Career Services, Mentor Training.

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