If you’re contemplating a career change, but want to be sure whether or not the career, role, or company will be right for you, you may want to consider one of the most powerful research tools there is: Information Interviews.
While many people may have heard the term before, most are not familiar with what exactly it means and entails. Quite simply, an “information interview” is a type of interview process utilized to obtain information about an occupation you may be considering. It’s based on the idea that if you’re interested in a particular career path, then the best person to ask about it is someone doing the actual job! That way you learn real-life perspectives from experienced individuals.
And while that may sound straightforward enough, many people are a little apprehensive about conducting research in this way because it’s not something they have tried in the past. However, once done, the results speak for themselves and participants have found it to be one of the best tools they have under their belt, so to speak.
Let’s consider what might happen, without conducting occupational research in this way. I had a client who wanted to leave the career she had been in for 15 years. She looked into becoming a Dental Hygienist, because it paid well, had good long-term prospects, and “sounded good”. However, she didn’t conduct information interviews to complete her research. After a year of training and all the relevant costs incurred, she landed her first job in the field. However, she only lasted a few months, after deciding she hated it! Why? Because she didn’t research the position thoroughly beforehand. In this article, I’ll show you many practical ways you can do so, so that this doesn’t happen to you!
It’s important to note that the purpose of an Information Interview is not to request a job. The purpose is to obtain career information from knowledgeable professionals in the field, in order to make a sound career decision. In addition, it enables you to do a reality check on what you’ve read, heard, thought or assumed so far in your exploration process.
Added benefits of Informational Interviews:
• They provide an opportunity to view the workplace, environment, and other employees on the job.
• They provide an opportunity to obtain a greater depth of valuable career knowledge than is possible with other research methods (i.e. print or internet). As a Chinese proverb says, “A single conversation across the table with a wise man is worth a month’s study of books.”
• They allow you to gather up-to-date information on trends and shifts.
• They provide an opportunity to gain advice from a potential employer on qualifications required and future job prospects.
• They provide no-pressure interview skills and practice.
• They help to enlarge your circle of networking contacts.
So how does one start? Well, the answer is by networking!
Network, network, network!
• First, you’ll want to create a networking contact list. You can start filling in your list with friends, family, organizations, neighbors, business and community people you know. Then of course you must, at some point, branch out by searching online, through social media sites (such as LinkedIn and Twitter), the yellow pages, in directories, newspapers, associations, and so on.
• Each time you talk with someone, don’t be shy and ask for referrals (I always ask for two) and suggestions of whom you might speak to next. Ask if you can mention that they referred you. (This is free advertising for them, and turns a cold lead into a warm lead for you!) Work on growing and nurturing your network.
• You’ll want to speak with several people in the industry before making any decisions, and should consider speaking with all levels of professionals in the field, from the beginner, to the intermediate, to the advanced.
A little preparation goes a long way
• Be able to state concisely what information you’re looking for, your objective, and goals.
• Create calling cards to distribute to everyone you come in contact with, to ensure people know how to reach you.
• If you are keenly interested in a particular career, you should have conducted some initial occupational research to establish that it matches your needs, interests, values, skills, etc. Also, thoroughly research the website of the professional or employer’s organization you are interviewing. Ensure that you have this primary knowledge before going in to an interview. Do your homework first!
• Prepare a list of questions ahead of time, including ones customized for your specific career research.
• Keep your career exploration information together and well organized. Rather than bringing individual pieces of paper with you, prepare a professional portfolio or binder with your questions, blank paper, research obtained from print or the Internet, company information if applicable, your current resume, and perhaps a plastic holder for the business cards you receive, and any other pertinent information.
• Prepare telephone scripts for setting interview appointments. You’ll want one for seeking contacts (i.e. from a receptionist) and one for direct contact. While you might not think this is necessary, even the most seasoned communicators stumble with “uh” and “um”, or other fumbles, without one. In addition, if you are asked to leave a voicemail, you are then prepared to leave the most professional one possible.
• Practice by role-playing. If you feel uncomfortable at first with the thought of interviewing a stranger, try with a friend or family member, even if they’re not in your field, just to get in the practice. It can really be a lot of fun!
Set the appointments
• Utilize your phone scripts. They will help you to sound professional, as well as help you to stay focused, articulate, and concise.
• Smile while you dial! People can tell! It works and can change the entire tone of a conversation.
• When speaking directly to your contact, mention your referral if you have one. Explain your purpose and be to the point. This is not a job interview – it is simply a request for information. Most people are flattered! Remember that people answering a business phone are there to provide quality customer service, and your request should be treated no differently. Ask for a set period of time to meet (e.g. 15 or 20 minutes.)
Conduct the interview
• Treat this interview as a formal job interview. Dress appropriately, be well groomed, polite, organized, prepared, punctual, sharp, and alert.
• Always greet people with a warm, friendly smile, and a firm handshake.
• Have a good two-way conversation. Ask your questions, making sure you get the information you need about the occupation. At the same time, be willing to share some information about yourself and your occupational goals.
• Be relaxed. There is no need to be nervous or intimidated. This interview is not for a job (not now at least), but you are making the crucial first impression. The balance of control is in your favor, as you know what information you need and what the questions are. The pressure is less on you and more on them as the spotlight is focused on their expertise and your interest in their expertise.
• Ask if it would be okay to take notes and then do so, as this will show that you are serious about getting the information, and it will help in your decision making process later.
• Βe sure to ask for the names of other people you could speak to. Be open to other ideas and avenues. Ask for at least two other contacts. If you do this at four information interviews, you will have eight new contacts in related occupations! Remember to ask if you may mention that he/she referred you.
• Courteously follow the time frame agreed upon. If it was 15 minutes, stop at that point to thank them for their time. Quite often they are happy to extend, so count on spending more time there just in case!
• Thank them for their time and ask for a couple of their business cards. (One for you, and one to share should you know someone in need of their services or products.) Don’t forget to shake hands. Your closing needs to be strong, as it will leave a lasting impression.
Don’t forget to stay objective during the process. I once had a client who, after his first informational interview, announced that sadly he supposed the career of interest wouldn’t be for him. The reason? He interviewed someone who had negative things to say about the job and his company. Remember…information from one source does not make it so. You have to conduct multiple interviews to substantiate views and separate fact from fiction. Time and time again over the years, I have had clients understand this, yet in reality became discouraged over one negative comment (whether gleaned in person or via the Internet). However, when encouraged to complete the process, they discovered that the positive information far surpassed any negative. Stay positive and stay with it!
• Just as you would do after a job interview, write a formal thank you card (or at least an email letter) to each person you conducted research with. This reinforces your sincerity and professionalism, and will encourage the contact person to speak with you again if you need to.
• Keep in touch with people who you think might be able to help. Call back, send a note or email with updates on your progress or outcome, or by sending/sharing other relevant information.
• It is not uncommon that the contacts gained from Informational Interviews later turn into actual job leads. It has been said that while 1 in 200 resumes turns into a job interview, 1 in 12 Information Interviews results in a job!
So before you jump head first into a new career, if you commit to the research involved with Information Interviews, you will be able to rest assured that you are making the best possible decision. Have a lot of fun and enjoy meeting new people during your process! ■
Brenda Blackburn, copyright 2011 (revision)