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The Informational Interview

Getting the Inside Scoop on an Occupation

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I realized how many people don't know about using an informational interview to learn about an occupation when I sat in front of the computer with a friend searching for information on medical transcription, a career she was considering. After about a half hour of weeding out sites that advertised training programs from those that actually gave information on this job, her husband asked her this simple question: "Why don't you call Joe's mother? She's a medical transcriptionist." I looked scornfully at my friend, who hadn't mentioned knowing someone in the field, and began to lecture her on the importance of informational interviews.

First Things First...

My friend wasn't so far off base, actually. Gathering information from books, printed articles, and web sites, is the first step one should take when learning about different careers. This comes after a period of self assessment, of course, when one looks at his or her work related values, interests, and skills to determine what occupation he or she would enjoy and in which he or she would excel. Reading up on careers is a way of narrowing down the list of careers you are considering and eliminating those in which you have no interest. It is also a way to prepare for the next step -- the informational interview.

What is an Informational Interview Anyway?

The purpose of an informational interview is to get information about a field of work from someone who has some firsthand knowledge. When you are on an informational interview you should not ask for a job. This is not to say that an informational interview cannot lead to a job. In addition to helping you learn about a particular career, the informational interview is a way to start building a network. The person who is the subject of your informational interview today, may be the first person in your network many tomorrows from now. Here's another way an informational interview can benefit you. For those of us who are a little skittish about going on a job interview, the informational interview provides an non-threatening forum in which to get some practice. Think of it as a dress rehearsal.

Who Should You Interview?

Here's how I see it. You need information. Someone has that information. Anyone is fair game as long as that person is knowledgeable about the field in which you are interested. Ask friends, relatives, fellow students, your teachers, and neighbors if they know someone who works in your targeted field. People love to talk about themselves and what they do. Call someone you read about who has your "dream job." Call your alumni association. When I first thought about becoming a librarian, I contacted an employment agency that specialized in that area. I was able to get an interview with one of the agency's founders, herself a librarian. She was able to tell me about the job itself, and because of her unique position as a placement counselor, she was able to tell me about the outlook for the field.

Preparing

Just as you need to prepare for a job interview, preparation for an informational interview is very important. As my friend did, searching for information on the occupation is step one. She felt she needed to know as much about her targeted career in order to ask intelligent questions.

When you go on a job interview it is wise to learn as much about the potential employer and the interviewer as you can. When you go on an informational interview you should do the same type of research. As mentioned above, people love to talk about themselves. People also love to hear about themselves (the good things of course!). If your interviewee was referred to you by someone, ask that person about him or her. Also, see what you can find out by looking in local business journals and industry publications. For example, was the interviewee recently promoted or did he or she receive some special recognition? Research that person's employer as well. You will be prepared for the interview and therefore make a good impression.

Questions to Ask

As previously mentioned, you should research your career of interest in order to ask intelligent questions. Was there something mentioned in the occupational information you didn't fully understand? The informational interview is a good forum to get that clarified. Here is a small sampling of questions you should ask:

  • Describe a typical day at work.

  • How many hours do you normally work in a week?

  • What do you see as the potential for growth in this field?

  • What can I do now to help me find employment in this field?

  • What do you like about your career and what don't you like about it?

The Big Day

You've done your homework and can walk into the informational interview confident that you will make a good impression and get the information that will help you make a wise decision. Don't forget to dress appropriately. Arrive on time, keep the interview to the scheduled length, and remember proper etiquette.

Speaking of proper etiquette, please remember to send a thank you note to show your appreciation. The interviewee has taken time out of what is probably a very busy schedule to help you.

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