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Information Interviews

You're not there to land a job-so what are you doing there?

By Robert Shannon

In the realm of information interviews, anyone involved-those who conduct them, those who grant them, and those who encourage their practice-can cite Rule No. 1: Whatever you do, do not ask for a job.

Ask any career counselor or recruiter and they will all tell you the same thing: The person granting the information interview is doing you a favor-a big favor-and it's very important that you stick to the task at hand.

Gathering Information

The goal of a successful information interview is to learn about a particular career, job function, and/or company through a brief interview. Information interviews are especially helpful when you're still in school and just beginning to research what field you'd like to pursue. They're also beneficial when you're starting your job search and need some specific job-related insight or when you're looking to change fields.

You don't necessarily need to interview someone who's been in a particular field or with a company for decades-speaking with a recent graduate can give you important information about how to make a smooth transition from the classroom to the office. Recent hires can give you answers to simple questions like: "What do you enjoy about being an electrical engineer at XYZ Company?"

However, it can also be helpful to set up an information interview with a veteran of the field, but your questions will be slightly different. Instead of asking what it's like to work in an office for the first time, you might want to ask how to successfully climb the corporate ladder, or what qualities supervisors like to see in new hires.

You might feel a little awkward about making the initial request for an information interview, but you'll probably be surprised by how willing your potential interviewee will be to talk to you. Most people love to talk about themselves, and in an information interview, essentially you're just asking: "Tell me about yourself." And if you wind up with a real conversationalist, that might be the only thing you have to ask!

What to Do Before You Go

However, that doesn't mean you shouldn't prepare for an information interview. Like anything else in your job search, preparation is imperative. Make sure you do extensive research on the interviewee's company, positions and background-come equipped with more than enough questions and be ready to answer some questions as well. The more your subject knows about your skills and your goals, the more he or she will be able to help you.

According to the Florida State University Career Center, before conducting an information interview you should "know your interests, skills, [and] values and how they relate to the career field represented by the persons you're interviewing." Or simply, be prepared to be part of a dialogue.

Some possible questions to ask are straightforward: "Describe a typical project (what are you responsible for, and what is a typical time frame?)" "What's it like working in a company this size (and would you rather work in a larger/smaller company)?" "What did you learn after you started here that you hadn't learned in college?"

And then there are questions that related specifically to your situation: "I really enjoyed working on X at my internship. How much of that do you do here?" "What's the office environment like? Is it typical of the industry?" "I'm a student member of X professional association. Are there other organizations that I should consider?"

Without ample preparation, however, things can fall apart quickly. For example, a friend of mine recently passed on this harrowing information interview story: "I had no idea what I wanted to do with my degree [in English]," he says. "I had a friend whose father was a probation officer, and she told me that they hired grads with all kinds of majors. So she set up a meeting for me with him. Looking back, I realize it was an information interview, but at the time, I didn't know what I was doing. He asked me what I wanted to do professionally, and I said, 'I don't know.' He asked, 'Why are you here?' I said, 'I don't know' and then I excused myself. I was mortified."

Thankfully this misstep didn't derail my friend's entire career; he now works as a recruiter for a wireless communication company in suburban Chicago. Today he says, "When I visit campuses, I preach to students the value of information interviews. Not everyone does it, and I'm convinced those who do, get a step ahead of those who don't. Of course, it helps to have a clue about what you want to do."

How to Find an Interviewee

So where do you find your interview subjects? Your university career center is your best bet. They should be able to help you find an appropriate subject, especially through alumni networks or professional associations. But don't limit yourself; if you're interested in a particular company, contact its human resources department. Clearly state your intent, and provide an outline or list of your questions. Also, talk to friends already in the workforce to see if they can put you in touch with someone at their company. And once you get an information interview, don't be afraid to ask if they can refer you to someone else as well.

Finally, and let me preface this by referring again to Rule Number 1-whatever you do, do not ask for a job. However, you should treat an information interview like an actual job interview. Remember all your interviewing skills: dress appropriately, speak clearly and confidently, take notes, have a copy of your resume handy, but don't offer it unless your subject asks for it. Don't overstay your allotted time and, of course, always follow up with a thank-you note to both the person you interviewed and anyone in human resources who help to schedule the interview.

A Step Toward Professional Success

A successful information interview should generate questions you hadn't even thought of ahead of time. They should also provide you with exposure to the professional work environment that you will soon inhabit full time and give you the opportunity to get comfortable talking to professionals, by discussing yourself and your career objectives. You'll hone your interpersonal communication skills and be that much more prepared for actual job interviews. When you can take something from an information interview and turn it into a talking point at a job interview, you'll know that you've achieved success.

Robert Shannon is a free-lance writer in Las Vegas.


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