Interviewing Yourself into a Career
Q: What is the best way to learn about an occupation?
A: Talk to as many people as you can who work in that field!
Whether you are undecided about what career to pursue or know exactly what you want to do, visiting with career professionals can provide important insights into careers — insights you can’t find by reading a book or looking at employment statistics.
Unfortunately, few career explorers utilize this valuable human resource. Yet, the advantage of conducting what are termed “informational interviews” with career professionals is that you are the one doing the interviewing – there is no pressure, no competitive forces at work. You are also visiting a potential place of employment and gaining information about what that job is really like, whether it is something you would like to do and, if it is, how to better prepare for it.
Jim Stark, a technical team leader for a watershed research group, says that while he was still in school he scheduled regular informational interviews with watershed resource professionals so he could ask them about their jobs and begin to develop a network of contacts. “It was amazing,” Stark recalls. “I never got turned down by any one of them, and three out of four times they were really motivating experiences.”
The network of 20 professional contacts Stark developed during his senior year in college not only advanced his understanding of his career field, it also led him into his first job. “If you’re out there meeting with people, you’re more likely to see opportunities when they arise. Opportunities aren’t usually in the ‘Want Ads.’ They come from being out there talking to people,” Stark says.
Besides interviewing people who do the kind of work that interests you, relatives and friends can also be sources of information about career possibilities. Even though they may not be doing work you are especially interested in, you can practice your interview skills and quite possibly begin getting a clearer picture of what does interest you. Relatives and friends can also provide you with a list of referrals with whom to visit to learn about other jobs.
Scheduling & Conducting Informational Interviews
Remember that when you conduct an informational interview, you are not seeking employment. You are seeking specific information about a job, the skill and educational requirements, training and advancement opportunities, and preparation requirements.
When contacting professionals to interview, identify yourself, tell them how you obtained their name. Explain that you are gathering career information. Ask for 20 to 30 minutes to talk with them about their career. Don’t limit yourself to contacting just one individual in one company in a particular field. Every job, even in the same field, is slightly different. So, scheduling visits with several people who work in the same occupation will be more useful. It will also help you expand your knowledge and network of contacts.
Do your homework before an interview. Learn as much as you can about the field you are investigating. Log on to WOIS (Washington Occupational Information System), O*NET or other Internet resources for a description of the occupation. If possible, learn about the organization your contact works for by reading the company’s literature. Ask the company’s receptionist how you can learn more about the company. You might also talk with people you know who work there, or those who do business with the company.
Write down a list of specific questions you want answered during the interview. The list will help you keep the interview on track and gain the information you are seeking (see Informational Interview Questions at the end of this article).
When going to your interview, or when visiting a company to gather information, dress appropriately. Don’t just walk in off the street in ragged jeans, a T-shirt and a baseball cap. Make a good impression every time you visit a company. You may want to work there some day, and first impressions are often lasting ones.
When going to the interview, bring a pad of paper and a pen (one that works!) to take notes, but don’t get carried away writing everything down. Listen intently. Jot down important ideas and job search information, or the names and phone numbers of other potential contacts. You can also take an updated copy of your resume. Either before or after your interview, ask the career professional if he or she would be willing to review it. Ask for recommendations regarding your overall career plans and qualifications.
Thank your source for meeting with you, both upon your arrival and upon your departure. Express your appreciation for the chance to learn about their career field. If additional contacts are not offered during the interview, before you depart, don’t be afraid to ask for additional names. Do not ask them for a job! You scheduled the interview to gather information about their career and to express your career interests. Asking for a job, or for a job referral, will leave them feeling that you asked for their time under false pretenses. However, if they mention a job opportunity, certainly express your interest in learning more about it.
Lastly, follow up with a thank you card or letter. Ask to be kept informed of any other information that may be of help to you in your career research. Informational interviews are one of the most practical, educational and effective methods to explore career options and to develop a network of professional contacts. So, get out there and start talking to people. You just might end up interviewing yourself into a career.
Informational Interview Questions
Here is a list of questions to help you get the most out of an informational interview with a career professional.
- What motivated you to pursue this occupation (or career)?
- What is your job like? On a typical day, what kinds of problems do you deal with and what kinds of decisions do you make?
- What do you like most about your job? What do you like least about it?
- What social obligations go along with your job? Are you expected to join any organizations or participate in any activities outside of work?
- What kind of preparation such as: work, activities, schooling or hobbies did you do before entering this occupation?
- What was most helpful in preparing you for your current position?
- What are the most important skills you use in this job?
- Are there any specific educational requirements for this job?
- What do you think is the best way to prepare for and enter this occupation?
- Are there advancement opportunities in this field?
- Are there any major changes taking place in your occupation, either due to technology or the marketplace?
- Why do people decide to leave this occupation?
Remember, these are just sample questions, but they cover most of what you should ask during an interview. If your source does not provide you with any referrals during the interview, before you leave, be sure to ask if they know of anyone else in their profession who you might contact. Thank them for their time then follow up with a thank you note or card.
Never ask for a job. The purpose of an informational interview is to help you better understand what is involved in a specific occupation and to develop contacts who may be able to refer you to a possible job opportunity in the future.