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Informational Interviewing: A Powerful Networking and Career Tool for College Students
by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
You're a college student embarking on a career path. Talking to people in that field just makes sense. Yet most students never do. You trust your professors, textbooks, or romantic notions about professions gleaned from TV or movies. Consider supplementing that secondhand knowledge with informational interviewing -- the ultimate networking technique for all college students.
"One of the most positive things students get from conducting informational interviews with people in the fields they are interested in is seeing what the career is like from someone actually doing the job, not just reading about it in some article," says Robert Ashodian, who conducted several informational interviews before graduating and landing his job in human resources.
Informational interviewing is exactly what it sounds like -- interviewing designed to yield the information you need to choose a career path, learn how to break in, and find out if you have what it takes to succeed. It's a highly focused conversation with someone in your career field who can provide you with key information you need to launch your career, often including a critique of your resume.
"I'm big on encouraging students to use the very underutilized strategy: of informational interviewing," says Peter Vogt, president of Career Planning Resources, Eden Prairie, MN. "It's interesting because many students view informational interviewing/networking as bothering people or, worse, 'sucking up' to them. One student I spoke to referred to it as 'cheesy,' and said she and her friends did it only as 'a last resort.' In the reality of the world of work, of course, networking and informational interviewing go on constantly, and most jobs are landed through these informal channels."
Because they are exploratory, informational interviews are particularly effective for college students, who can use them to illuminate their career path in several ways, as discussed by students and recent graduates:
- You can learn about the realities of the work world and what to expect. Michelle Laird, an MBA graduate, dreamed in college of owning her own business and conducted informational interviews with entrepreneurs. "The experience was eye-opening to say the least," Laird says. "Until interviewing the folks I talked to, I had an almost romantic notion of being in business for one's self. After our discussions, I had a better picture of the trials and tribulations, heartaches and triumphs involved." Based on what she learned, Laird chose to learn the ropes from the corporate world before venturing into her own enterprise.
- You may discover opportunities that are available in a given field, including jobs and career paths you may not have thought of or known existed. Management grad J.P. Politano notes that before he conducted one of his informational interviews he was completely unsure of what kind of job he wanted. "Speaking with my interviewee made me realize that many of my points of view, experiences, and desires pointed me to a field like consulting, but I had never known it until we talked. It was as if I was introduced for the first time to something that I had been seeking for years, but was unsure of what it was," Politano says.
- Your dream career can be affirmed and turn out to be everything you thought it would be. Although one of Trinity Fitzpatrick's three attorney interviewees offered a jaded view of the law profession, the interviewing process showed her law was the right choice for her. "Since my interviewees were all of different ages and genders, I got a grasp of the feelings each one had for the field," Fitzpatrick says. "They made me realize how I would like to be as an attorney."
- On the other hand, the career you thought always wanted may turn out to be wrong for you. Many job-seekers learn through informational interviews that the career's average salary, hours, working conditions, or opportunities for advancement are not what they imagined. "I actually thought of going into law," says then marketing grad Tammy Miller, "but I decided against it," partly, Miller says, "from hearing an attorney's firsthand experience that they have such crazy hours that can be very stressful."
- If you are unsure about which career path to follow, you can obtain the information you need to choose. Or you might narrow a wide field down to a specific niche. "Informational interviews helped me to learn more about what areas of accounting I may want to enter and those areas that I don't," says Tina Markoff, an accounting graduate.
- You can glean information you need to strategize entry into your chosen career. "This creative yet extremely simple tool gave me inside information that I could not have gained during a conventional interview," says finance grad Michelle Dass, who was offered job interviews by two of the employers she interviewed. "This vote of confidence is priceless to me now that I plan to buckle down and look for a job."
- You gain access to information that not many other entry-level candidates will have. "You get a step ahead of others you will be competing with in the marketplace," observes Samantha Nolan, a marketing specialist.
At a minimum, you can count each informational interviewee as a valuable member of your network. You can forge strong and memorable bonds with your interviewees, who become invested in your career, remember you, and are eager to hear about your progress.
"I still keep in touch with my contacts, which got me my first internship working for Convergys Corporation, one of the companies at which I conducted an informational interview," says Ore-Tayo Funsho. Ellen Russell, career consultant at the MBNA Career Education Center at Georgetown University, Washington, DC, recalls a similar experience: "Before I graduated from grad school, I conducted several informational interviews at Chicago colleges." After she landed a job at Georgetown, one of the Chicago schools called to strongly encourage her to apply. "If I hadn't already secured a job, I would have been on cloud nine!" Russell declares. "Informational interviews pay off."
Working people are usually delighted to serve as informational interview subjects. "People love to talk about themselves, and most want to help," says career expert Marcia Merrill. "I always tell my students it's a win-win situation."
Choose your interviewees carefully, though. It's often best to interview someone in a position similar to what you'll have right after college. "If you want to learn about what an entry-level associate will be doing on a day-to-day basis, talk with an entry-level person," cautions Stephen Magennis, whose first job out of college was as a benefits analyst for Hewitt Associates. Magennis recalls that he mistakenly booked an interview with an eight-year veteran of one firm. "While it was nice to hear about how things had grown and what was in store for the future, the person could not accurately answer some of the more in-depth questions I had about day-to-day operations."
Because the atmosphere of the informational interview is relatively relaxed compared to that of a job interview, you can bolster your confidence so that you exude self-assurance when you interview for a job opening. "Students who are quite shy to set up job interviews feel much more comfortable meeting under these circumstances," observes Rachel Goodman, director of the career-development center at Maharishi University of Management, Fairfield, IA. "One woman, for example, became more confident in her job search after meeting with an individual in a position similar to the one she was considering. She felt that she could then say that she was clearly qualified for the job," Goodman notes.
"Informational interviewing was like a ticket to the real world of business formality," observes Pulat Tillaboyev, a finance grad who left his native Uzbekistan to study in Florida. "I had a chance to 'get into the interviewer's skin' to get more prepared for job interviews." Laura Nigro, who first post-college job was as a market researcher for the Automobile Association of America, echoes the job-interview preparation advantage. "Informational interviews better prepared me to ask questions when I was interviewed for the job I'm in now," Nigro says.
Learning to ask good question requires research. "Ideally, [students] should prepare specific questions that indicate substantive knowledge of an industry or career path, with the majority of the questions focused on topics that cannot be researched on the Internet," cautions Janet Scarborough Civitelli of VocationVillage.com. "Busy professionals are annoyed by questions like, 'What is the median income in your field?' when such information is readily available from Websites," Civitelli advises.
Final Thoughts on the Value of Informational Interviewing for College StudentsJob and internship offers often result from informational interviews, even though getting offers is not their purpose. "Whenever we assign students to complete an informational interview as part of a class assignment, they often come back to class announcing the job offers they received," says Nancy Nish, director of the career center at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Michelle Watson, career counselor at Lehigh University, Lehigh, PA, has a similar tale: "I had a sophomore finance major set up informational interviews with various alumni at TV/broadcasting networks," Watson recalls. "She ended up landing a great internship at 'Good Morning America' and even got to meet Diane Sawyer."
To learn much more about informational interviewing, read our detailed guide, the Informational Interviewing Tutorial.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker's Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., creative director and associate publisher of Quintessential Careers, is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for Quintessential Careers, edits QuintZine, an electronic newsletter for jobseekers, and blogs about storytelling in the job search at A Storied Career. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). Visit her personal Website or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)quintcareers.com.
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