If you watched this week’s ATETV episode which profiled Cisco Systems and introduced the position of Demonstration Engineer, you may have found yourself interested in the industry and the job. Would that type of company be a good fit for you? Is that type of position compatible with your skills and personality? What is the job like on a day-to-day basis?
One way to get answers to those questions is by meeting and talking with the people who work at the company to get their insights into what their jobs are really like. It’s known as an Informational Interview.
The term was originally used by Richard Bolles, the author of What Color Is Your Parachute? It’s a great way to explore career options and get a better idea of the types of companies and positions that best fit your interests, skills and personality.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the purpose of an informational interview is not to get a job – it’s to learn about a job from someone who is already working in that career. The typical informational interview lasts 20 to 30 minutes.
The following tips from the Occupational Outlook Quarterly can help you get started.
Decide what jobs you want to learn about. If you’re starting from scratch, you might want to talk with a guidance counselor or career counselor, who can help you clarify your interests, skills and goals. You can also browse through the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook which provides detailed descriptions of various jobs, work environments and salary ranges.
Decide who to interview. Once you’ve closed in on the job or jobs you’d like to explore, it’s time to identify individuals to interview. Keep in mind that, as much as possible, you’d like to talk with people who are actually working in the positions (rather than human resources representatives) and try to talk with people who have positions at about the same level as what you would have if you were to enter the profession. (So, if you would expect to start with an entry-level position, try to talk with someone who also has an entry-level position.)
Make the connection. The best and easiest way is to get the names of people to interview is to check with people you already know – you’d be surprised how many connections you might have. Family members, friends, teachers or previous coworkers may themselves have worked in the position you want to explore, or may know someone who you can talk with. Other good sources might be high-school or college alumni offices, which often keep records of their graduates’ employment. Professional associations often maintain membership directories and might be able to help put you in contact with a member who you could talk with. For example, IEEE, is a professional organization for the advancement of technology, and a resource for a wide range of engineering positions. Finally, check out trade magazines or newsletters; they often profile employees or describe activities of various members – who might be potential interview subjects.
Reach out. This is the part of the process that many people find most difficult – it’s not easy to ask for career help, especially if you don’t know the person. But, again, you might be surprised at how many people are willing to help students and career changers explore new occupations. If a family member or mutual friend or acquaintance has a contact, you might ask if he or she would make the initial request on your behalf. Then once he’s put things in motion, you can follow up with a call or e-mail to set up a time and date to meet.
If you don’t have a personal connection, a written request is a good way to go. Check out this article in the Occupational Outlook Quarterly for samples of notes and e-mails to use when requesting an informational interview.
Do your homework. Even though your “interview” is for background only, it’s important to be prepared. Knowing something about the organization will help you ask better questions and will demonstrate your interest and enthusiasm. (Furthermore, you never know if your meeting might lead to a real job interview somewhere down the road – so you’ll want to leave a good impression.) Check out the company’s website for background. If they produce an annual report, you might want to check that out and also see what trade publications have to say about the company.
Develop your questions. This is the most critical part of the interview. Now that you’ve secured someone’s time, you need to make sure that you’ve come prepared with a list of questions that really help you learn about the position and the industry. Keep in mind that your meeting will likely last about 30 minutes – according to the BLS Occupational Outlook Quarterly a good rule of thumb is to prepare about 10 questions.
Questions generally fall into four general categories: The job itself (What kinds of tasks do you do on a typical day? What do you like best about your work? Do you work independently or as part of a team?); Questions about working conditions (What hours do you work? Does this position require travel?): Questions about training (How did you find this job? How did you prepare for this career?); and Questions about other careers and contacts (Can you suggest anyone else I could speak with for background information?)
Be professional. Although an informational interview is more casual than a real job interview, it’s still important to look professional and make a good impression. Dress well – a good rule of thumb is to dress the way the person interviewing you will be dressed. Be prompt and arrive on time.
Listen carefully. Remember, that you are leading the interview. Though you might open the conversation with a thank-you and brief mention of your goals and interests, your primary purpose is to hear what the other person has to say. Take notes throughout the conversation, and try to stay on track to ensure that your most important questions are answered. Because you are the interviewer, it’s up to you to keep an eye on the time. Besides thanking your interviewee at the end, be sure to ask if there are other people that he or she suggest you speak with.
Be sure to follow up. After the interview, be sure to express your appreciation by writing and sending a thank-you note or e-mail within a few days, the sooner, the better.
Make good use of the information you receive. Once you’ve finished, go back and think about what you learned from the interview. What did you like about the job/company? What did you dislike? What was your impression of the work environment? Do you think you could be happy in this position/organization? Try not to base all of your information on a single source; if possible, arrange to conduct a few different interviews to learn about a particular occupation, and try to confirm information with multiple sources. You may discover that your dream job isn’t what you thought, and the Informational Interview may have provided you with the opportunity to change course. Or, you may find that the industry/career is exactly what you’d hoped it would be – and that the Informational Interview has given you a head start for your real job search!