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Informational interviews could be the most important career tool you aren't using. On the surface, they appear as a simple way of learning more about a career, but in reality they provide students and seasoned professionals alike with new contacts in a world where networking reigns supreme.

"Informational interviews are a great way to connect with people who are doing what you might want to do," says Michael J. Hampton, director of the Service Learning and Career Development Center at Western Oregon University. "Not only do you gain information about a certain career, but you receive resources and other contacts that could lead to a job, internship or practicum opportunity."

Informational interviews: A primer
Informational interviews are a great resource for students for two reasons, says Marcia Moody, PhD, MEd, director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Walden University. First, the informal talks give you the real facts about a job — the good, bad, stressful or rewarding elements. Many people don't understand the specifics of a job until they ask someone in the field, Moody says.

Kate Czar, a University of Southern Mississippi psychology graduate student, discovered that when she found herself torn between two career paths. She wanted either to teach at a small liberal arts college or work as an administrator in an outpatient program for adults. To inform her decision, Czar spoke with the director of the outpatient program and a professor from her undergraduate university. Those discussions helped her determine she was best suited for teaching.

"The outpatient program sounded more stressful than I wanted," Czar says.

Another reason students should conduct informational interviews is to network, says Moody. Lots of people are going to make the first cut based on the minimum qualifications, she says. The applicants with connections are the ones who rise above the pack and make it past the first cuts. Informational interviews are a terrific way to build a large network of professionals who know you, your skills and future goals, he says.

Conducting the interview: How to prepare and what to expect
I would not even use the term “informational interview,” says Stanford University psychology professor John D. Krumboltz, PhD, co-author of "Luck Is No Accident: Making the Most of Happenstance in Your Life and Career" (Impact Publishers, 2004). He advises that students tell interviewee that you are doing research about his or her industry and that you have some interesting information about it you would like to share. Bring an article that you might have found on the Internet.

"In that way you are giving as well as receiving information," Krumboltz says, adding that you should limit your interview time to 30 minutes.

Also, don't be intimidated or shy about interviewing strangers, says Hampton. "Students should remember that they are giving the interviewee two things that most people love to do: Talk about themselves and talk about what they do for a living."

Once you have your interview scheduled, prepare as you would for a normal job interview, says Hampton. Do some basic research on the place your interviewee works for and on their area of expertise. If you're interviewing researchers, for example, read their last few published papers.

Dress professionally and bring a list of questions. Ask specific questions about the position, and the pros and cons of the job. Feel free to ask about salary, but don't make it your first question, Hampton says.

When you prepare your list of questions, keep in mind that the interview should be a 50-50 split of you and your interviewee talking, says Krumboltz. You're there to learn, but also to highlight your own experience and skills without directly asking for a job. Bring a resume, but don't pull it out unless you're asked for it.

And be sure to end your talk by asking for the names of a few people you can contact for further information, says Hampton. "If you follow up with at least one reference, your network will begin growing," he adds.

Ending the interview: Following up and keeping in touch
Within a week of your informational interview, write a thank-you note, says Moody. While a friendly e-mail will work, a handwritten note reminding them of your visit is your best bet, says.

Once you've sent your thank-you note, it's easy to maintain contact—just don't overdo it. A polite e-mail every few months on your job search status will maintain the connection, says Krumboltz.

For more information on informational interviews, including a detailed list of potential questions, visit http://www.quintcareers.com/informational_interviewing.html.