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How to Answer “What Are You Going to Do After College?”

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You’re home for the summer and you know what’s coming. You’re sick with dread and look for a way out, but the exits are all blocked. There’s no escape. You’re going to have to face that dreaded question:

What are you going to do after college? 

Is there any way to survive this attack?

Yes. Try an informational interview to discover just what you’re interested in.

Caitlin Shrigley decided that she wanted to learn more about different industries than what could be read online. She began conducting informational interviews to hear individuals’ stories, build a network, and get to the heart of different jobs. AfterCollege got the chance to chat with Caitlin about her experience.

What made you want to start conducting informational interviews?

I wanted to learn more about industries, companies, and various professions beyond what can be read online. Talking with people and hearing their stories in an informational interview is a great way to do that. I also wanted to build my professional network and meet new people.

How did you choose who you were going to interview?

I start with “low hanging fruit.” These are people that I know or have been introduced to by people that I know. Then I ask them for suggestions of who to talk with next. It’s like a game of leapfrog, talking to one person and then another.

What was your process like? How did it differ between interviews?

I take time preparing for interviews, learning about the person’s professional trajectory from LinkedIn and exploring their company’s websites and blogs. Then I write a long list of questions that I’d like to ask the person I’m interviewing.

Writing the questions down helps me focus my thoughts about what information I would like to walk away from the meeting with.

  • How has that person made a living from following their passion?

  • What is the underbelly of an industry?

  • Who else should I talk to in that sector?

With each person the focus of the conversation will be different. Once the interview begins, I usually throw out all my questions and only use them if we run out of things to talk about. I like to let the conversation flow. If I’ve done my research properly, have a focus for the interview, and let the conversation flow, then each conversation is unique and engaging.

What were some of the most interesting things you learned while conducting informational interviews?

Many of the people that agree to give informational interviews did them at one point in their life. They found those interviews useful to them. Giving informational interviews is a way for them to pass along the good deed. Also, by talking with people in a variety of industries I have started seeing trends. Strong communication and collaboration skills seem to be needed in all sectors.

What was the biggest challenge you faced while conducting these interviews and how did you overcome it?

Most people have a “story of their career.” Something that they share often when asked what they do, what’s it’s like, and how they get into it. The problem is that most of that information is readily available online from LinkedIn, websites, and articles. During the interviews I try to build a connection with someone that goes deeper than their usual “career story.”

To build that connection I look for times in their career that they transitioned and ask them about that time. How did they make that decision? What was difficult about it? What was easy? I listen for adjectives that they use to explain their experiences and ask them to explain what they mean when they use those words. Again, that means I throw out all my pre-written questions and try to get to the heart of their experience. Sometimes people are willing to go there with you, other times they aren’t.

What did you most enjoy about conducting these interviews?

I really enjoy hearing success stories. It’s great meeting new people and learning about the various ways they’ve ended up on the professional paths that they are on. Some plan it meticulously, others take a chances and follow their whims. Most of the people I talked with ended up where they are at because they knew of one aspect of a job that they liked and headed towards that. They were focused, developed a network of supporters, and landed a job they love.

How do you plan to use (or how have you already used) the information and stories you gained from the interviews?

I use informational interviews in many ways:

  1. Narrow the job search through learning about jobs, professions, and companies firsthand.

  2. Hear those search success stories. Sometimes the job search seems never-ending. Talking with other folks normalizes the process.

  3. Find potential mentors, people who want to help you along your path. I’m always amazed at the generosity of others.

  4. Build skills: researching, interviewing, relationship building, and cold-calling. And the great thing is that when you have an informational interview with someone you get to show—rather than tell—them those skills.

What suggestions do you have for someone who would like to conduct similar interviews?

It can be intimidating to start this process. I suggest beginning with people that are already in your community: acquaintances, friends of friends, family members, classmates. It helps if they are somehow involved in the profession or industry that you are interested in, or if they have a skill set that you would like to develop, but that’s not necessary. Talk with people that inspire you. Take time to figure out what the focus of the interview is so that you can keep it on track. You’re the one driving the conversation. At the end of the interview ask them if they can recommend a few other folks for you to talk to. Thank the interviewer profusely for their time and generosity. And then begin expanding your network and find more folks to talk with.

[Editor's note: It’s perfectly alright to not know what you want to do with the remainder of your life. But informational interviews are the perfect shield against that dreaded question: What are you going to do after college? Even if after you conduct a few informational interviews you still don’t know what you want to do, you’ll be able to say, “Well, I have recently interviewed a few people about working in their fields. This is what I think is interesting about their work and this is what I don’t like.” I promise it will buy you some time.]

Homework time! Think about different fields you’re interested in. Start searching through your close network, family, friends, and classmates for people who work in those fields. Take Caitlin’s advice. Ask if any are interested in doing an informational interview with you. If anyone agrees, let the conversation flow, learn about their careers and how they got there, and ask if they know of any others who would be willing to share their experiences with you. Katherine Schwarzenegger’s book, I Just Graduated… Now What? is also a great resource.

P.S. Check out what it was like for Caitlin to explore the world for a year with the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship.

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