Informational Interviews and Mentoring
Another way of gathering information about careers is to conduct an informational interview. An informational interview differs from a traditional job interview in that the interviewer is yourself (rather than some potential employer), and the person being interviewed is not a job candidate, but rather someone who is already working in the career you're interested in learning about. This type of interview is more like an interview one would conduct for a research project or for a newspaper article.
There are several ways to find someone to interview who is currently working in a career you are interested in learning about. You can simply find a list of people through professional directories or yellow pages and start calling or writing with your interview request. You can also tell people you know that you are interested in speaking with someone in a particular field, and let them help you network to find that "friend of a friend" who might be appropriate for you to speak with. So long as you are respectful and do not make overly long time demands on your interviewee, many people who are working in the career you are interested in will be happy to speak with you.
Use your informational interviews to find out what a career feels like to an insider. Insiders will generally be forthright and honest in their responses to your questions because you have no ability to influence (help or hurt) their careers. Direct, personal interview information can be much more valuable for your decision making process than information available online or in books or trade magazines. Insider interviewees aren't trying to sell you anything, and will be able to offer a local perspective that may differ substantially from more general industry trends.
Beyond conducting one or more informational interviews, you should look into getting yourself a mentor. A mentor is an experienced person who is willing to offer you advice and counseling over an extended period of time. Mentors can provide invaluable advice and guidance because they offer a wisdom accumulated over many years and a network of contacts typically not available to someone just starting out. Thus, the mentee (the person being mentored) gains the advantage of learning from someone else's experience and can avoid making costly rookie mistakes.
Clearly, having a mentor can be a boon but the challenge, of course, is finding a good one. One way to find a mentor is to get recommendations from a local university or trade school. Many schools offer job placement assistance to their students. The placement office at these institutions may have a list of contacts willing to mentor a student or recent graduate. Additionally, instructors are also good source of information-especially instructors that have many years of experience. They may be willing to direct a student in the direction of a qualified professional who might become a mentor. Bosses and senior colleagues at places you work at early on in your career can end up becoming mentors as well - if you hit it off with them well while you are working under their supervision.
But, what is one to do if he or she is not a student or recent graduate? Many industries have professional societies that may be willing to give advice and contact information for possible mentors. These societies are organizations such as the American Institute of Architects or the Society of Professional Journalists. Members of professional organizations are concerned about the state of their field and are typically interested in giving back to their professional community. If a particular industry has no such organization, one might try getting a referral from a friend or family member, or from the body that governs a particular field, such as the Bar Association (for law) or Medical Board. Unions that represent skilled-labor, such as the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers or the United Brotherhood of Carpenters & Joiners of America, are also good places to seek out a mentor.