In my first two posts, I focused on general philosophies I’ve found essential to developing my thinking about how we learn. Future posts will offer practical suggestions for how to hack your teenager’s education.
Too often young adults wait till the end of their high school or college years to make career plans, and many parents worry that if they ask teenagers to prepare for a career too soon, they’ll become locked into that career path. I think the earlier teenagers begin preparing for a possible career, the better. It’s true that teenagers will likely change career plans many times during the course of a few years. But I think they should still actively prepare for each of those career paths! Anyone who has focused intensely on a topic for a period of time will have interesting experiences to talk about, will learn skills that can transfer to other jobs, and will be more engaging conversationalists. Each of these experiences is vital when writing a college admission essay, interviewing for a job, or generally enjoying life.
Often teenagers (and even adults) may know what they’d like to be when they ‘grow up,’ but they aren’t sure precisely how to move along that career path. We then spend a lot of time in dead-end jobs or classes because we don’t know which ones will best prepare us for a specific career. When I transitioned from academia to a business career, I was routinely advised to conduct ‘informational interviews.’ In such an interview, you ask someone who works in a field you’re interested in about their day-to-day experiences and how they arrived at their job.
For teenagers, an informational interview is the perfect opportunity to learn about a career before committing much time to it and to gain expert advice about what specific steps they can take to prepare for that career. These interviews also give teenagers contacts in their chosen field who might later let them know when internships or summer jobs become available. (It’s considered bad form to use an informational interview to ask for a job or internship.)
HOW TO CONDUCT AN INFORMATIONAL INTERVIEW
Most of us have little experience interviewing people. Encourage your teenagers to practice asking questions with a friend or family member — they’ll quickly learn which questions lead to more productive answers, how to ask sound followup questions, and how to pace the interview.
Most informational interviews are 15-30 minutes in length and take place in person. In general, the following categories and questions will be helpful, but teenagers should carefully think about why they are interested in this particular career path and determine in advance what they want to learn from the interview. They should spend time with Google, learning about the industry and the person they’ll interview. When they conduct the interview, they can avoid asking questions that they could easily find out another way.
Here’s a sample template, which should absolutely be adapted for the particular career and person your teenager would be interviewing. Depending on how much your teenager already knows about the career, he or she might want to spend more or less time on certain questions or question categories.
SUGGESTED TEMPLATE FOR INFORMATIONAL INTERVIEWS
Start the interview discussing why you’re interested in the career path and what you’d like to learn about today. This lets the interviewee target their answers to your specific goals.
Open your questions by learning more about the person you’re interviewing: Why did you choose this career path? How did you start in the field? How did you get your current job?
Continue by getting a feel for the culture of their career: What do you love about this job/career? What would you change about it? What does a typical day look like? What types of tasks do you usually do in a given month? What kind of people do you work with regularly?
Make sure to ask about the larger industry too: How do you see the industry changing over the next 5-10 years? What other careers are similar to the one that you do?
Find out what you should be doing right now — and over the next 4-8 years — to prepare for this career: What background, skills, and temperament does one need for this job? What courses, extracurricular activities, internships would you recommend I take in order to prepare for this career? What books/magazines/trade journals should I start reading to learn about the field [Start reading those now!]
Finish by thanking them for their time. You might also ask if they can recommend anyone else to talk to about this career.
And don’t forget to send a prompt thank-you note; include a concrete action you took as a result of the interview so the interviewee knows how they’ve helped you out.
CONTINUE THE CONVERSATION:
I’ve started a Facebook page for Hacking Education. During Spring Break, I’ll share examples of what your teenager can do to hack spring break. I also hope you’ll share examples of what your family is doing to hack Spring Break on Facebook or tweet them to #hackspringbreak. Feel free to use the Facebook page to talk further about the articles I’ve posted, offer your own perspective and advice, ask questions, and so forth.