Getting Great Interviews

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Seniors who get great interviews in the “sweet spot” of the research process find it really helps to refocus and reinvigorate the whole thesis class. But great interviews don’t just materialize out of thin air- they are planned. Here are some top tips for scoring great interviews:

1. Reach out early so you can complete one interview by the end of October. Why is this timing so perfect? It’s in the sweet spot, where you’ve done enough research to be conversant in your topic, and able to ask really on-point questions, but early enough in the process that if the interview prompts some really interesting leads, you still have time to follow up on them.

2. Reach out to three potential interviewees in September: dream, solid, and safe. If you manage to land all three, awesome! You have just that many more perspectives for your paper. But if one or two don’t materialize, at least you’re not scrambling during the second quarter (read: college application vortex) trying to pin down an interview at the last minute. Reaching out in September with suggested October dates makes #1 likely.

3. When you introduce yourself via email, include three possible interview dates/times, and your questions at the bottom. Lots of seniors get frustrated by great interviewees who say “yes” to the idea of an interview, but then never get on the calendar. The reality is, if your expert interview is any good, they are busy. Prune the email back-and-forth down to none. Make the answer to your email easy – either a “yes” to an interview time, or they can reply with written answers to your questions.

4. Three good questions are better than 10 mediocre ones. Don’t ask questions that you should already have the answers to (e.g., items about their bio or main points from their book you’re reading), and don’t ask yes-or-no questions. Don’t ask multi-part, complicated questions, or include the answer in the question. Ask open-ended, slightly provocative, brief questions about process. Bad: “What year did you graduate from Harvard?” Good: “To what extent does the US K-12 history curriculum serve to divert public attention away from our foreign policy?”

5. Consider watching master interviewers for the purpose of observing their technique. Some personal favorites of mine include James Lipton, Norm MacDonald, Marc Maron, Craig Ferguson, & Kevin Pollak (why are they all men? I need to dissect that and get with the times), but there are many more, so you should just pick one who strikes you as effective and then try to see if you can dissect why. You don’t need to emulate their style, but it does help to identify a couple of good interview techniques.

6. You need at least at least one interview completed by Winter Break, but you can keep conducting interviews all the way until Defense. You really should try to get one interview done by the end of October to save your sanity, but a great interview after that can be additional info for your paper, a new twist for your presentation, or even an energy boost for defense. Talking with experts will only make you better, no matter what the timing.

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