Research Tips

The Art of Interviewing

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Over the years at Hugo, we’ve seen many students tackle interviews as a way to engage in research. They are a great way to collect data for an article or report, and are one of the most popular methods for gathering primary source information since first-person accounts are coming straight from the source. Additionally, as a student researcher, it’s an avenue available to you that isn’t restricted by age or university affiliation.

There are, however, unique challenges that arise with interviewing that many students don’t anticipate when considering interviews in the abstract. We’ve created this guide to offer some advice and insights to keep in mind as you prepare to embark on your research. When discussing your methods and planning your project with your mentor, take a moment to review the following points.  

Build in extra time for unexpected surprises

Many students are overly optimistic when they first plan their interviews, but it’s important to get a realistic idea of what is manageable in the amount of time you have allotted. While you can control how much you read, research, and write, interviews require the cooperation of other people. Keep in mind that the more interviews you hope to conduct, the bigger the challenge since every person adds more uncontrolled factors that could delay your timeline.

For this reason, it is often a good idea to have an “aspirational” target for interviews as well as a minimum acceptable number—and a Plan B if you are unable to conduct that number of interviews during your timeline. You should also make sure to set aside ample time to develop, review, and time your questions with your mentor in advance of starting your interviews. This can take two to three sessions, but is time well spent. An interview, after all, is only as good as the questions you ask!

Predict the unpredictable

As mentioned above, interviews add an element of uncertainty to your research timeline, so it’s best to keep this in mind and have alternative plans in place so you don’t feel anxious if you have to change course. We don’t want to scare you off of interviews, but mentally preparing for the unknown is an important part of the process and will help you make the most of your time. In evaluating your research plan, keep the following in mind:

  • If you’re engaging in a summer mentorship, a lot of people might be away on vacation, or unavailable. If it’s during the school year and you’re interviewing academics, they may have conferences or big projects due that you might not know about. Does your mentorship timeline allow you enough time to reach the people you are hoping to interview if they are out of town or occupied?
  • Consider the kind of people you are hoping to interview. Is it realistic that you’ll reach them? Are they easy to access? Make sure that you confirm the subjects you’re aiming to interview are available and willing to speak before you dive in. If some of them seem like a “reach,” it’s okay to keep them on your plan, just make sure you have reliable backup subjects in mind in case it doesn’t pan out.
  • Another consideration for reaching your target audience for a questionnaire could be to offer an incentive to drive responses. This would require you to allocate extra funds—whether it be to pay for the incentives or to use an online tool like MTurk or Prolific. These sites are best suited for certain types of surveys or questionnaires, so be sure to consult with your mentor on what’s right for you!

Create a solid “Plan B” in case you need to pivot

Once you’ve made sure you and your mentor discuss the different factors that might delay or reduce the number of interviews you’re able to conduct during the mentorship, discuss what would work as an alternative if these are unavailable to you. Is there existing data you can analyze instead, or other resources you could sub in?

Many of our Hugo students (and researchers across the globe) that pivoted to a Plan B have found that it wound up being a better project for them! So keep in mind that changing your research method does not mean the quality of your work or your outcome will suffer, it’s just different!

Prepare for success

Once you and your mentor have created a solid, reasonable, actionable interview plan (with a Plan B), check to make sure you’ve completed every one of the steps listed below. These tips we’ve collected from dozens of Hugo students who braved their way as interviewers before you!

  • Write out all the questions you want to ask and have them ready.
  • Make time during your session to practice your interview skills with your mentor—they will be able to guide you in tips and techniques. It may seem simple to ask questions, but practicing how you’ll ask them, how you’ll transition to follow-up questions, and keep things moving is essential to success, organization, and confidence.
  • If you have some willing participants, take a second round of practice with your friends or family—the more you practice, the more comfortable you’ll be!
  • If you’re recording the interview in a certain way, you’ll want to make sure that you’ve practiced with your equipment. Go through the technical steps on a checklist so that when your nerves kick in you don’t forget anything. You’d be surprised how many people forget to hit record and miss out on an otherwise excellent interview!

Keep Trying!

You’ve practiced, you’ve written everything out, and you’re ready to go. But what do you do if you can’t even reach your interview candidates? Many students try calling an interview subject once and give up: but if someone is not in, just call them back! Remember that people are often out of the office, especially if it’s summer hours. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain by just following up. Until someone actually says they are unavailable, it’s not a no.

If you're having a hard time reaching someone on the phone, don’t forget that email could be a great workaround—and it would allow your subject to reply on their own time. Sometimes this is even the preferred method!

Coping with nerves

It’s completely normal for students to feel nervous when interviewing some impressive, experienced person. Many Hugo students have asked the question: “I’m just a high schooler, why would anyone want to talk to me?” Yet frequently, experts are happy to share their experiences and opinions with you precisely for that reason: you’re the next generation of scholars, and they’ll get a chance to encourage you and further spread the word about something they’re passionate about.

One reason we recommend rehearsing your interviews with your mentor (or a friend at home) is to build your confidence and dispel any potential nerves. This means speaking clearly, being direct and respectful, and not second-guessing yourself. Don’t just practice asking questions: practice asking them with confidence.

If you need help building that self-belief, just remind yourself:

  • You are a smart, capable person.
  • You are taking the initiative to research a subject that is important to you, and you are conducting this interview to make sense of something in the world that you believe needs to be addressed.
  • An amazing mentor has taken out time to guide you and believes in you, so you should believe in yourself, too!

Remember: the other person might be nervous, too. Adults aren’t that different from high schoolers. We’ve got insecurities and nerves, too. Remembering the fact that your subjects are likely nervous about being interviewed can help calm you down.

It’s also helpful to remember this to avoid any hurt feelings: sometimes, a subject might come across as aloof or distant, but often when nervous, people can respond in terse or cool ways. Remembering that they are just as nervous as you can help you to keep moving forward smoothly.

Keep in mind

Interviewing is more of an art than a science. While it does give us valuable information and data to work with, it also has a whole lot to do with personalities—both yours and your subjects. Recognize that while you’ll learn a lot about your subject while interviewing them, you’ll probably learn a whole lot about yourself in the process, too. We look forward to hearing about all your findings from the experience when you’re done. Have any tips? Let us know and we’ll include them in future versions of this guide!

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