Like many college students, I faced a harsh reality check a few months before graduation-what am I going to do with my life? During my junior and senior years of high school, I'd been focused on getting in to college. Then once I got there, my biggest worry was keeping my grades up so I could stay there. It never dawned on me that college would end eventually, and I'd have to start thinking about what came next. Gulp.

Fortunately (or not, depending on how you look at it), I graduated in the spring of 2002-just a few months after September 11, when most of the world was at a standstill. The economy was shaky, very few companies seemed to be hiring, and this horrible feeling of uncertainty seemed to be everywhere (talk about history repeating itself!) On top of that, as a very recent college graduate, I had very few marketable skills. It was one of the most frustrating times of my life.

My friends and family knew what a hard time I was having finding a job. As graduation loomed, I'd started to think a bit more seriously about what I wanted to do when I grew up. I thought I had an idea, but was I sure? The answer was, "Not really." A friend had an interesting suggestion: Why not find people in the fields I was interested in, and ask them for an information interview?

A what?

I'd never heard of such a thing, but the more she explained it to me, the better the idea sounded. An information interview is just that-an interview with a person to get more information on a job or career that you're interested in. You don't have to be a recent graduate to do them, either. If you've recently been laid off or are thinking of making a change in jobs or careers, a few information interviews could be just what you need.

It's simple. Make a list of careers that you think you might like to try. Pilot? Chef? Engineer? Zookeeper? Accountant? Write them all down. Then, get out the phone book or do a Google search to find professionals near you who might have that job or do that service. When my friend first made the suggestion, I was very interested in learning more about a career in event planning. My friend worked for a nonprofit and was able to connect me with a woman she knew in Harrisburg who worked in fundraising and planned a lot of events for smaller organizations. Next, start making phone calls or getting in touch with some of your leads. I had my contact's email address, and sent her a few questions about her career. Explain to the person who you are, why you're contacting them, and how you found out about them. Describe the areas you're particularly interested in and would like to know more about. It would also be helpful to talk about your own background, particularly your education, past jobs, and interests or hobbies. These interviews work best face-to-face, as you can get a feel for what a typical workplace is like within that industry. Try to schedule a time to meet with them if you can. If not, ask the person if they have some time to speak with you or if you can set up a time to talk at a later date. This way, they're a little more prepared and can give you their full attention.

Come up with a few questions to ask them. Below is a sample list that can be used for just about any type of job or career:

What are the primary tasks associated with this kind of position?

What kinds of experience, skills, and/or training are required for entry into the field?

What types of positions are there within your department, field, etc.?

What are the major rewards of a career in this field?

What advice would you give to someone trying to enter this field?

What is the salary range?

What advancement opportunities are there?

What is a typical day like for you?

Ask them how your skills and experience would or would not apply to the field. This is a good way to find out if you need additional education, and you can decide if that's an expense you're willing to take on. Be sure to ask specific questions about their company, too. A little networking never hurts, especially if you're job hunting.

Once you wrap up the interview, thank them for taking the time to speak with you. Ask them if there are additional contacts or resources that they can recommend for you to get more information. For an extra touch, follow up with a short but sincere handwritten note thanking them for their help. It's important to always remain as professional and gracious as possible. You never want to close the door on a potential contact that may be able to help you in the future.