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Interviewing "Experts"

English 127
Research Writing

Choosing Someone to Interview

You need a clear idea of the purpose of your interview before you can decide whom to contact.  Once you've decided on the purpose, write it down in one or two sentences.  The interview purpose is related to the overall purpose of your final research project (tied to the specific research question you are pursuing), but it is also more specific.  In other words, you should do some background reading first; then you'll have good questions to ask, and you'll be able to fit the answers into a coherent big picture.  If you haven't done much background reading on your topic, you risk wasting your interviewee's time.  You should ask an expert interviewee questions related to his/her specific experience and perspectives, not general information that you could have found on your own through secondary research.

Once you've identified your research question and the kinds of information you are seeking from an expert, reflect on the different kinds of experts and expertise that might be relevant for your topic and question.  On your topic, consider the difference in the "expert" viewpoints of government officials or civil servants, teachers and scholars, advocates either within or outside non-profit organizations, people with direct and prolonged experience or participation relating to your topic/question, "elders" in a community, etc.  Be aware of this range of possibilities and then choose your target experts with care and respect.

Here is a simple example:  If you are studying bicycles to recommend one for a touring enthusiast, whom should you interview?  The answer depends on what you need to know.  You might, for example, interview

  • a bicycle salesperson for information about what options are available
  • a repair person to determine repair records of competing brands
  • a bicyclist to get the knowledge and viewpoint of an experienced rider
  • a manufacturer to learn about advances in frame or gear construction
  • an engineer or quality control expert to learn about a part's reliability or safety

You can find appropriate names for possible interviews by jotting down the names of people mentioned in your reading (secondary research), searching the web, looking in phone directories, calling government offices or businesses for further leads, and getting advice and suggestions from teachers and others.  Because you cannot guarantee that any particular individual may be available or interested in granting you an interview, brainstorm at least five names of different kinds of experts; hopefully, at least one person will be willing to answer questions via email or phone or meet you in person.

Preparing Interview Questions

After doing some background reading, brainstorm as many questions as you can.  Taking into account the specific expertise of your interviewee and the time constraints of your interview (30-60 minutes), pick the 15 best questions from your brainstorm.  Spend some time revising and refining the questions, also developing an appropriate sequence for them.  Just as in the formulation of your own research question, do not construct yes/no, good/bad, for/against kinds of questions since they will not encourage a nuanced exploration of the issues related to your topic/question.  Be prepared to generate follow-up questions based on the secondary research you have already done.  For example, “In an article that I read, the author suggests a different solution than the one you have mentioned.…”

Below are some sample questions; even these should be tailored based on your evolving understanding of your topic and research question.  Your ten additional questions need to be far more specific and move beyond the general ones suggested below.  Keep in mind the difference between questions that merely ask for information (that you may or may not have been able to find through your research) vs. questions that draw upon the experience, expertise and professional judgment of your interviewee.  The goal of your questions should not be to get quick answers, but to elicit responses from your expert based on her/his unique professional experiences.  Ideally, they should present you with a greater understanding of the complexities of your topic/question. 

Sample Questions

Opening:  My research topic is ______________ and I am investigating __________ aspect (research question) of it. 

1.  Describe your professional (and/or personal) experience relating to this topic and research question.

2. What do you think is poorly understood or unresolved within this area?  Why is this so? 

3. What do you see as the main conflicts (of analysis, priority, or value) among those who work on this issue?  Follow-up:  Are you aware of key figures/scholars who represent those different positions?

4. What do you think is a possible answer to my research question?  In your judgment, what might be some useful research studies that should be undertaken with regard to this topic/question?

5. What resources, either other people or published materials, do you regard as essential to the study of my topic/question?  Is there anything else you’d like to add that hasn’t been covered by the questions I’ve already posed?  (This should be your last question.) 

Here is a summary of some main points to keep in mind as you finalize your list of interview questions:

  • Since you are generating several possible names of expert interviewees, you should have a single person in mind for the actual interview questions (even if you end up interviewing someone else) since your questions will be different depending on to whom you're addressing them. 

  • The more thought you have put into formulating and revising your research question, the more appropriate and useful your interview questions will be. 

  • Do not ask merely informational questions. Your purpose is not just to use the expert to give you general information about your topic, which you should be able to find out on your own through reading, browsing and surfing (which is what we call your secondary research). Merely asking information can appear to waste the expert's time.

  • Do not ask yes/no or good/bad questions.  Just as with your own research question, this is too narrow a way of understanding issues.

  • Do not simply ask for the expert's opinion.  It's better to think of yourself as asking for the expert's perspective, viewpoint or analysis as these directly relate to the interviewee's experience with the topic at hand.

  • Think about the sequencing of questions.  Does it make sense to move from one question to the next?  You may need to revise the order of questions, or even think about transitional phrases.

  • Be sure to thank the interviewee profusely for his/her graciousness and time.

Sample Approach Letter

Interview Request (email)

Dear ________,

Hello, my name is ______________.  I am a student at Green River Community College, and I am currently researching _______________________ for a paper I'm writing for English 127: Research Writing for the Social Sciences.  As an expert in your field, your comments in response to a few questions would be greatly appreciated.  May I ask a few minutes of your time to answer them?  If you agree, I could email them to you, or I would be happy to meet with you at your convenience.

Thank you,

(your name and email address)