For the last second half of the spring semester, I am focused my field work. It goes by other names too: data collection, empirical work, or just “doing interviews.” Still, I have been spending most of my time at the office. My colleagues might notice that I am on the phone a bit more, but beyond that it’s hard to tell the difference between this work and the writing that I did during the winter.
It turns out that doing interviews involve a lot of time at my desk. You could divide up the work into four steps:
- Figuring out who to interview
- Booking meetings and preparing
- Doing the interview
- Transcribing and next steps
Of these four, it’s only #3 that gets me out of the office.
1. Figuring out who to interview. This step varies in difficulty. Sometimes I want to learn about a specific project and I can find a contact person on a government agency’s or company’s website. Other times I am reading a newspaper article from a few years ago and that person has a different position inside the company. Or maybe I know about a company but don’t know the name of anyone there. Do I call the main office, take a guess and send an email, or should I wait until one of my upcoming interviews to get a reference to the right person?
2. Booking meetings and preparing. Once I know who to interview, I usually follow the same steps. First, I send an email explaining who I am and what my project is about and why I want to interview them. Then I wait a few days and follow up with an phone call; that way I don’t need to explain my whole project over the phone to someone who might be running between meetings. (In rare cases, I do get a prompt reply to my email.) If all goes well, I can book a time right away. But they might not want to participate in my project, or they might not answer the phone or return messages. Recently it took my a month of trying…only to realize that the person listed on the website retired six months ago! Once I book a meeting, which is usually two or three weeks ahead, I have the time to plan my interview in more detail and book my trip.
3. Doing the interview. Most of my interviews require travel to another city, so I take the train. If I have an early interview in Malmö, for example, I have to travel the day before and spend the night in a hotel. Once in the right city, I have to get to the right place at the right time (taking into account the weather). Thank goodness for Google Maps.
An interview often starts with some small chat by the coffee machine. Normally I start by explaining my project a bit more, to give the person a better understanding of my interests. However, I don’t want to get into too much depth at the coffee machine, especially if the person starts giving useful information—I want to wait until we are seated at a table and I can turn on my voice recorder. Once I start recording, the interview usually lasts between 30 and 90 minutes.
4. Transcribing and next steps. The best way to celebrate a successful interview is to find a quiet place and start transcribing. Not because it’s fun—transcribing is painstaking—but because the pain is duller when everything is fresh and my brain is processing what was said. It’s also easier to write some notes and start doing analysis when the interview is fresh in my mind.
Transcribing is often mixed with a few other tasks. My preliminary analysis includes marking up the transcription with links to other information that I have collected, such as documents and other interview transcripts. There’s usually an expense form to fill out. And quite often, especially in the early stage of my project, I get suggestions of other companies or people to talk to. A reference is always a helpful outcome; it means I can start the process at step 2 and it’s easier to get the next person to agree to an interview.
Photo of Malmö Central Station by Håkan Dahlström Photography