"Hello? Is It Me You're Looking For?" - Thoughts on Phone Interviews

I've been promising hither and yon to talk about phone interviews, as I've had a few this year (and a few last year, and a lot of them way back when). I thought I'd even blogged previously about them, but perhaps not as the closest I could come up with was this.

Talking about phone interviews is tricky, for me at least. Whenever I complete one, anyone I've been foolish enough to tell immediately asks "Oooooh, how did you do?" The truth is, if I don't spontaneously combust and no one on the other end seems to, I don't know how you know how you did. One of the biggest problems of the phone interview is that you lose all manner of cues from people and are left with tone of voice and how long the silence is to determine what the outcome is. Worse, you're being interviewed in a situation with some arbitrary number of people all of whom you feel the need to focus on while they all only have to pay attention to you.

It is also difficult to tell how you did in this type of interview because the group dynamic itself is something you can't predict. I used to feel like any interview I had that didn't feel conversational was a failure. If I spent a half hour with folks on the phone, and we didn't end up talking like old friends, I felt like the interview was a failure. To my surprise, though, I got call backs from those sorts of interviews as well. The simple fact of the matter is that some groups - and some individuals - simply communicate in ways we can't predict, and so finding ways to beat ourselves up for imagined failings is the wrong path to go down.

One thing I've learned the hard way to do with phone interviews is to stop worrying about how I did and to start focusing on how they did. One of the unspoken truths of the phone interview is that it is is as much about them as it is about you. If you approach it that way, the whole game is changed.

Obviously, there are some things to do and some things to expect in a phone interview that will make life easier. The first thing is that you can make the format work for you: if you don't feel comfortable in your dress clothes, you don't have to wear them. If you don't like your office, you can ask to be called somewhere else. That's crucial, actually: you should make sure that the time and place of the interview work for you. It's okay to assert yourself, and it's okay to ask questions. On my first phone interviews, I was nervous about asking people to repeat themselves, but when I first conducted a phone interview, I realized just how bad the reception often is. Asking for clarification is never a bad idea.

You can't mistake those comforts for preparation, of course, You know that there are questions that are likely to be asked, and there's no substitute for having done some research in the beginning. Some questions you should expect include:
  • Why are you interested in working here?
  • What courses can you teach for us?
  • Where is your research headed?
  • What are your strengths as a teacher/researcher?
  • What are your weaknesses?
And there are ways to research those things that will help strengthen your interview position. Look at the course catalog and be able to reference particular courses. Have a research statement ready to go. Look at faculty profiles and look for places where there is commonality. Have a story about a good moment in the classroom ready to go. Have a story about a rough moment that you survived planned out, too. If you have developed a syllabus for those courses, have it nearby in case they want specifics about things like assignments or books. If you haven't, be prepared to talk about what you would emphasize. Having thought about those things will take care of most of the discussion on their own. And when they're out of the way, odds are that it will be your turn.

When I helped conduct a phone interview, the worst thing that happened was for us to reach the point where the chair asked "Do you have any questions for us?" and the person being interviewed said no. It came across as lack of interest and maybe even lack of preparation. And worse, it gives up the most useful part of the phone interview for you: your (first) chance to get a sense of whether the job will work for you.

There are two broad types of questions I like to ask on interviews: questions that focus on specifics about employment and questions that focus on the fit of the department. I like to start with the specifics and end with the questions about fit.

Some questions about specifics that you might ask about:
  • what is the teaching load
  • what are the tenure expectations
  • what research and travel support is available
  • is the position definitely funded or is there a chance it might be pulled (this is my first question this year, and if there's a chance it might be pulled, my next question is what the chair's sense of the chances of that are: the longer the pause before their answer, the worse the odds)
  • what are the students like (if you can't find demographics before the interview, this is a good time to ask about them)
  • what are the facilities like if you have any specific requirements
Reminiscing about job interviews at a conference a few years ago, a much more experienced colleague told a story about how the university they were teaching at stopped funding office supplies. If you've reason to be concerned about that - either you're coming from someplace where that happened or you've reason to think it could happen where you're interviewing (maybe the state's budget is problematic, maybe the school is very small) - write out a tactful way to ask it and put it in this section.

Once that's done, it's time to start thinking about how to assess whether you fit in with the department. Here's where you ask some of the same types of questions you've likely been asked:
  • what are the strengths of the department
  • what are the weaknesses
  • where is the department going in the next five years
  • what sorts of programs are in place to help new faculty? housing? student loans?
Odds are, the committee is going to answer the same way you did - generally and trying to make negatives into positives. But part of what you want to do in these moments is to listen to how they try. Do they interact with each other? Are there long, awkward pauses? Are they using phrasings from an opposed point of view? Do they respond to the things you say or seem to ignore them?

With that in mind, your last question should always be about what the process is for hiring this position from the moment the phone hangs up - when (roughly) do they expect to notify people of the outcome? What will happen next? Asking those questions will help save quite a bit of anxiety for yourself in the long-run (after all, the job market creates plenty without you finding ways to help it).

Obviously, there are other questions you can ask - and you should think about things specific to your discipline or the position - but coming in with those things in place makes the chances of an interview going successfully - meaning no one spontaneously combusts - much more likely.


5 Responses to “"Hello? Is It Me You're Looking For?" - Thoughts on Phone Interviews”
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Professor Zero said...

Great post. Send it to IHE or somewhere like that. Put it in the grad student handbook.

December 7, 2008 at 11:22 PM
Dr. Crazy said...

Just to add to the possible questions for them list, I always like to ask a "what do you like best about" question - I change it up depending on the circumstances, but typically it's either "What do you like best about working at Institution?" or "What do you like best about teaching students at Institution?"

The answers to either of these end up being really telling, I've found.

December 8, 2008 at 9:56 AM
Dr. Curmudgeon said...

I've actually got a pretty long list of questions I tend to ask, but I was trying not to be overwhelming and to think of some broad categories. And, of course, some of mine are probably discipline specific.

In any case, for anyone getting set to do phone interview: good luck, and try not to stress about 'em too much. Hope this helps a little.

December 8, 2008 at 10:40 PM
Thenmozhi said...

I Just wanted to add that Gotreception.com (http://www.gotreception.com) is a great resource for finding out where reception problems are most likely to occur.

December 9, 2008 at 12:40 AM
Psych Post Doc said...

This is a great post! Lots of really good advice here.

I really do hate phone interviews but I think having a clear sense of what you want to know about the job can really help.

December 9, 2008 at 3:30 PM