Archive for February 10th, 2009

Phone Interview

Phone Interview

Another mystery of the job market is the phone interview.  While some large schools forgo phone interviews, small and medium-sized schools often use them to help determine which candidates from the short list will be invited for on-campus interviews.  The mysterious part is that, like your application, you cannot know exactly what interviewers are looking for.  What you can do, however, is prepare yourself by practicing responses to commonly asked questions and researching the school and department.  You can also spread your notes about the school and department, job market materials, questions to ask, and even prepared answers around you, as the picture above demonstrates.

I had four phone interviews in my time on the market and each was of a slightly different type, which I discuss below.  From most preferred to least preferred, they were:

The one-on-one interview

While I assume that this type of interview ranges from formal to informal, my experience was at the informal end of the spectrum.  The chair of the search committee engaged me in a wide-ranging conversation about my interests, the school, and his own experiences.  There was no time limit and I was free to ask questions.  I was also fortunate that my interviewer was forthcoming about the perceived positives and negatives of the school.  Our conversation lasted over an hour and I left the conversation with a much better impression of the school than I started it.  I was later invited for a campus interview.

The one-on-group interview (group members in their individual offices)

My third phone interview experience was of this type, which may appear similar to the type below.  While I might have preferred this type because the interviewers were friendlier or more talkative, I believe that there are advantages to having phone interviewers in separate rooms.  For starters, there is increased comfort as a candidate because you know that interviewers cannot see each other’s reactions to your answers.  This means that if one interviewer is rolling her eyes at the fact that your interests exactly match the job ad, others will not be influenced by her reaction.  Another benefit is that this type effectively levels the playing field in terms of nonverbal feedback.  While group phone interviews are always difficult because you cannot be sure if somebody is done speaking or merely pausing, isolating interviewers in their own offices means that everybody shares this problem with you.  I was later invited for a campus interview.

The one-on-group interview (group members on speakerphone around a single table)

As I noted above, group phone interviews are always difficult, but in my experience the presence of interviewers around the same speakerphone compounded the difficulties.  While I’m not sure how the interviewers reacted to my statements, the knowledge that they could see each other but I could not see them added to an already stressful situation.  I also felt that I was at a disadvantage because I was the only person who couldn’t rely on nonverbal cues to tell when somebody was done speaking.  I don’t know that these factors affected my performance, but they definitely reduced my confidence.  I was later invited for a campus interview.

The one-on-one non-interview

One school requested a “phone conversation about your application” before narrowing their list further.  Not knowing what they wanted to discuss, I called the school from the airport on the way to another interview.  Because of this, I did not have the opportunity to fully prepare by researching the school and department and I was not ready to answer questions about whether I had relevant experience in a particular subfield.  I stumbled through a few statements before realizing that I did, in fact, have relevant experience in that subfield.  By that point, the damage was probably done.  If this discussion had been presented as an interview rather than a conversation, I would have approached it differently.  If this contact had come at another time and not on a day that I was preparing to leave for an interview I also think that I would have handled it better.  I was not invited for a campus interview.*

In the end, the interview type is only one variable in your phone interview experience.  Time limits can change the tone of a conversation dramatically by reducing your ability to ask questions and prohibiting more casual discussions.  Another important point is that you should be sure to ask about the commitee’s timeline.  The time between my phone interviews and invitations for a campus visit ranged from hours to two and a half weeks, while a friend was recently invited for a campus interview a month and a half after a phone interview.  A month and a half is a long time in nearly any circumstance, but it can seem like forever on the job market.

*I was invited for one campus interview without a phone interview, resulting in four phone interviews and four campus interviews.

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