A number of clients have asked me for a post on phone and Skype interviews, and I’m happy to oblige. There are some tricks of the trade for this kind of interview that can very helpful to know.
Now, the standard preparation for interviews of course prevails in these interviews as well. You want to thoroughly investigate the campus, the department, and the specific search well before the interview. You want to know the names of the people interviewing, and can call the department secretary to inquire ahead of time.
You should thoroughly familiarize yourself with the current course catalog as well as this semester’s course offerings, and which faculty teach what. You should glance at each of the search committee members’ work, so that you can refer to it intelligently, should it arise naturally in conversation.
Have the best foundation of knowledge that you can about the ethos of the campus—-does it emphasize warm, immediate connections with undergraduates, or hard-hitting research and a competitive graduate program?
Anticipate 10-15 questions that they are likely to ask you, and write out 1-2 minute responses to these, and practice until they are second nature.
Now, in terms of preparing for a phone interview, here are some pointers:
- Dress for the interview. Wear your interview suit with shoes and the whole nine yards. This puts you into the proper frame of mind for the interview.
- Set up your interview space at a spacious desk or table, with plenty of privacy, and on that desk space set up your laptop or else index cards with some short mental cues that you can quickly refer to when responding. These would include: “My dissertation’s three main themes are xx, yy, and zz”; or “For the Intro course I would use xx textbook with yy supplement,” or “My methods bridge quantitative and qualitative approaches. I can teach a Methods seminar by using xx and yy projects.”
- Make a one-page cheat sheet of the department and set it next to you, with the names of the faculty (search committee at the top), and their research foci, and the title of one publication.
- Do NOT put any pieces of writing near you that will distract you or that require close reading. You must be prepared to speak quickly and conversationally and naturally, so the briefest sound-byte cues work here.
- Have a tablet and pen next to you to take shorthand notes as questions are asked. You may be given a compound question, such as “Tell us about your dissertation, how you got interested in the topic, and what you see as its primary contribution.” Make a note of each part of the question to be able to address each in your response.
For Skype interviews, most of these same techniques equally apply.
Obviously you will thoroughly dress for the interview. This includes the pants, or skirt, and shoes, etc. that will be out of sight of the camera!
You may set up a few cue cards around your skype space, but be very cautious that you don’t give the impression of constantly looking off-screen before speaking. If you can control your eye movements, then the cue cards are useful. If you cannot, then skip them.
Keep the department cheat sheet, but it is even more important that you have nothing around you that will distract you from the interview.
The pen and paper is valuable here as well. It is fine, even in an in person interview, to have a pen and paper in front of you to jot a minimal note or two as questions are being asked.
Now, in terms of Basic Interview Skills.
1) Tell me, what is the most important single factor in an interview response? What? What? I can’t hear you…….
Yes. It is brevity.
Do. Not. Ramble.
Please refer to this post, “The Six Ways You’re Acting Like a Grad Student (And how that’s killing you on the job market)” and mediate on it deeply and profoundly from today until the day of your interview.
It is of paramount importance in a phone and Skype interview, which are rarely more than 20-30 minutes long, and which do not have the benefit of real human interaction and non-verbal cue-exchange, that you ALWAYS LIMIT YOUR RESPONSES to no more than one or two minutes at a time.
It is of critical importance that you give your interviewers the chance to absorb what you’ve said (remember how hard it must be for THEM to keep track of difficult academic topics on the end of a phone call!), and to have the chance to formulate a response.
Always give them the chance to say, “How fascinating, tell us more.”
The PAUSE is your friend! Do not fear The Pause! End your sound byte on a strong falling note that signals unmistakably: I have now finished speaking! Then count, silently, to 5 (1-mississippi, 2-mississippi, etc.) and either allow the next question to come, or resume with something like, “In terms of FUTURE research, beyond my dissertation, I will be moving on to a major second project on xxxxx.”
2) And always think like a candidate for office. You need a platform. The platform has, say, five planks. Generate those planks, memorize them, and never, ever deviate from them. In my own former case as a young assistant professor on the market, they were:
- Japan area specialization with current gender and race sub-specialization
- Working at the intersection of anthropology and contemporary social theory
- Dynamic publishing and conference program and a book manuscript under advance contract
- Interdisciplinary and transnational, but grounded in hands-on ethnographic methods
- Innovative and dedicated teacher with unconventional methods, especially in large classes
All of my responses would refer back to one of these five elements of my platform. In this way, I was constantly reinforcing my legibility and memorability as a candidate.
3) Frame always in the positive, not the negative. Banish the negative. The negative is the graduate student’s instant default. Take a question like this: “Tell us about your plans to revise your dissertation into the book” Graduate students almost invariably answer in some form of the following, “Well, the dissertation isn’t really in a publishable state yet. My third chapter is still missing some major elements on the pre-war period that I need to add. I will need to visit the University of Tokyo library to access some of that material. I haven’t really submitted the manuscript to a press yet because I’m waiting to resolve issues like that before I do.”
This is one gigantic “reject me now” response. This person is NOT READY FOR PRIME TIME. She is talking entirely like an excuse-making subordinated graduate student. Here is the proper answer, in the positive, not negative, mode:
“I’m planning to take the book into a couple of exciting new areas of research. Nobody to date has explored this phenomenon in the prewar period, but I found out that there is a brand new collection at the University of Tokyo library of prewar materials that my former mentor at Tokyo has invited me to visit and use this summer. I’ll be incorporating that material into my third chapter, and in the meantime, I’ll be drafting a proposal of the book, with a clear statement of the revision plan, to send to presses next Fall.”
Get it? All positive and forward looking. Never negative and backward looking.
Now, in terms of interview questions. In fact, there are some excellent resources on this topic all over the web. Here is one link to start. I like it, by Mary Corbin Sies, because it’s both savvy and attuned to the snark-factor.
For the purposes of this post I will merely jot down a few questions that I got in interviews and that tripped me up, or that have tripped up clients:
- How does your dissertation intervene in the field of xx?
- What is the most influential book you’ve read in the field of xxx recently?
- How would you teach our Introductory course? Which text would you use? What kinds of assignments would you use?
- How would you teach our Core Theory Seminar? Who would you have them read?
- How would you teach our Methods course?
- How would you incorporate undergraduates into your research?
- Name 2 specialty courses you would teach, one undergraduate and one graduate.
- How do you see your work intersecting with the other emphases in the department?
- We are hoping to build a strength in xxx. How would you participate in that effort?
- We don’t have a lot of funding for the kind of equipment/travel that you require for your research. How would you work with this?
- Our campus is very student-focused. You come from an R1. How do you see yourself fitting in?
- Our campus has high expectations for publication for tenure. How do you see yourself handling the expectations?
- What is your research program for the next five years?
- What are you immediate and longer term publication plans?
- Do you have plans to apply for any major grants? If so, which ones?
- Have you spoken with a publisher about your book? Where do you stand in negotiations?
- What’s your basic teaching philosophy?
- What you’ve said is all very interesting, but doesn’t some of the work in your field really border on the far-fetched? (thanks to Mary Corbin Sies for this one).
Be aware that they may ask you this question: “Do you have any questions for us?”
There are good and bad responses to this. The bad responses include:
- Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, I guess not, I can’t really think of any offhand….
- I’d like to ask about your spousal hiring program.
***ALARM ALARM ALARM!!!! NEVER ASK ABOUT OR EVEN REFER TO THE EXISTENCE OF A SPOUSE AT THIS STAGE!***
- Your department seems to be weak in xxxx; are you planning to hire to fill that gap?
***Very bad! Never, ever appear to judge the department.
- What is your department’s relationship with the Dean?
- How is your department viewed on campus?
***These latter two are actually excellent questions to get the answers to while on the campus visit, indirectly and subtly! But they are emphatically not questions to be asked in an initial interview because you look superior, arrogant, and judgmental.
Good responses include:
- What kind of support is there available on campus for conference travel?
- What kind of support is available on campus for summer research?
- What kind of graduate student support is available?
- Is there an active undergraduate/graduate student association? What kinds of activities do they do?
These are benign questions that most departments can answer truthfully with some kind of positive response that doesn’t make them feel bad about themselves or judged. Be sure that your questions allow the search committee to save face. Don’t ask questions that might necessitate a negative, embarassing answer. Ie, “Do you provide automatic junior sabbatical for assistant professors?” “Uhhh, no.” That leaves a bad taste in their mouths that will work against you.
In Closing, the most important thing you can do is PREPARE. Know the department inside and out. Make and study the departmental cheat sheet. Know the ad inside and out and be prepared to respond to the specializations mentioned in it. Prepare your responses ahead of time and practice them in front of harsh critics.
And remember, you are the expert in your field. That is why they are shortlisting you! Never, ever grovel, or apologize, or hedge. Speak out, audibly, with confidence and firmness. Banish any of your graduate student behaviors, and comport yourself entirely like a young, up-and-coming professional with things to say and points to make, hotly pursued by a whole posse of top-ranked campuses, and securely confident in the impact you will make on your field.