Rocking the Phone/Skype Interview

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:

  • No.
  • Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, I guess not, I can’t really think of any offhand….
  • I’d like to ask about your spousal hiring program.


  • 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.

Good luck.

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Rocking the Phone/Skype Interview — 37 Comments

  1. Dear Karen,

    First, thank you for your post, it’s really very helpful.

    I’m just curious about your thoughts – I applied for a PhD position in a research group, and have been asked to do a Skype interview that is actually only a couple of days after I submitted my application. I’m quite nervous (as I feel I have very little time to make preparations) and was considering asking them to postpone it, however I’d really rather not affect my chances negatively at such an early stage. Should I just try to do the best I can in this time? Also – is such a short warning normal?!! Best wishes.

  2. Hello Karen,
    I have been offered a phone/Skype interview for a masters program I applied to, but the program also offers an on-campus interview that includes a tour (at my expense). Do you think I should do the phone interview or on-campus one? It seems that there are pros and cons of both and I’m not sure which would be best.
    Thank you!

    • If you can afford it, I’d probably go to campus. It helps you understand the job so much better. But don’t take out any new debt to achieve this!

  3. These are excellent points.
    I will have a phone interview tomorrow and this is my first such interview.

    I have a question about the way I should call the interviewer? Should I use their first name or should call them Dr. X.

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  5. Thank you so much for posting questions that tripped you and candidates up. Several of these questions were asked during my phone interview and I was prepared because of this list. I knew the course offerings, what textbooks I would use and possible courses that I would be interested in forming. At the conclusion of the phone interview, they asked me to visit campus! THANK YOU

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  8. Thanks for the advice – this was helpful in the interview I just did for an assistant professorship

    Toughest Question: How much funding will you bring with you to our department? Wow!

  9. I just had my first-ever interview for a TT faculty position in a State Engineering department (and it was on Skype). For whatever reason, my internet sleuthing skills were impaired and I didn’t find this website until now.

    What is your opinion of the “Do you have a question for us” question:
    -What is the tenure process like at University X for young faculty?
    -Are there any grant workshops in place to aid junior faculty in submitting competitive grants in aid?

  10. How wonderful! I made the short list for the first time (after revising everything according to your blog posts, thank you) and have a Skype call in one week! The bad news is that after my initial shock of receiving my first ever call for an interview and hearing the format (6 professors will be on call, sending questions prior to call, they hope to make a decision in two months, etc.) I was asked the dreaded, “Before we hang up, what questions do you have for us?” “Uhhhhhhhhhhhhh. I can’t think of anything at this moment.” Darn! I know this is a terrible answer, but the moral is to be prepared even before you start the interview process. I hope this isn’t a deal breaker!

  11. Dear Karen,
    I would have a Skype interview with my potential professor. She said she wants to talk about funding opportunities with me. Currently, I’m studying at a university and I would like to transfer. However, I didn’t mention about this on my emails. I thought she might lose interest in me. So, I don’t know how to tell her about it. Should I tell her on the interview or wait for more time?

    Thank you!

  12. Thanks for this post, Dr. Karen – it ROCKS!!
    I recently had a Skype interview but sadly, I didn’t read this post beforehand. Several of those questions you listed came up. The worst one was “How do you see your work intersecting with all of us?” because although I had carefully read all of the faculty profiles, at that very moment my mind went blank! So, I can’t stress enough that you must ****drill the information into your head*** so that the answers come out automatically, even when you get blinded in the spotlight.

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  14. Here’s a question that recently tripped me up in a phone interview that I was otherwise pretty well prepared for: What is your approach to undergraduate advising?

  15. Hi Karen,

    Any advice for as associate professor who hasn’t been on an interview in over a decade? I have a Skype interview soon; the department/school is large 70+ faculty; I’m terrified.

  16. Dear Dr. Karen,

    Thank you so much for this write up. I found it very helpful. I just finished a Skype interview. I think it went very well. It lasted about an hour. Are they supposed to last that long? Is it a good sign?

  17. Just got done with a phone interview. Thank you for the question suggestions – many of them were spot on. A new question to add that caught me off guard: how does your teaching philosophy and teaching style fit in with the mission statement of our institition?

  18. What is your position regarding follow-ups to phone/skype interviews? Should a candidate follow up in general? What about when there’s that feeling after: “ugh, I could have answered that question better – the committee ought to know THIS info about me and I didn’t say it.” Ok to follow-up or just too bad?

  19. Hi Karen,

    I finished my last education degree in 2012 and started looking for an assistant professor job in 2016. Is my resume too stale? How do I fill this gap? Currently, apart from job search, I am also serving as a reviewer for two top journals of my field.

  20. How long after a phone/skype interview with no word about a campus invite is it safe to assume you were not selected as a final candidate? And at what point (if at all) should you reach out to them to check in?

  21. Professor at the end of the interview said, we will be in contact with you in the future. Does it mean I am not selected? I applied for postdoc position and then had a phone interview. Later they gave me 2 days to present my whole research as they were very interested in knowing about my PhD research. The blue jeans interview was Ok. I could not judge anything by professor’s attitude. Should I follow up?

  22. I am in a really strange situation. I had a phone interview yesterday, in one academic field of the humanities. My husband had a phone interview in another discipline at the same university, was invited for the campus visit which he will go to in the next three days. There is a really high chance that he may get the offer. Is asking for a spousal hire going to 1. (maybe) get me the position since they do have one open and, since they shortlisted me, they clearly think that I am qualified, or 2. not going to happen because legally they have to rank me with everyone else who has applied, or they will incur in legal trouble?

  23. ***ALARM ALARM ALARM!!!! NEVER ASK ABOUT OR EVEN REFER TO THE EXISTENCE OF A SPOUSE AT THIS STAGE!*** … And then spouse opens door and walks in behind lol.

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