This guest post is by a client who is a 2012 Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literature. She wrote last week to tell me of her success in scoring a top-ranked multi-year fellowship. In the email she alluded to a catastrophic skype interview. Intrigued, I naturally asked for details, and she sent this guest post. It is painfully, dreadfully, hilarious. Read it and weep. (And those of you who actually run these skype interviews, here’s how NOT to do it.) Let’s file this under #moreivyleaguejobmarketbungles
This year, I was fortunate to have made it far enough in the job market lottery to be invited for three videoconference interviews, two for junior research fellowships in the United Kingdom and one for a postdoctoral fellowship at an Ivy in the United States.
In many ways, a videoconference interview is preferable to a phone interview. There is visual feedback and you have less of an impression of talking into a total void. On the other hand, there are significant drawbacks, most especially the unpredictability of Internet connections. I also have the sense that, on average, videoconference interviews involve higher numbers of committee members. Paying for all six (or ten, or twelve) permanent faculty members to fly to a national conference is just not feasible for most institutions, whereas cramming them into a room in front of a camera is no problem at all. Why not invite the whole department? The more committee members in the room, the more you have the impression you are speaking to a framed photograph taken at a distance. Sometimes all you can see are disjoined body parts, and it becomes very difficult to read body language.
For both of my UK interviews, administrative staff called me ahead of time on Skype to test the connection and to give me a sense of what the committee configuration/space would look like. This also meant that my Skype name was in their account and vice versa, which allowed us to start the interview immediately at the appointed time. This was extremely helpful: in both interviews I could see and hear everyone in the room. Unfortunately, this meant that I had an up-close view of one committee member reading my file (clearly for the first time) while I delivered my dissertation spiel. She seemed to tune in post spiel, since she grimaced visibly and rolled her eyes during some of my responses. Maybe she does this in person, but I gather from her blog (she is Very Famous and has a Very Famous Blog) that she has friends, which leads me to believe that she is capable of toning it down. I suspect that, to a certain extent, she had forgotten that I could see her.
The second UK interview was a technological disaster, despite the best efforts of the administrative staff. The connection kept failing, and we had to keep calling each other back. “So, what was that again? What were you saying about the reception of classical literature in Italy? Something about Virgil?” I thought I had done a horrible job but, at the end of it all, they congratulated me on my poise, and I was offered the position a week later
M.y videoconference interview with the Ivy was truly dreadful. On very short notice, I was invited to interview using the institution’s own videoconferencing software (“more stable than Skype!,” their IT website proclaimed). I was told the night before the interview that this Special Software required the pre-installation of several doodads. Having successfully installed said doodads, I was still unable to test the software ahead of time because it was specific to this campus. The morning of the interview, I could barely hear them, they could barely hear me, and it took up the first seven minutes of the interview just to figure out how to both see and hear each other.
Mid-interview, just when we had switched into the language of my field, I asked if I could call back because I was hearing a distracting echo of my own voice. At this point, I pushed what I thought was the “disconnect” button. All the button did was turn off the video feed on my end. I could still hear and see the search committee. “Her responses were completely unclear,” one of them declared. “It’s pretty obvious that we’ll reject her, but I guess we’ll just go on with the interview. And did you notice how her ‘technology problem’ occurred right when we switched languages? I bet she was trying to buy herself time.”
Completely stunned (nobody had asked for clarification up to this point, and I was certainly not faking the technology problem), I attempted to power through the rest of the interview as if I hadn’t heard anything. This was probably a mistake, because I was so upset I could barely string a sentence together. I wrote to the chair of the search committee several hours later to tell him, very neutrally, that the video and audio feeds of the software were separate and that I had been able to hear their comments. I’m still waiting for that rejection letter, but hopefully they won’t do the same thing to future candidates.
Finally, a warning about using videoconferencing during a job talk. During the job talk portion of my campus visit, the search committee invited a faculty member who was directing the junior year abroad program to connect via Skype. They did everything they could on their end, setting up a laptop ahead of time and testing the connection. I emailed him my Powerpoint so he could follow along. Unfortunately, during the actual job talk, the connection kept failing, which meant that my talk was punctuated by regular Skype ringing sounds each time we attempted to reestablish the connection. This was not the SC’s fault (they had tested the connection), but we probably should have declared defeat sooner rather than inserting regular musical interludes into my talk (doo DEE doo — –, dee doo dee…).
I’m sure that many people have encountered similar (and more unpleasant) obstacles in the New Age of Videoconferencing (please comment!). In light of my own experiences, I wanted to offer some suggestions both to interviewees and interviewers.
What you should do as an interviewee:
– Create a separate Skype account for professional purposes. You don’t want your grandmother calling during the interview.
– Do a test run beforehand. Make sure to look at the camera rather than screen. Speak clearly, test the strength of your microphone, check for embarrassing items in the background, etc. Confine dogs and other household pets to another room. Consider buying a headset if you find it unpleasant to scream into your computer microphone. Do not just go through the motions. Practice having high-octane intellectual exchanges with someone over the computer. It’s one thing to exchange pleasantries about your grandmother’s cat. It’s another to try to concoct a coherent defense of the humanities on the spot.
– Consider conducting the interview on campus with an IT person on hand. It’s always helpful to blame your connection on the campus network, and you might feel more professionally poised if you’re not sitting in your living room.
– Tenured Radical suggests putting a bulletin board behind your computer screen with some brief notes to prompt yourself. I’m not sure how many people can furtively glance at their cheat sheet, but I certainly couldn’t (if you can, more power to you, but you should probably ask a friend whether you’re doing a convincing job).
– Although the interview is always more a performance than a conversation, the Skype interview falls on the extreme end of the spectrum. You need to be able to deliver your responses with the utmost clarity, even in bad conditions. Although you might be lucky, be prepared to have very little visual feedback from the committee members. You may have no idea of what kind of impression you are making, but you need to keep going. (I know I will be accused of sexism here, but I would guess that, for this reason, men have a slight advantage in the videoconference interview, since they may on the whole be less anxious to receive cues in the form of body language.)
What you should do as an interviewer:
– Do not use your own in-house videoconferencing software unless the candidate can fully test it beforehand (this is likely not possible if it is unique to your campus). The candidate should not be attempting to navigate new software at the same time as he or she is trying to knock your intellectual socks off.
– Do not attempt to cram your entire department into the room. You might consider capping your interview committee at four. While making sure you can all be seen and heard easily (this may involve sitting awkwardly clumped together), position the camera as close to you as possible. You should not have to pass the computer off to each person.
– Please, for the love of God, keep in mind that the candidate can see you, even if he or she can only see you poorly. This is not the time to check your voicemail, read the candidate’s file, respond to email, etc. Do not do anything you would not do if the candidate was in the room with you.
– A videoconference interview is not an excuse to give the candidate no notice at all (more than twenty-four hours, please!). Remember that we have to work just as hard to prepare as we would for a conference interview.
– Similarly, the same courtesies you would (hopefully) extend to conference interviewees apply here. Please tell the candidate who will be on the committee (or, at the very least, their departments and subfields). This allows us to prepare our responses accordingly.