#Dispatches From the Front: Even More Advice on Managing Zoom Campus Visits

In our Dispatches series, we crowdsource responses to questions we see about the academic job market and career.

Continuing from previous weeks, the question continues: Help, my campus visit has switched suddenly online. Advice needed: either from candidates who have survived one, or faculty hosts who can share insights and suggestions.

We continue weekly Dispatches From the Front questions for your crowdsource responses. Scroll to the bottom for next week’s question, and the link to share your wisdom and advice.

And one explanatory note: We ask respondents to provide any personal identifying information in their own words that THEY consider pertinent to contextualize their responses. Some of them go to …. interesting places. We only lightly edit them, and I think it’s worth contemplating what people feel is important to share about their identities.

Let’s start with more good, basic, setup advice. Know the camera, think about the platform, make sure you master it.

Advice: I just finished my remote campus visit. Unfortunately one or two of the candidates had already had their visits in person and I had already been preparing for mine which would have been in a different format. In the end, I think the whole thing went a lot smoother than expected. As others are suggesting: put a whole lot of time into figuring out the most professional looking set up I could including a good quality microphone, lighting equipment, and a tripod for the webcam positioned quite close to my face at a slightly down tilted angle. I made sure that my background was clean and professional.

Make sure that you rehearse not only your job talk several times (it was really difficult to transition to do this in front of a camera and not an audience) but ALSO all the technical transitions you will need to do such as going back and forth between screen share and camera or slides and video output. In my case, there was a process of figuring out Zooms advanced screen sharing settings to make sure that my computer audio went directly to my meeting rather than through my own microphone etc etc etc. While I do think it’s difficult to strike up the kind of rapport you might be able to with colleagues in person, I found some significant benefit to getting materials from the students I was being asked to critique early and having a chance to think about them ahead of time.

The preparation for remote campus visits is really different than those in person as there is far less small talk with individuals possible (or at least in mine — most of the 1-1 meetings or meals were canceled in favor of group meetings which all turned into the extended interview). Still, with some preparation, you can still be prepared, and feature your skill and passion. Good luck! [Assistant Professor/Arts/Music/Theater/Cis/Bi/White-passing/Woman/Mid-career/Applying to a TT job]

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Advice: I have successfully interviewed, for institutions both inside and outside the US, via Skype and Zoom. For me, simply being used to using the interface is surprisingly important. I didn’t realize that the huge number of remote interviews I had done using Zoom would help as much as they did. I interviewed having a sense of likely delays in audio/video (and how to anticipate them); lots of practice delivering “I didn’t quite catch that” with grace; having learned how to make eye contact over an internet connection (I maintain you absolutely can but practicing looking at a camera and not at the screen is a learned skill. That, or set up your screen behind your camera) and so on. In that vein: I suggest not only running through your spiel via the platform you’ll be using, but also spending a few hours with different people you don’t know well talking via the platform. I know, you do it already, but do it more. Really. With strangers, if you can. It makes a huge difference. Practice connecting over the screen – what movements people respond to, how long to wait after a pause, learning the difference between a pause an a connection issue, all that stuff. The more comfortable you are establishing rapport online – esp. with people you don’t know well in a semi-formal situation – the easier you’ll find the interview itself.[Assistant Professor/Social Sciences/Based of out the US]

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Know that everyone is in the same boat. Many are having very positive experiences! But there is stress.

Advice: I just had my two-day job talk online for an R1 position. It was terrible. I was really stressed out by everything that’s going on and it seemed strange and disembodied to be interviewing at a time like this. The hardest part was finding a quiet place to do the interviews and seeming super energetic and enthusiastic when I was a) not feeling it and b) seated at my boring old desk and office. Not sure this helps. The rest was fine but deans/directors are also super stressed out right now so that doesn’t help with general conversations! Have lots of prepped questions for them; they wouldn’t have had the time to go through your details v closely. [NTT/Social Sciences/POC]

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While many visits reduce the length, some are multi-hour marathons. Here is some excellent highly detailed and encouraging advice for managing those.

Advice: I just did an interview that was switched to a virtual format 2 days before I was supposed to fly out to visit. I didn’t really want to do it on campus for safety reasons, but was willing to do so if they still wanted to go through with it (why would I say NO?). I’ll describe my experience, but it several ways it was atypical. Namely, I have visited the campus/department prior to the interview and have colleagues in the department. So I may have been generally more comfortable with this interview than others might be. 

We used Zoom/Skype for all meetings, primarily zoom. Thankfully, the search chair set up a well organized google sheet with dates and times for meetings, contact info, who was going to call whom, and any necessary links. I didn’t find the one-on-one meetings much different than video calls with collaborators and former students, which are increasingly common for me. Their faculty asked similar questions as you might expect from an in-person meeting. The only thing that was difficult was when there were more than 2 people, and I found myself being quiet more so I didn’t talk over anyone. I think this also made some folks talk less than they would in-person. The meetings were scheduled for 45 minutes because we expected that to be the length of time zoom would allow. Although in-person meetings were scheduled for 30 minutes, I did not have trouble keeping the conversation going longer. Everyone has their own perspective, so you can ask questions like “How was your experience as a new faculty, what were the biggest challenges you faced in the department?” or “How have you seen the department change over the last X year?” to multiple people. 

I do recommend that for the one-on-one meetings, to schedule breaks about every 2-3 meetings. I kept having to refill my water and take restroom breaks but the meetings were packed together and I didn’t want to have trouble getting a meeting started. Another recommendation is either having a few rooms that people can enter and leave (while the candidate stays there) or having the search chair set up rooms and coordinate the emails. Ideally all of the meetings should use one video conference platform, be labeled and formatted in a consistent way, and should be accessible in the same place. We did this all on the fly, as they were transitioning to online courses, so I tried to help by setting up some of the zoom meetings. This was a bit chaotic because I wasn’t able to do it very far in advance and was sending a lot of emails, and some of their faculty were also sending me links so it was hard to keep them all straight. This was probably more stressful than the talk!

The talk was through Zoom and they had a departmental admin running the meeting who was excellent and made it very smooth. I recommend having someone other than the candidate field the meeting (make sure people are muted, answer chat questions, etc.). The search chair, admin, and I met about 30 minutes before the scheduled talk to make sure the screenshare was working and connected. This also allowed other faculty to join and get end ready before the talk started, and we started only about 2 minutes late. Several of their faculty were still figuring the features, so clearly they were just as unfamiliar with this situation as I was. The one thing I didn’t like is that I couldn’t see the screen exactly like they saw it, but someone sent me a screenshot later and it looked good. I wasn’t sure if they could see me and the screenshare at the same time, but it looked like they could. Doing a talk to a screen was definitely different, but I was able to focus on about 4-6 people who had videos turned on and were visible on the first page. One of them was a nodder so that’s who I focused on. I do recommend that each person should have their video on, so it’s more like having an audience. 

I actually found doing an interview virtually a lot less stressful than an on-campus interview because I could take a break and eat lunch by myself, go outside with the dogs for a minute if I needed to, sleep in my own bed, etc. It was a slower pace than an in-person interview where I have felt the need to be “on” for the whole day because EVERYTHING is part of the interview (car rides, meals, walking down the hall, etc.). I did miss having tasty meals at new restaurants, but that’s minor and hopefully I will get to do that later! Since I have been to the university before, I was not as worried about seeing the facilities. However, I did receive about 15 videos providing a virtual tour of lab spaces and other facilities. I will push to visit the campus in person if I am given the offer, but right now I am comfortable with how the interview went. 

I received several comments from the faculty that they were impressed with my talk, both for it being a good talk and for how well it came across virtually. I prepared the same way I would have for an in-person interview and the only additional preparation tips I could add would be to get comfortable with the video conferencing option you’ll be using ahead of time. The department fully understood how weird the situation was and was open to working with me. I took this as a good sign that they are supportive and have reasonable expectations. However this may not be the case for everyone. I have not heard anything yet about a decision for an offer. [Assistant professor/STEM/35F/White]

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More fantastic advice! Don’t forget super-simple hacks like using books or a cardboard box to lift up your laptop to a better angle, timing your talks to account for probably tech hiccups…and lastly, amidst all this, not forgetting that all the basic campus visit advice (ie, they are hiring a prof not a grad student) still applies.

Advice: I just went through this a week ago at a SLAC. I’m currently abroad in Europe where the lockdowns have been implemented earlier than the US. Everything was switched to phone calls and Skype video conferences.

Firstly, I figured everything I needed to do had to be flexible. For me, instead of 30 minutes for the job talk, I planned and practiced it to come in around 25, so that the inevitable issues (stumbling over my own words, tech issues, etc.) that would arise wouldn’t bring catastrophe. I changed my teaching demo so that the only visual elements would be videos I downloaded to my computer that I knew I could play via Skype’s screen share, and I requested my handouts to be printed on their end and handed out before the start of the lesson. Also, I requested that the mock students bring pens and papers to write in-class responses. If you’re able to, and it makes it more comfortable for you, find a small white board to write on and put it where the camera can see, or if you’re like me and unable to get anything like that, type up what you’d share with the students on a simple .txt document and use that during the screen share feature available on Skype, (and I’m sure is available on most other kinds of meeting apps). NOTE: They might ask you “What would you do differently in regards to teaching your lesson in person versus how you presented here via Skype?”

For my set up, the simple things I did was use a cardboard box to lift my laptop up in order to bring the camera closer to eye level. I put my desk lamp behind the camera to make my face well lit and without all the sinister shadows. I used the mic on my headphones because it’s better than the echo prone mic on my laptop and allowed me to hear their questions better.

Speaking of hearing questions, my interviewers were in a room where everyone was far from the mic, and just about all the questions were hard to hear. So, whenever there was any doubt on what was being asked, or there was garbled sound or connection lag, I would say “The connection isn’t very clear. Was your question X?” Heeding Karen’s advice that we need to present ourselves as Professors, not Grad students, I felt confident in saying this  since in my mind it demonstrated the confidence to work with the questions in difficult situations, and not prone to waste people’s time answering the wrong question or apologizing for things out of my control.

Besides that, I did most of the things that Karen recommends for interviews: kept a notebook to write down the parts of long complex questions, I made sure to give the committee and other faculty time to voice their thoughts, etc.

One thing I wasn’t able to get a really good sense of the student culture on campus because they weren’t there and there’s no way to float around the student union. But something that the experience showed me was how the institution and the people I may be working with react to difficult circumstances. In my current situation, I’m able to compare two different universities and have immediate examples of how they’re reacting to this crisis to the one  that invited me for a campus visit.

I suppose the biggest difference for me was nerves. I’ve never taught online, my place is crummy, and I’ve got a young child in the house whose bedtime was going to correspond to parts of my interview. In person, while nervous, I know that I can do the things they ask: I’ve been trained to do this and have been doing this for the last few years. But to do it online was nerve wracking. Maybe it’s also because I’m abroad, far from home, locked down,  anxious for prospects in already a bad market, and have been getting letters of delays and outright hiring freezes. To my surprise, the online version of the campus interview went well, and gave me a very different perspective of the institution: how they react in a crisis and helped me answer whether or not I would want to be working there with them at the worst of times.[POC, married, graduating with a PhD this spring]

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And remember: this may be hard to believe, but there are REAL POSITIVES to the online option. This is the second person to mention the benefit of being able to just sleep in your own bed.

Advice: Honestly, everyone’s on the same boat in similarly uncharted waters. If something goes wrong, it’s probably not your fault! For example, my husband had a conference call at the same time as my Q&A for my job talk, which made it hard for me to hear the audience’s questions; a really loud train went by as I was talking to the dean, etc. Everyone was very understanding! Be sure to practice with the videoconferencing software ahead of time, especially if you’re showing a PowerPoint or screen-sharing for whatever reason. (This was not as intuitive as I thought.) Ask for the committee to give you breaks if they try to schedule all your meetings at the same time. But also enjoy some unexpected perks: You can crash on your sofa in between interviews, eat whatever food you want to for dinner (in silence!), sleep in your own bed afterwards, etc. Even though my visit was four hours of Zoom meetings, it was *only* four hours instead of the usual 24–48—and not nearly as draining. I had mixed feelings going in, but given the situation, it wasn’t too bad! [NTT/White/30/White/Cis-gendered/Heterosexual/Married/Humanist/No kids or pets (but one *very* small studio apartment and a partner also on conference calls)]

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Thank you to all our respondents!

Next Question Remains: How has COVID-19 impacted your immediate and longer-term career plans?

Share Your Wisdom Here.

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.

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